January 30, 2023
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Oscars 2014: Morality and the Movies

Last night’s Academy Awards went off almost completely surprise-free, with only two upsets among the 24 awards: Spike Jonze’ win for Original Screeplay for Her over the completely shut-out American Hustle and “Mr. Hublot” over Disney’s “Get a Horse” in Animated Short Subject. Between the predictable winners and the weak, if not entirely non-existent, writing for should-be-great host Ellen DeGeneres, the biggest night in entertainment was an uneventful affair.

Every thinkpiece/recap/piece of coverage before, during, and after the event paints a different picture, however. More than ever, the glitz and glam of the Oscars were shrouded in a dialogue. No, not the kind of dialogue that won Spike Jonze his first Oscar, but the kind that takes a critical cultural perspective and asks us to take a challenging look at the art and media we celebrate.

At the heart of this conversation were a handful of films that, artistic merit aside, became controversial for their handling of important social issues, or for reasons related not to the films themselves, but to the people involved.

Social media and blogging revolutions have ensured that no story goes by without passing through the social justice lens. Here are a few of those stories:

Trans Representation in Dallas Buyers ClubNot everyone was impressed with Jared Leto’s Best Supporting Actor win for playing Rayon, an HIV-positive trans woman who becomes a business partner to Matthew McConaughey’s Ron Woodruff. Many question the choice to cast a cisgender actor in the role, as well as the caricatured portrayal. Leto’s failure to mention trans people in his acceptance speech, not to mention the eye-rolling mocking of the leg waxing and makeup required for the role and his failure to use the film’s publicity as a platform for advocacy throughout awards season, have left members of the trans community and their allies less than thrilled.

Best (Racist) Makeup and Hairstyling: The Academy chose to honor the blatant redface of The Lone Ranger with a nomination in Makeup and Hairstyling category. Basically the equivalent of handing Katy Perry a trophy for Outstanding Celebration of Asian Culture. Depp, completely missing the point, claims to (possibly) be one-sixteenth Cherokee (or something).

Blue Jasmine: New developments in the decades-long story of Woody Allen’s (alleged) molestation of his daughter Dylan have led many to question whether his work in Hollywood should continue to be honored. It was clear what side of the issue most people fell on when Cate Blanchett, who won Best Actress for her role in Blue Jasmine, written by Allen, who was nominated for his script, thanked the director-producer to very, very, timid applause.

But on the other hand: First-time winner Lupita Nyong’o, only the second African woman to an acting Oscar, (Nyong’o has Kenyan heritage, and Charlize Theron is South African), gave the most important speech of the night, saying, “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s.”

Nyong’o’s humility and awareness is something Hollywood too often lacks.