The Academy Awards took place this Sunday, which means critics have begun complaining about who did and did not go home with the statue of a naked gold man. This criticism will likely build upon the backlash that occurred after the nominations were announced, with the argument being that The Academy’s problem is its lack of diversity. In some ways, this is warranted: The voting committee is made up of 77 per cent male and 94 per cent white members, resulting in a set of nominations that makes it glaringly obvious that there is an underrepresentation of non-white and female artists in Hollywood.
The extensive criticism of the Academy has raised the question: Why are the Oscars still a popular thing? Art is subjective and it seems bizarre that the judgement about the year’s best films is dictated by a group of old white men.
However, the Academy Awards have been a vital part of the entertainment industry for the past 87 years—not simply because it awards the alleged best films of the year, but because the award process itself generates intense and widespread debate about the film industry as a whole.
One of the most common debates is the seemingly inherent favouritism towards content produced for and by white men in Hollywood—and the subsequent criticism and outrage of this realization—is an instrumental push for change in the industry that would be less prevalent without the Oscars. A notable example of this is the attention given to the representation of Native Americans in the entertainment industry after Marlon Brando declined his 1973 Best Actor Award for The Godfather in a speech read by Sacheen Littlefeather. The Academy and those in attendance responded harshly to this unplanned interruption, but that speech succeeded in bringing heightened attention to the American Indian Movement.
The criticism and the praise that is dispensed in connection with the Oscars is a reflection of the issues that are discussed in society. It is in this constructive atmosphere of open discussion that the Oscars indirectly (and maybe unintentionally) create space for the discussion of social issues and their place in the world of entertainment. The hashtags #AskHerMore and #OscarsSoWhite are just two representations of the many debates the Oscars fuelled on Twitter.
In addition, the Oscars encourage both critics and the general public to engage in questions about quality movies, filmmaking, and acting. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the choice of nominees and winners, people often feel inclined to take a stand and defend their opinion, consequently leading to greater critical expectations of films and the film industry beyond the best-dressed lists.
If anything, the Oscars should be criticized more for its lack of transparency about its selection process. An explanation for why the winners are chosen would enhance the public’s understanding of the criteria considered. With each winner announced at the ceremony, it would be helpful if there followed a short explanation about why the winner excelled in the category. This might further deepen the public’s knowledge of the process that decides the winners and make the Oscars debates more constructive.
In spite of its pompous pageantry, the Oscars have come to play an important role in our cinematic culture. The awards process has the instrumental value of initiating debates on the social issues in Hollywood and the very essence of quality filmmaking.
In a time when many independent and documentary filmmakers are unable to hold their own against increasingly big-budget blockbusters, the Oscars provide a powerful platform for the debate on quality films and their socio-political backdrop. In many cases it is the actors themselves that spark these debates, as Patricia Arquette did when she used her acceptance speech to address gender-based income equality. The criticism and debate surrounding the Academy Awards creates incentives for filmmakers to make bolder pieces targeted towards larger audiences in hope of creating next year’s best picture.