The Oscars in the Time of Trump

How the volatile political climate in the US might influence this year’s voting

BY Bert Rebhandl in Culture Digest | 30 JAN 17

When ‘the real Donald Trump’ briefly became a film critic a month ago, castigating Meryl Streep as ‘one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood’, it was not just another kerfuffle between real power and its symbolic rivals. It was a hint at a deep rift, one that manifested itself on Inauguration Weekend, and will also cast its shadow over the Oscar ceremony scheduled for 26 February. It will certainly become a show of force of liberal, multicultural, sophisticated America, with Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (nominated for best Foreign Language Film with The Salesman) cast as the tragic hero – he may not be able to attend the ceremony under the new immigration policy. The Salesman’s chances were considered limited until last weekend, given the unanimous popularity of German entry Toni Erdmann amongst Academy members. But with every decree that Trump is about to sign, this year’s ceremony will most likely become more politicized than expected, and it may even affect the voting directly.

The Salesman, 2016. Courtesy: Curzon Artificial Eye

Even the main issue surrounding the 2017 Oscars resonates with the new landscape of the American populace. If in Hollywood these days race is the key to so many decisions, it will become more pertinent now that the country has been taken over by a bunch of White Supremacists, hell-bent on establishing a new Fascism with ‘heartland’ appeal. Ironically, the film that might sweep this year’s competition is very much about cultural transfer between races. Everybody likes La La Land for its coquettish charm and the nerdy appeal of its star coupling of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (already acquainted with each other from Crazy, Stupid, Love, 2011). Not since Alain Resnais declared that you have to know your chanson has the idea of breaking into song in the midst of an early morning traffic jam been played out so irresistibly. Yet the seminal notion of the entire thing is highly dubious: Who would really believe that Canadian hipster-cum-actor Gosling, one of the whitest boys alive), could ever be the saviour of jazz? And that is to say, the real jazz – that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie jazz.

La La Land, 2016. Courtesy: Lionsgate

Damien Chazelle, La La Land’s director, has a thing for musical authenticity. In Whiplash (2014), he had a young boy drumming his fingers to mush in order to fit into a Big Band guided by a musical drill sergeant who constantly summoned the spirit of Charlie Parker. Now, Chazelle does the same thing with Ryan Gosling, only this time he substitutes sadism for romanticism. It is one of the oldest tropes: The definition of cool should always be set by a male white lead, be it in a band or in a movie (Mick Jagger or Brad Pitt, for example, neither of whom has even spent 12 seconds a slave, as far as we know). Gosling’s Jazz pianist comes in the same vein.

Moonlight, 2016. Courtesy: A24 Films

It will be a pity to see La La Land outdoing such an excellent movie as Moonlight, to name the most worthy, but also the most unlikely of rivals. Barry Jenkins’s tale of a black boy from a Florida project, growing up with a troubled, addicted mother and a supportive foster father who is a pusher by profession, is probably the best picture amongst the nine in contention for Best Picture. And it also perfectly fits the bill for an industry that is still struggling with its own, frequently overlooked patterns of racism. To put it bluntly: Hollywood is as white as ever, it just widened the sample for Best Picture, allowing for titles like Fences, Hidden Figures, or Moonlight, to compete, as minimal as their chances may ever be.

Hell or High Water, 2016. Courtesy: CBS Films

The most surprising inclusion for Best Picture (which should be decided between La La Land and Kenneth Lonergan somber’s, tragicomical East coast family drama Manchester by the Sea) is a piece of white men populism featuring an actor who might even be to Donald Trump’s taste: Jeff Bridges, a veteran of auteurist American cinema from Peter Bogdanovich to the Coen brothers, is a sheriff in Hell or High Water, a tale of the revenge by robbery of some banks that are draining the life (and liquidity) out of simple folk in Texas. Hell or High Water peddles not only a weary version of male agency, but is also of a whiteness that was quintessentially ‘Hollywood’ until around 1960, when diversity management, amongst other things, began to pave the way for an industry that was more or less accepting of the diversity of the US populace – a populace that, following the recent resurgence of the hard-right, has found itself under colossal pressure at the very moment that it seemed to have reached a point of dominance.

Bert Rebhandl is a journalist, writer and translator who lives in Berlin. He co-founded and co-edits Cargo magazine.