WHEN THE ACADEMY AWARD nominations are announced every January, there are inevitable outcries from the people watching: “No way that movie was better than this other one I saw!” “I can’t believe they snubbed her again!” “When are they going to nominate that incredible voice-over performance?”
But every so often, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does something historically or socially valuable, as in 1939 when African-American actress Hattie McDaniel was awarded Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind, or when Marlee Matlin — who is deaf — won Best Actress in 1986. To see someone accept such a glamorous, high-profile award in American Sign Language was a landmark moment in disability representation.
Paying enough attention to the Oscars, however inconsistent they may be, can sometimes mean seeing something progressive and important on international television.
This year, many of the nominated films highlight significant and underrepresented issues. The most prominent is Steve McQueen’s beautiful, tragic adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography 12 Years a Slave, now nominated for nine Academy Awards. McQueen’s movie is a brutal tale of the kidnapping, enslavement, and abuse that Solomon — a former free black man in the pre-Civil War US — undergoes at the hands of several white men and women. The director, lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, and writer John Ridley don’t shy away from some of the most horrific acts of torture in any historical feature ever: the rape and beatings of a young female fieldhand (Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong’o) and Solomon’s lynching at the hands of a psychotic plantation overseer. In refusing to flinch at these sights, 12 Years a Slave has been called the “Schindler’s List of slave films,” in that it matches aesthetic beauty to a story of deep sadness, humanity, and ultimately, of hard-earned freedom.
Another major awards contender, Dallas Buyers Club, deals with the HIV/AIDS crisis in the form of a partnership between homophobic sleazebag Ron Woodroof (first-time Oscar nominee [!!] Matthew McConaughey) and transgender HIV-positive Rayon (Jared Leto). The Academy has a history with HIV-related social activist films, giving significant wins and nominations to films like Philadelphia, Longtime Companion, and How to Survive a Plague. But few movies have brought the deep-seated, ignorant discrimination of the LGBTQ community in US society (and, as the film explores, our federal and state policy) to the fore so openly. As Woodroof evolves from opportunistic leech — selling off-the-grid pharmaceuticals to HIV/AIDS victims around the world — to unintentional Queer Rights advocate, the movie earns as many smiles as it does tears. It seems to be a happier world when the Rayons and the Ron Woodroofs can work for the betterment of humanity.
Perhaps the most important and surprising human rights concerns of the 2014 nominees crop up in the Best Documentary category. Joshua Oppenheimer’s truly disturbing The Act of Killing shows the 1965 Indonesian genocide and continuing historical oppression of the country from the perspective of several key murderers, militants, and psychopaths living without punishment. Oppenheimer’s movie has made such an impact around the world that human rights complaints have been filed since with multiple international policing organizations; and his documentary’s subjects, including “king gangsters” Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, experience moments of poetic comeuppance for their unspeakable crimes.
Another amazing film in the same category, The Square, provides a complex discussion of the ongoing Egyptian revolution that began in 2011. Jehane Noujaim’s film is in fact the most illuminating and honest presentation of a frightening, chaotic situation in modern-day Egypt — watching the movie, one gets the impression of watching a key historical document.
That the Academy should nominate these films, along with several other social-issue movies — like Philomena, about child abuse and corrupt clergy in the Catholic Church; and Dirty Wars, Jeremy Scahill’s investigative documentary on America’s covert military operations around the planet — in 2014 should not be dismissed. The Oscars are one of the most-watched programs on international television, so to see these and other prominent subjects highlighted in the nominated movies means more people will be introduced to the problems at hand — awareness will be raised.
Admittedly, there are years where watching the awards ceremony feels like a trial of our collective patience and interest. But in 2014, it just might be that tuning into the Academy Awards could change your life and others’ lives for the better.