Film & TV

The Reeducation Oscars

Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton. (Walt Disney Studios/Trailer image via YouTube)
What happened to Hamilton and movie populism?

Back in the days when people actually cared about the Academy Awards, I used to follow them as an event that perpetually kept record of film-culture excellence. But excellence went out of the game, the public felt betrayed, and the show’s TV ratings began to drop. This year, there’s not one entertaining film among the Academy’s eight Best Picture nominees.

Three potential explanations: Hollywood has given up on the idea of entertaining viewers; the COVID year of American movies was completely bereft of pleasure; or the idea of entertainment has been, to use the Obama–Bernie Sanders threat, “fundamentally transformed.” Now movies are only about indoctrination and self-congratulation; the man behind the curtain says, Pay no attention to freedom, liberty, your bill of rights, or fun.

After the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ recent “diversity initiatives” changed its membership rolls, it seems that all the voters just want to have their biases confirmed. Selecting such contraptions as The Father, Judas and the Black Messiah, Mank, Minari, Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 out of all the releases in 2020 is the end result of the Academy’s cultural engineering. It ratifies how the industry has altered — mutilated — its sense of aesthetic quality, merely to fit the times.

At first, that Best Picture list looks politicized — like a race and gender-studies reading list. It doesn’t look amusing. Instead, it lacks broad attraction and the promise of a good time that used to be proven by the fact of popularity.

One 2020 release is conspicuously absent from the list: Hamilton. Yes, even Disney’s streaming presentation of the overrated Broadway musical Hamilton, intended to rock last summer’s July 4th celebrations, had indicated a nod toward entertainment and the notion of wide, if specious, appeal. But the dismissal of Hamilton — the hallowed show conceived to celebrate “hope and change” politics — proves the almost tangible failure of that movement. Hailed as the cultural event of the era, it failed to have a lasting impact.

You could argue that many of the nominees show the obvious influence of Hamilton’s facile presentation of history and politics, but none are compelling, and none have proved culturally galvanizing.

I’m not displeased by Hamilton’s shut-out; it was minimally cinematic (repeating the stage production’s proscenium perspective and the mishmash of nontraditional equity casting that yet was guilty of left-wing racial bias). Those jumpy non-melodies and knotty rhymes you hear in Hamilton are not rap music but dog whistles. It communicates to those who don’t like hip-hop but feel hip when they hop to the commands of the mainstream media that celebrated Hamilton and its Obama-era politics. (John Bolton’s memoir viciously alluded to Hamilton’s romanticized political vengeance.)

In the past, film adaptations of such Broadway hits as West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Funny Girl, Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, even the cynical Cabaret, once united our cultural identity, and, as a result, all were Oscar-nominated. The Academy’s rebuff of Hamilton has revealed that the show’s cultural status was not insuperable; it was always simply a means of progressives’ self-intoxication. It entertained no one outside of Broadway and editorial-page writers.

That Hamilton’s Tony Award–winning co-star Leslie Odom Jr. got an Oscar nomination for a different film (impersonating Sam Cooke in the miserable One Night in Miami) certifies that Hamilton lacked real star power (creator Lin-Manuel Miranda sucked up all the publicity, yet his whiney-voiced characterization left viewers cold). In Disney’s streaming version, Odom gave the show’s emotional void no more than the superficialities of black belligerence — acting the role of Aaron Burr as if to showcase Dixiecrat black villainy, a black Judas to Miranda’s Latin messiah.

And yet, none of the Academy’s eight Best Picture nominees rival the “legendary” impression that Hamilton made. Each soon-to-be forgotten film offers a passive-aggressive reorganization of American principles into sentimental sermons about class, race and sex, as if progressives have finally convinced everyone to think alike, but without joy, satisfaction, or social harmony in return — just self-righteousness and misery, well symbolized by Frances McDormand’s grim visage in Nomadland. Not a single film is uplifting; but neither was Hamilton, which surely is the reason it flopped. This year’s Oscar nominees all flop. They’re anti-populist non-entertainments.

Fact is, the Academy’s choices show that the film industry no longer cares about any sort of popularity, not even in Hamilton’s elitist, pseudo-populist fashion — its exclusive, exorbitantly priced tickets, its Beltway and media cachet. COVID has made the studios so craven that they lazily chase the couch-potato home audience. Including Hamilton among the Oscar nominees might have acknowledged some cultural consensus. Instead, the hateful eight nominees are all about coterie rule, same as the one-party domination of our executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The Oscars’ resemblance to election irregularity resembles the irregularity of Millennial movies. This year’s Oscars are the reeducation Oscars.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.


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