Columns, Opinions

Johnson ’19: An even more political Oscars, please?

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, March 6, 2017

One of many moments of discomfort at this year’s Academy Awards was when a group of Hollywood tourists walked through the front row of the Dolby Theatre in the middle of the show. Jimmy Kimmel, the host of the night, led the tour group in front of the stage, introducing them to icons like Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington. The tourists’ average street clothes appeared ridiculous in the theater full of sparkling gowns and diamonds. Their shocked faces and effusive disbelief were filmed as jokes, offered as tributes to light-hearted comedy relief. But Kimmel, pressured to include crowd interaction, instead created a condescending parade of stars. And on top of the elitist taste of the segment, Kimmel went on to imply that a tourist, Yulerie, had an illegitimate name because it didn’t sound American enough. “Now that’s a name,” Kimmel said to the man named Patrick next to her.

The Oscars are meant to celebrate the art of film — but, of course, nothing can escape politics. Discomforting moments like the tourists’ detour were sprinkled throughout the evening: Kimmel made light of Mahershala Ali’s name after he became the first black Muslim actor to win an Oscar; Mel Gibson, a vocal anti-Semite, reentered Hollywood’s graces; and Casey Affleck, who was accused of sexual harassment, received his Oscar from Brie Larson — the actress who played an assault survivor in “Room.”

The Oscars race became politicized long before the awards night itself. Leading up to the event, “La La Land” became a symbol of Hollywood’s past, playing on the nostalgia that many still feel for the film industry’s “glory days” — an era when Hollywood was even more homogenous and inward-looking than it is now. “Moonlight,” by comparison, was hailed as the a groundbreaking film that broke stereotypes and featured diverse narratives. Last week, Daniel Wayland ’18 (“Polarized political binary should not extend to popular culture,” March 1) wrote a column in The Herald critiquing the emphasis on this political binary between the two films. But we shouldn’t make art less political — we should embrace the opportunity art provides for discourse.

Aren’t more words, rather than less, needed to address racism and intolerance? Award shows — especially ones on the scale of the Oscars — are powerful platforms. The Oscars reached a startling 32.9 million viewers this year, making the connection between the films’ messages and national politics more important than ever. Politics will always be relevant to arts and culture because politics affect every aspect of life. Art does not exist in a vacuum — it operates in the context of social and political change.

There was tension in this year’s Oscars, and it wasn’t between the polarized right and left. The tension was between those who used their microphone to denounce hatred and those who failed to use this platform. President Trump’s policies are not just conservative — they are racist. Given the enormous platform the Oscars offers, speakers can and should have used their reach to oppose his intolerance.

This was not the time for a bevy of apolitical platitudes in acceptance speeches. The most powerful and moving speeches acknowledged and critiqued the current political climate. A few acceptance speeches were eloquent and powerful. Viola Davis stressed the importance of telling the stories of those who cannot tell their own. Iranian award recipient Asghar Farhardi did not attend, and his acceptance statement dedicated his absence to those affected by Trump’s immigration ban.

But many celebrities fell short where Davis and Farhardi shone. Emma Stone subtly wore a Planned Parenthood pin, but never vocalized her support for women’s reproductive health. Many others did not attempt to use their fame to call on the millions of viewers. Just like in the segment with the star-struck Hollywood tourists, there was a divide between the artificial glamor and reality.

Political acceptance speeches are nothing new, nor do they adversely affect the Oscars viewership. According to CNN, these speeches have never dissuaded conservatives from tuning in at 8:30 p.m. on a Sunday night. These speeches were a chance for artists to move beyond “echo chambers” and reach people from all political spheres.

Of course the Oscars is an award show designed to entertain. But our nation is not normal right now. Kimmel’s jokes, often mean and problematic, will not unite our country. Unity takes compassion and awareness of other perspectives; our nation’s politics simply don’t reflect those ideals right now.

As Viola Davis said in her speech, we need to exhume and exalt the ordinary people. Even the Oscars, with its red carpet and glittering stars, has the potential to teach us that.

Grace Johnson ’19 can be reached at grace_johnson@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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