The Oscars, a reliable source for mockery, weren’t always a fit topic for serious film criticism. But now the Oscars compel political interest because of the recent culture divide that has also changed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences itself, turning the 91-year-old organization into a social-justice institution. The awards no longer have anything to do with quality — or art — but they do show us what Hollywood thinks of itself. It reveals Hollywood’s political egotism despite the film industry’s constant, dishonest promotional hype.
How have the Oscars changed in the nearly 30 years since Spike Lee made Do the Right Thing, his only good film, and his dumbest, BlacKkKlansman? The latter has just given Lee his first Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director — honors that fans and pundits felt were denied to him because Do the Right Thing, a folkloric screed about urban racism, was considered “too young, too black, too strong” for the Academy’s formerly hidebound traditional liberalism. (In 1989, the Academy preferred the benign race homily of Driving Miss Daisy.)
This year, Lee gets in the running for Best Activist not because BlacKkKlansman is any good, but simply because it represents the first time Lee’s on- and off-screen politics have been in sync with the mainstream media and post-Obama Hollywood. Before BlacKkKlansman, Lee played the role of querulous, peripatetic hustler; his rude, antagonistic shtick (which became a clue to his insecurities and an occasion to stoke white guilt) was always considered too black, too petulant.
Remember how, back in ’89, two New York Magazine writers (a political columnist and a film reviewer) alarmed readers, warning that Do the Right Thing would cause riots? Now, thanks to BlacKkKlansman’s tacked-on agit-prop about Charlottesville and a silly, last-minute jibe at President Trump, the film industry — like the liberal media — has convinced itself to approve the film. #Resistance encourages riots.
No one can honestly say they enjoyed the incoherent, rabble-rousing BlacKkKlansman (and few can say they actually bothered to see it). But pretending that it’s good art — a credible reflection of human truths — is sheer madness. As Boots Riley, director-writer of the more daring and inventive racial satire Sorry to Bother You, has pointed out, Lee dangerously screws up the film’s social and political facts. BlacKkKlansman’s story about Ron Stallworth, author of the self-serving memoir the film is based on, recounting his days on the Colorado Springs police force and exposing the local Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, ignores the political complexity of the protagonist’s race-traitor tactics. (Lee’s screenplay adaptation for the by-any-means-necessary autobiography is also Oscar-nominated). Lee’s sophomoric politics are not so offensive as his falsehoods — the misrepresentations of history, of cultural thought, and of human nature. This personal dishonesty makes his at-long-last Hollywood endorsement an embarrassment.
BlacKkKlansman was made for white liberals (white liberal critics are the demographic that loves the film most; regular moviegoers don’t want the stress). Its cynical, jumbled narrative appeals to their self-congratulatory politics in every way — even including Lee’s whitewash emphasis on Stallworth’s white-Jewish partner who actually infiltrated the Klan. (So BlacKkKlansman is a white-savior movie after all.)
The Oscars’ new white-savior program is the result of former Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs’s decision to alter the race and gender membership; she served as the Oscars’ Quota Queen, following the #OscarSoWhite campaign. Lee’s race-based nominations may be the Academy’s way of repenting for past neglect. But the film’s simplistic political bias (“a leap into reality,” raved The Nation) gives a black eye to the Academy’s history of humane liberalism, typified by nominations for such landmarks as Pinky, Song of the South, In the Heat of the Night, and Glory that affirmed mankind’s potential.
Readers should understand that the media use the Oscars to reinforce the delusion that Hollywood is a meritocracy. The Academy’s recent radicalization (imposing race-, gender-, and age-based criteria over professional achievement, broadening the number of Best Picture nominations) confirms that the industry’s liberal tendencies have coarsened; Hollywood now emulates the quota system and affirmative-action stunts that govern unfair public affairs. Accolades for films such as BlacKkKlansman and Vice go beyond mockery; they announce Hollywood’s political frustration through its poor taste. The fun is gone.