Every year, it seems we try to ascribe some great meaning to the Academy Awards. Beyond superficial debates about what is the best (or how we might even go about defining “best,” a task that feels reductive to the nature of personal reaction and opinion), I appreciate more the arguments about how the Awards stand as a “cultural touchstone,” a reflexive means for the industry to communicate how they want to be perceived. The Oscars may themselves be an industry, replete with full-page Variety ad after full-page Variety pushing a studio’s most touted project. Regardless of whether you still consider them culturally relevant or rich people aimlessly rewarding each other, the Oscars can help us inscribe meaning on a year. The films they group together tell us the kinds of characters and screenplays and the styles of directing that a very large voting body coalesced around. While there are plenty of 2012 releases that didn’t get a single Oscar nomination—The Dark Knight Rises, anyone?—focusing on the ones that did can perhaps tell us something important about the cultural moment of 2012.
Last year, the Oscars race boiled down to two films about the history of movies: The Artist and Hugo. It was the first time a movie about Hollywood won Best Picture, and Michel Hazanavicius’s Best Director win for the former film was the first time a French director won that prize. What made the industry finally herald a movie about Hollywood in 2011? What made the timing right to propel The Artist over, say, The Tree of Life or The Descendants? Perhaps it is the sense of crisis still permeating the industry in the current transition to digital film and streaming services. The Artist shows another industrial transition—the conversion from silent to sound films—happening with such joyful and solvable ease; it shows Hollywood as triumphant, as adaptable. It is nostalgic for a kind of filmmaking that does not exist anymore, but almost mythological in how it sees “the movies” as culturally enduring.
But this year? This year is for movies about America. Django Unchained, Lincoln, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty—all films about turbulent moments in America’s political history. Visions of the end of the antebellum South, the mythologization of the legislative process, our relationship with the Middle East, and the emotional costs of the War on Terror, respectively, frame these films and fuel the many discussions being had about them. This is nothing new, you might say: period films are always nominated for Oscars. True. Les Miserables, a literary/musical adaptation that’s also about French history, joins the above films as a Best Picture nominee. Amour and Life of Pi give a distinctly international sensibility to the lineup that embody intimacy in wholly different ways, and Beasts of the Southern Wild and Silver Linings Playbook are contemporary views of American communities, though wildly divergent in tone and style.
What I think makes the four films about American history so important is that 2012 was an election year. Not only that, but there were—discursively, anyway—huge differences between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The year saw an intense, at time caustic, debate about the state of the union that incited more fiery rhetoric than I care to recall. We were seemingly poised at a crossroads for America, two opposing paths that would lead us to either disaster or salvation. And so these historical films speak to this moment: Has the War on Terror been effective? Do we understand our relationship with Iran any better now than we did in 1980? What kind of history does Django present to us, and why is cinema so unwilling to tackle the institution of slavery? What kinds of lessons does Abraham Lincoln’s legacy hold for us today?
Beyond the slate of nominees, the awards circuit itself has sparked some of the most focused debate on the responsibilities of filmmaking. Take, for example, Bill Clinton showing up at the Golden Globes to stump for Lincoln, and Connecticut Congressman Joe Courtney taking issue with how Steven Spielberg’s film rewrote the vote count for the 13th Amendment. A former president showed up at an awards show in Beverly Hills to praise the virtues of filmmaking (although we might also cite President Carter’s end credits monologue in Argo as another bizarre site of political and cinematic convergence); there is also serious concern about how Lincoln will be used in the classroom and how students might irrevocably consider every word and action in it “the truth.”
The debate about the historical effects of these movies has been far-reaching and incredibly public. Jesse Williams (former high school teacher and current Grey’s Anatomy star) took to CNN to critique writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s representation of slavery in Django Unchained. Tarantino himself said of his film in a Channel 4 interview, “I am responsible for people talking about slavery in America in a way they have not in 30 years.” Senators John McCain, Diane Feinstein, and others took the offensive against Zero Dark Thirty’s representation of torture, claiming it falsely implies information learned from torture led to Osama Bin Laden. The film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, penned an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times defending her film, and screenwriter Mark Boal did an about-face from proclaiming the journalistic integrity of his writing to suggesting to The Wall Street Journal that he could write “Osama Bin Laden was killed by aliens” if he wanted.
Likewise, Argo has had its share of detractors for its portrayal of Iranian revolutionaries and its significant alteration of the escape of the American hostages hiding out in the Canadian ambassador’s house. Criticisms have been leveled both in terms of dramatic license and an unnecessary upping of the suspense quotient, but perhaps more importantly over how the film does not clearly depict the role the Canadian government played in the rescue.
The questions these criticisms raise are age-old ones: Does Hollywood have a responsibility to history, and if so, how much fantasy is too much? Should films be used in classrooms? Do films teach us history or should filmmakers trust their audiences to separate narrative from historical fact? Even the non-historical films have taken heat for their representations. Plenty of critics labeled Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s depiction of a poor Louisiana community “poverty porn,” and a slew of mental health professionals and people suffering from depression and bipolar disorder took to social media to rail against Silver Linings Playbook’s ostensibly warm portrayal of love in the face of dysfunction.
I won’t go so far as to call these criticisms nitpicky, even if I don’t see all of them as particularly valid or informed. I think the issues they raise deserve to be discussed. Hollywood creates representations of history, and as is the case in many years, one of those representations will likely win Best Picture. More than making images, these filmmakers render our world. Daniel Day-Lewis generates conceptions about what Abraham Lincoln might have been like, but does Django Unchained really give a sense of what slavery might have looked like? If the latter is a fantasy, why is the former a “history lesson”? Publicity plays into this, sure, but if historical films construct notions of what our past might have been like, we might want to take a stand on the issue. Are fantasies permissible when Tarantino makes them? Should Django’s violence be held accountable the same way Zero Dark Thirty’s violence has been taken to task? If the 85th Academy Awards are to act as a cultural milestone, perhaps they will give us insight into how we might answer these questions in 2013. Perhaps they will point toward what kind of historical representation the moviemaking industry wants to rally behind.
James Gilmore is currently an M.A. student in UCLA’s Cinema and Media Studies program. He received his B.A. in Film and Media Studies from the University of South Carolina. His research chiefly focuses on how films and other forms of media work to construct, critique, or challenge perceptions of the Nation. He also writes about genre, visual analysis, adaptation, and film history. You can follow his mostly sarcastic observations on Twitter @Jim_on_Film.