As a writer and once upon a time film student, I found this year’s Academy Awards to be an exemplary display of the breadth of possibility that Hollywood’s insular, but nonetheless public, progressive political scene presents.
This year, the Academy rewarded actors not just for being beautiful people in rented jewelry and expensive clothing, but for the emotions they conjured and the political movements that their roles represented. While there were numerous subplots throughout the evening (Heath Ledger’s posthumous award for his role as The Joker in “The Dark Knight” and Jerry Lewis receiving the Jean Hersholt humanitarian award were both understandably watchable moments) I felt an overall air of social responsibility at the awards that was undeniable. After all, it is on film where many social barriers are broken down, and where many of the bittersweet reminders of those social barriers are thrown into the audience’s face for analysis and contemplation.
Take for example the Oscar wins of Halle Berry and Denzel Washington in 2002. For many African-American actors, activists, and politicians alike, Berry’s win for Best Actress was a triumph in equal rights as she was the first African-American to win the award. At the same time, many complained that the roles these two accomplished actors played to win the awards (Berry as the lover of a white racist played by Billy Bob Thornton in “Monster’s Ball” and Washington as a dirty cop in “Training Day”) were such negative images of African-Americans that it cheapened the awards.
While a contradiction of sorts, anyone with knowledge of film can point to at least a handful of Oscar worthy roles played by the two that they were nominated for but got overlooked or that they received critical acclaim for but got little Oscar “buzz” . (Think Washington in “Cry Freedom”, “Malcolm X”, “Philadelphia” and “The Hurricane”; Berry in “Jungle Fever” and “Losing Isaiah”.) The nature of winning an award such as Best Actress or Best Actor is that it will have social implications, positive and negative.
This year’s “darling” winner of eight Oscars (including Picture of the Year), “Slumdog Millionaire”, was an outstanding story about orphan children in modern day Mumbai, India. What made this movie more appealing than other coming of age films set in a developing nation is that it portrayed in perfect balance the struggle that comes from Western influence in a place of pervasive despair and conflict. As someone who has learned about the slow and steady disintegration of Indian culture by outside influences, I am aware of the large scale droughts, virtual share cropping perpetrated by Western agricultural giants, and the instability created by the country’s population explosion. This education, however, was only in a classroom. I was not prepared for the startling images portraying that disintegration.
The violence between different ethnic and religious groups was chilling, while watching as orphaned children were maimed and blinded by maniacs, then forced to hustle on the street for pennies was equally disturbing. While there are probably instances of this in any nation, this movie was important in that it literally plopped the audience right into the middle of one of the world’s largest and least cohesive cities. We outsource undesirable jobs there, and funnel environmentally toxic construction and recycling projects onto the shores of the Indian Ocean without thinking about who is going to suffer (see the work of Vandana Shiva or Arundhati Roy to learn more about the realities of modern day India).
If there is anything to be learned from this film, it is that reality is only as real as what is around you; fortunately, anyone who has seen this film had their reality blown up by “Slumdog Millionaire”. While this was probably one of the most intense movies I’ve seen in a very long time, that intensity is indicative of Mumbai: teeming with conflict, on the edge at all times, desperately seeking something better. This movie deserved the many awards it received – if not for the team effort that made it a hit, than for the immense influence it will have on people for years to come and the conversations about poverty and globalization that it will spark .
And then, of course, Hollywood brings to the forefront issues that affect us right here in California. Sean Penn, considered by politicians and heartless fellow actors to be a publicist’s nightmare for his candid views on human rights and foreign relations, won a second Best Actor award for his amazing performance as gay rights activist Harvey Milk in “Milk”. Long a talented and methodical character actor, Sean Penn has in his career played enduring roles: Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, Poncelet in “Dead Man Walking”, Sam in “I am Sam”, Jimmy Markum in “Mystic River” and his latest conquest as Harvey Milk. What gave this film contemporary value was that its release coincided with an election that represented the quintessential fight for equal rights: a Presidential Election involving a black man, and a state wide ban on gay marriage.
In the 70’s, a similar vote was brought forth to the California Republic in Proposition 6 (“The Briggs Initiative”), which would have denied gay and lesbian teachers from working in the public school system based solely on their sexual orientation. As portrayed in the movie, Harvey Milk became a fighter for the cause – and the proposition was turned back in a close vote.
It was unfortunate to me, as an advocate for social justice and equal rights, that by the time I went to a theatre and saw “Milk” the election had been long over and again, gay and lesbian Californians had been denied equal rights. It was a bittersweet moment in that movie theatre as I watched Sean Penn and then Harvey Milk (part of the greatness of the film was the corresponding clips of new film and old documentary) celebrating first the demise of Proposition 6 and then his appointment to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. That moment had long passed, and I couldn’t help but think: two steps forward (Obama) and one step back (Prop. 8). It is amazing how thirty years can pass but some things, like hatred, will never change.
During his acceptance speech, Penn spoke on this very subject, in reaction to the protesters from Westboro Baptist Church pictured above: “For those who saw the signs of hatred as our cars drove in tonight, I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect, and anticipate their great shame, and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support. We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone. And there are these last two things. I’m very, very proud to live in a country that is willing to elect an elegant man President, and a country which, for all its toughness, creates courageous artists…”
It all goes back to Hollywood. The actors and the movies they play in that were nominated for Oscars varied tremendously by subject and setting (The Holocaust in “The Reader”, the fallout from Watergate in “Frost/Nixon”, professional wrestling in “The Wrestler”, contemporary India, San Francisco in the 70’s) but all touched on subjects that bring to the surface our very fractured, disconnected, and slowly recovering global community. As a writer, activist, and peacenik, I am proud that Hollywood, one of the most shallow and money-driven entities we’ve got here in America, took a stand on equal rights on the grandest of stages – in front of a billion people. Hopefully this is a sign of the future of the film industry: grandiosity and big budgets, yes, but in the interest of exploratory, educational filmmaking that challenges the audience to wander outside of their comfort zone.