How the Trump Administration Has Impacted Best Picture - And What That Means for 2020
It could have gone no other way. The shock rippling through the Dolby Theater on February 26, 2017 felt like the mirror-image of the disbelief that echoed across a nation just 109 days earlier. In both cases, the astonishment stemmed from the genuine surprise nature of the events, especially the end-of-the-night reversal of the seemingly obvious results – Moonlight’s Best Picture win and the election of Donald Trump. But more than that, reactions flowed from the meaning behind the upsets, one a foreboding marker of tribalism and bigotry, the other a beacon of hope, inclusivity, and a path forward.
Enough words have been spilled on the entangling of politics and Hollywood in the Trump era, and particularly on the influence of the 2016 election on the 89th Academy Awards. I’ve written about the disingenuous calls to separate politics from awards, used mostly as a tool for the powerful to entrench their dominance. But as two of the most reliable barometers for the national mood, they will always be connected. Each will continue to reflect and refract the zeitgeist, and movies will strive to offer clarity on the world we live in and fantasy for a world that might be. As for the Academy Awards, the voting body has ballooned to nearly 9,000 members, full of both the older, whiter, male-r voters that dominated its past and the younger, more diverse members that represent its future – a collection not unlike the American electorate. Art may be infused by the political moment; awards speak directly in response to it. While Moonlight’s win may be the most prominent example, the brief 4-year history of the Oscars during the Trump Administration is the perfect case study for the influence of politics on awards. On November 9, 2016, Donald Trump won the election to become the 45th President of the United States. But it’s what happened after that helps explain the moment as the Academy Awards arrived. On January 20, 2017, President Trump delivered a defiant inaugural address, “darker in tone and blunter in language than any” in modern times. One week later, Trump signed an effective “Muslim ban,” prohibiting foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. The mood in Washington was dark. Suspicion reigned over those that looked, spoke, or worshiped differently. On the day after President Trump’s inauguration, Women’s Marches overwhelmed cities across the world, including in the middle of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Weeks later, another ray of resistance: on February 8, Senator Elizabeth Warren refused to be silenced on the Senate floor. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put it, “nevertheless, she persisted.” Later in February, three days into the voting period for the Oscars, worldwide protests dominated the news and provided a new, righteous spark for hope – a “day without immigrants.” The resistance was born already knocking on Hollywood’s door. This is the world into which the 89th Academy Awards arrived. First, let’s make one thing clear – Moonlight is one of the most deserving Best Picture winners of all-time, as well as one of the most technically astounding and viscerally impactful films of 2016. Its win is also a product of its moment. Effectively rendered impotent in the political world by Donald Trump, Hollywood reacted to its hatred of his administration by leaning into its politics, listening to its better angels. As many have written, it did not portend a radical overhaul in the Academy moving forward, but instead reflected the best possible version of the group – they would show their other sides in later years.
And while much ink has been poured over Moonlight’s win, the influence of the administration did not end in its first year. As 2018 began, the Mueller investigation into President Trump’s campaign and his administration’s potential obstruction of justice had been ongoing for nearly eight months, the rancor rippling beyond Washington, D.C. The government endured a brief shutdown, and then, on February 14, a gunman murdered 17 people at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Amidst this violence, President Trump delivered his first State of the Union address on January 30th. Despite mostly repeating the divisive promises of his campaign and his first year in office, Trump’s address was hailed as Presidential, with one commentator famously noting he “became President of the United States in that moment, period.” The country’s elite sought an opportunity to rise above the division. Enter the 90th Academy Awards. On the first day of voting, President Trump announced his support for banning bump stocks – devices used to effectively turn semi-automatic weapons into automatic guns. For those seeking any reason to turn away from the rage of the resistance and the supposed toxicity of incorporating politics into entertainment, this pronouncement, however empty, provided it. Faced with the righteous anger of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and the incisive criticism of Get Out, the Academy turned its cheek, choosing instead to honor The Shape of Water. Another story about accepting the “other” among us, The Shape of Water is a less radical choice than Moonlight, a more anodyne celebration of the power of movies that, one year in, was a way for Hollywood to celebrate what it stood for while ignoring the political reality that surrounded it. It allowed the Academy to embrace a positive vision of the world – notably a vision brought to the screen by a Mexican filmmaker in Guillermo del Toro, awarded the Best Director trophy – while avoiding overt provocation.
Another year, and Old Hollywood’s appetite for confronting a consistently discriminatory administration shrunk even further. The first two months of 2019 could be described as the apex of how Washington divisiveness and dysfunction can hurt the rest of the country. On December 22, the federal government entered a shutdown. On January 1st and 2nd, respectively, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly resigned. On January 9, President Trump walked out of a meeting with Democrats. Attorney General William Barr’s confirmation occurred a week later, and on January 25, former Trump aide Roger Stone was indicted. The Mueller investigation dragged on, nearly two years in without conclusion. Meanwhile, millions of government workers suffered without a paycheck. Finally, mercifully, the shutdown ended in late January – the longest in U.S. history. On February 5, just one week before Oscar voting began, President Trump delivered his second State of the Union address with a list of his campaign donors scrolling across the screen. This was an overt act of politics through a network television event – exactly what many in the Academy didn’t want. The old guard was tired of the rancor. And what better way to complete the transition to why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along escapism than by awarding Green Book? The buddy-comedy about a pair of unlikely friends took home the top prize over innovative, risk-taking, diverse films that ranged from foreign language auteurism (Roma) to international mega-blockbuster (Black Panther).
The story of an unlikely – and in fact, probably unreal – friendship between a black concert pianist, Dr. Don Shirley, and his white driver, Tony Lip, Green Book spoke directly to the wishful thinking of industry members who likely weren’t personally affected by the Trump administration, but who were tired of all the division. This is what life could be like, right? In essence more fantastical than The Shape of Water, Green Book was an act of rebellion from Academy members tired of (thinking they were) being told how to feel, how to behave, and how to resist via their yearly ballots. Fast forward one final time: January 30, 2020, the first day of voting for the 92nd Academy Awards. Division and anger in Washington and around the country had only increased, so what was different from the prior year? A failure to do anything. A failure to hold anyone accountable. On the first day of voting, the Academy watched as United States Senators concluded a round of questioning in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump that allowed House Managers to elaborate on the undeniable case they had laid out against him thus far. On February 3rd, during the Oscars voting period, Senator Lisa Murkowski announced she would vote to acquit and oppose witnesses, effectively ending any chance that the Senate-composed jury would hear the truth from John Bolton. On the last day of voting, Senator Collins announced her acquittal vote.
Combine the same misbehavior of recent years with the complete abdication by Congress of its authority to hold the President accountable, and Hollywood’s rage returned. Where a searing indictment of American institutions had failed years before (Get Out), a global takedown of capitalism succeeded (Parasite). Where a Mexican-language film by a big-name director had fallen the prior year (Roma), its Korean counterpart secured victory. Parasite afforded the Academy an outlet for this anger without appearing to be a blunt political instrument. Its victory was cathartic. It’s important to clarify a few things at this point. First, the Academy is not a monolith, and neither is any single members’ vote based on one single factor. A thousand inputs go into the output that is the Best Picture winner, and this article is meant to seek a pattern in one of those: the external force of the political moment. But in fact, the Academy is an institution at war with itself, and one need only look at the winners alongside Green Book to see the contradiction: Spike Lee for a head-on yet complex movie about race relations; Ruth Carter and Hannah Beachler making history as the first African-Americans to win for Costume and Production Design; three of four acting awards presented to people of African descent; and Alfonso Cuarón earning the fourth Best Director prize to go to a Mexican filmmaker in just five years. Second, certain assumptions I attribute to Oscar voters are not my own, and in fact are, I believe, incorrect. This includes the fact that a film by a black director dealing with race is seen as more overtly political than a Korean film taking on capitalism – it is not inherently more political or “controversial,” and both our current President’s bigotry and our country’s history of racism fuel the misconception that it is. I hope my attempts to intuit meaning from the decisions of a large body of individuals have not done a disservice to basic fact or the individual members of that body. Regardless of whether my depiction of the last four ceremonies have persuaded you, I arrive at a thesis that I feel confident about: the 2020 election will have an impact on the 2021 Best Picture winner. I do not know what that impact will be, nor do I believe it more important than the effects of the election on millions of Americans. But I do know it has the potential to change not just the tenor of the ceremony, but the winners. February 2021 could arrive with the delivery of President Trump’s exultant State of the Union, where, unburdened by any worries of re-election, he will lean into extremist, hateful speech. Or it could arrive with much of Hollywood pleased with itself for assisting in the ousting of President Trump, and his replacement by old friend, Joe Biden. Or, who knows, it could be accompanied by a split in the Academy, with many members triumphant over the election of a norm-shattering Bernie Sanders, while the rest wring their hands in fear of another exhausting four years. I don’t know what next year’s Oscars will look like, but it’s high time Hollywood accepts that film and politics have always walked hand-in-hand. And that’s not going to change.