It’s been a long time coming

March 6, 2018

Laura Durkay explains what this year's Oscars tell us about where movies are headed.

IT'S NO challenge to be cynical about Hollywood and about the glitzy spectacle of award shows in particular. Hollywood loves self-congratulation and empty liberal platitudes.

This means it can be easy to miss it when things actually are changing in an industry that hails itself as progressive, but is steeped in racism, sexism, ageism and a work culture that would be the envy of any 19th-century industrialist.

But at the 2018 Academy Awards, change was most definitely in the air.

The impact of months of #MeToo awareness of sexual harassment and assault was evident from Jimmy Kimmel's opening monologue, through to the prime-time commercials for a Kevin Spacey-less House of Cards. Even tiny cosmetic changes, like announcing "the women and men" nominated in a certain category, felt pointed.

Midway through the broadcast, Ashley Judd, Salma Hayek and Annabella Sciorra--all of whom have accused producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment or assault--took the stage together to introduce a montage of female and nonwhite writers, directors and actors talking about the changes they wanted to see in Hollywood. Even a symbolic gesture like this would have seemed unthinkable a few years ago.

Clockwise from left: The Shape of Water, Frances McDormand at the Oscars ceremony, and Get Out
Clockwise from left: The Shape of Water, Frances McDormand at the Oscars ceremony, and Get Out

Jodie Foster and Jennifer Lawrence presented the Best Actress award, replacing last year's Best Actor winner, Casey Affleck, who has also been accused of sexual misconduct.

The winner of that award, Frances McDormand, ended her speech with a call for "inclusion riders."

This is the term for hypothetical contract provisions that would allow A-list actors and directors to demand racial and/or gender equity in other parts of a film production as a condition of their participation. For example, an inclusion rider could stipulate that 50 percent of the crew be female, or that background actor casting be demographically accurate.

While this may seem like an odd bureaucratic detail to include in an Oscar speech, it's at least an attempt to think creatively about how those with existing power in Hollywood can do something to push back against both overt and unconscious biases in hiring.

THE EXPLOSIVE impact of #MeToo is a new and significant development this year, but the 2018 Oscars reflected years of rumblings in Hollywood, as a new generation enters the industry and many among an older one finally says enough is enough.

In addition to the many references to sexism, the show was peppered with encouragement for the high school students protesting gun violence and shout-outs to DREAMers and immigrants in general, as well as several digs at Trump's border wall.

"The greatest thing that art does, and that our industry does, is erase lines in the sand," said Guillermo del Toro upon winning Best Director for The Shape of Water. "We should continue doing that."

It was just two years ago that the hashtag to watch at the awards show was #OscarsSoWhite. The membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the film industry as a whole, is still disproportionately white and male, but the #OscarsSoWhite controversy did prompt the Academy to induct a wave of younger, female and non-white members.

That may have contributed to the more diverse slate of nominees this year. Jordan Peele's "social thriller" Get Out brings together two elements that Oscar voters usually shun: Black people and horror movies. But Peele became the first Black filmmaker to receive Oscar nominations for writing, directing and Best Picture in the same year, and the first Black screenwriter to win Best Original Screenplay.

Rachel Morrison became the first female nominee ever for Best Cinematography, for the movie Mudbound--although she's now better known for her work on Black Panther.

And Yance Ford became the first openly trans director nominated for an Oscar, for his documentary Strong Island, about the racially charged murder of his brother.

And then there is this year's Best Picture and Best Director winner, The Shape of Water, which seems deliberately constructed as a 1960s fairy-tale version of everything Donald Trump hates: A disabled, working-class woman with a healthy sense of her own sexuality unites with her Black co-worker, her closeted gay neighbor and a sympathetic Russian spy to rescue her fish-monster lover from a villain who is so much the embodiment of stereotypical white male toxic masculinity that he is literally rotting due to his own violence and stupidity.

Oh, and this whimsical story of forbidden love is directed by a Mexican immigrant.

BECAUSE OF the long life cycles of feature films, particularly studio blockbusters, the effects of any social change are slow to percolate through Hollywood.

The more diverse films landing on the big screen today are arguably the product of conversations going back as far as the 2013 summer movie season, which was particularly barren if you were looking for any protagonist who wasn't a white dude.

Black Panther, the superhero movie currently smashing box-office records, was announced back in October 2014, in the wake of the Ferguson uprising and Trayvon Martin's murder. Whether you see this as marketing opportunism or a genuine desire for Black pop cultural heroes, the end result is a movie that's currently on track to make a billion dollars worldwide.

On a larger scale, there is a demographic shift happening in Hollywood as the white boys' club of directors that went from making indies in the 1970s to blockbusters in the '80s begins to be replaced by younger filmmakers.

Ryan Coogler, the director of Black Panther, is 31. Greta Gerwig, who wrote and directed the Best Picture nominee Lady Bird, is 34. Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman) and Ava DuVernay (Selma and 13th) are both 45--which is still young by the standards of how long it takes to succeed as a female director in Hollywood.

One could argue that the small but significant wave of Black writer/directors and Black stars reaching prominence in the films of 2017 and 2018 (Mudbound, Get Out, Moonlight, Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time, plus John Boyega being cast in Star Wars and the upcoming Pacific Rim 2) is the echo effect of the Black Lives Matter protests of finally landing in Hollywood.

If so, who knows what films the echoes of #MeToo will produce in the next five years? But as Guillermo del Toro said while accepting the Oscar for Best Picture: "This is a door. Kick it open and come in."

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