A critical look at the Academy Awards

Washington D.C. chapter of F.I.S.T.

The 81st Academy Awards show on Feb. 22 opened with its typical pomp and circumstance despite the current recession. Host Hugh Jackman’s song-and-dance routine provided a little levity for the country’s somber mood and some relief from the media’s sexist obsession with the newest designer outfits and multi-million-dollar jewelry worn mainly by women actors. Oscar night, however, was an interesting cultural study of class and national oppression—both for what the awards show recognized and for what it overlooked.

Racism was an undercurrent before and up until the Oscar show, from the choice of nominations to the selection of the winners. Irish director Danny Boyle emerged as the night’s biggest winner after the British-produced film “Slumdog Millionaire” took home eight Oscars including the awards for best picture and directing. The film itself continues to be the target of anger on the streets of India where demonstrators protest the use of the pejorative term “slumdog” in reference to impoverished Indians and the film’s promotion of slum tourism. Boyle’s appropriation of Bollywood’s right to portray the poverty of its country’s slums to the world was also criticized.

The film’s British producers were further castigated for the treatment of the film’s child actors, whose compensation included placement in a local school, a book stipend and a few thousand dollars at most. The payments were not enough to support the families of actors Azharuddin Ismail and Rubina Ali, who were only able to leave the Garib Nagar slum in Mumbai when the city government moved their families to public housing in late February.

While the “Slumdog Millionaire” producers and Boyle won Oscars, the film’s Indian actors, including main characters Dev Patel (Jamal) and Freida Pinto (Latika), did not receive a single nomination in any of the acting categories. While India won its formal independence from Britain in 1947, if “Slumdog Millionaire” had been Indian-produced, would it have gained the same kind of worldwide audience and recognition, including inside the U.S.?

The best supporting actress nominations of Viola Davis for her portrayal of the mother of a gay student who may have been the victim of a suspected molestation by his priest in “Doubt” and Taraji P. Henson for her role in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” were the Academy’s only attempt to recognize the talent of Black actors. Neither woman won the award. Many other actors of color were overlooked, such as Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass and Haaz Sleiman in the critically acclaimed movie “The Visitor.”

The deserved attention given to “Milk,” the compelling story of California’s first openly gay elected official, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk was a bright spot for the awards. The film accurately captured Harvey Milk the man and the movement that propelled him to elected office before he was assassinated by former supervisor Dan White. The film was nominated for eight awards and took home the Oscars for best actor and original screenplay.

In his acceptance speech, gay writer Dustin Lance Black assured gay and lesbian kids across the country that they are beautiful human beings of value. It should be added that bisexual and transgender youth are equally valuable.

Sean Penn’s acceptance of the best actor Oscar for his role as Harvey Milk provided a balance of humor and political awareness. Penn lambasted those who supported the California ban on same-sex marriage as shameful in his call for equal rights. He playfully referred to the audience as “commie, homo-loving sons-of-guns.” Penn’s light-hearted connection between LGBT rights and communist politics provides an interesting segue to one of the Academy’s biggest oversights.

The epic depiction of the life and contributions of communist revolutionary Che Guevara was ignored entirely, as the Academy failed to nominate Stephen Soderbergh’s “Che” for a single award. The Academy-Award-winning Puerto Rican actor Benicio Del Toro, whose brilliant portrayal of Che himself won the best actor award at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, summarized the real reason this film was overlooked.

“Look, ‘Che’ is a Hollywood movie, any way you want to cut it, it is a Hollywood movie. But it is a Hollywood movie that takes the position of another country, in the language of that country, and makes a criticism of the United States government. I don’t know any other movie that has done it that clear. This movie is as good as any movie that got nominated for an Oscar—better. But we got zilch all through the Oscars.” (Huffington Post, Feb. 2.)

Ironically, Sean Penn, during his best actor acceptance speech at the January Screen Actor Guild Awards show in January, gently chastised his fellow actors for not recognizing Del Toro’s acting in “Che.”

The same Academy that shunned Del Toro gave Kate Winslet a best actress Oscar for her disturbingly sympathetic portrayal of an unapologetic SS guard at a Nazi concentration camp during World War II in “The Reader.”

The Academy’s choice of nominees and winners was illustrative of Hollywood’s limitations in promoting progressive struggle. The same Academy that strongly upheld the notion of LGBT equality in marriage was also guilty of institutionalized political censorship and racism in its choices.

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