This year the Academy tried desperately to appear relevant, showcasing the juvenile sexism and folksy Irish-Catholic racism that made host Seth MacFarlane a pop culture phenom and awarding Quentin Tarantino a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for the hyper-violent Django Unchained. But, as usual, there was little room at the Oscars for work that really pushes the envelope.
A movie like Django probably couldn’t have been made by anyone else, but that says more about the state of current media than the merits of the film or its director. The fact that only Quentin Tarantino could make an exploitation movie that chronicles the violent exploits of a runaway black slave underscores the lack of real diversity in mainstream art. It’s even more problematic when you realize that Django adheres to several racist film tropes in its narrative. The titular character really has little agency for an action film hero, relying heavily on the providence of his white mentor for his freedom, training and the plan to save his wife. In fact, Django is the most forgettable character in his own movie, leaving the Oscar-winning lead Jamie Foxx with little to do while Waltz and DiCaprio (who plays the villainous slave-owner, Monsieur Candie) chew scenery.
Django’s certainly no Spartacus–a populist hero that everyone can get behind–but he’s not even a Beatrix Kiddo. Can you name another exploitation film in which the hero doesn’t get to take out the principle villain himself? Django, instead, kills Candie’s Uncle Tom servant, Stephen in the final act–Tarantino’s way of saying that the blacks are their own worst enemy, a view of racism that belies his arrogant naiveté about the subject.
As Omali Yeshitela at Black Agenda Report points out in a review, Tarantino’s movie doesn’t really prompt any discourse about past or current racism or force us to think differently about race dynamics, which is probably why the Academy felt so comfortable with it. It’s like the bullets from Django’s six-shooter were mowing down evil rednecks and the collective responsibility for slavery and its outcomes at the same time. Consider, by contrast, the 1975 film Mandingo, from which Tarantino heavily borrowed. Mandingo has an unfair reputation as an exploitation film for its frank depiction of nudity and violence but, unlike Tarantino’s Django or true exploitation flicks, these elements have a purpose in Mandingo beyond sensationalism and titilation (there’s an early scene where the lead’s genitals are inspected on the auctioning block or a particularly gruesome and uncomfortable mandingo fight, for instance). More than anything, though, it was the tastefully-shot love scene between the slave Ganymede and the plantation owner’s white wife that earned Mandingo the most scorn among audiences and critics (the movie was almost universally panned in the US). Django, entertaining as it was, seems juvenile and passé by comparison.
It’s great that the Academy recognized movies within non-white leads like Life of Pi and Flight, but they are still exceptions that prove the rule. While discussing his interracial kiss in the movie Flight, Denzel Washington commented on the fact that love scenes between black men and white women are still problematic in Hollywood, more than 30 years after Mandingo was ripped from box offices. Washington is one of the few non-whites that can lead a mainstream dramatic picture, yet he wasn’t recognized by the Academy until he played a role that conformed with white expectations and preferences about how blacks ought to behave.
Perhaps the most revealing aspect of this year’s Oscars is that Cloud Atlas didn’t receive a single nomination. Though rated highly overall, Atlas proved to be one of those movies that critics either loved or reviled, but you’d think it would’ve at least snatched up a nomination in one of the technical categories like visual effects or make-up. Maybe it was the subject matter of Cloud Atlas that the Academy found so objectionable. Atlas is decidedly Marxist, as each story it tells links the varying forms class struggle has taken over the course of human history. Power differentials and their resulting abuses are at the heart of each tale–whether its between a mentor and student or an investigative journalist and the corporate owners of a nuclear plant–as is the underlying theme of fundamental connectedness between humans, further solidifying the movie’s Marxist’s credentials. This is a stark contrast to the Randian Django, an “exceptional” negro that doesn’t really include his fellow slaves in his uprising (he also fails to pay forward the good will done to him in this regard). I imagine after riding off, Django attended a Ron Paul rally where he encouraged slaves to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, like he did.
Rather uniquely, the characters in Cloud Atlas reclaim their identities through courageous acts of dissent rather than action-violence
Atlas also explores institutions of systematic oppression, from slavery in the 19th century South Pacific, to a futuristic Korea where customers are waited on by clone-servants of a lower caste, to a modern-day nursing home where the patient is abused by a tyrannical head nurse. The commonality in each case is that these systems of abuse are conventional and uncontroversial within the societies they exist in, mirroring the real way institutionalized oppression is usually so embedded in the society and its norms that it is simply taken for granted. This point is illustrated perfectly in the scene where Sonmi-451, the clone-server played by Doona Bae, discovers the plant where clones like her are recycled. With brutal efficiency, the carcasses are shuffled around on conveyors and chopped apart by mechanical arms like neat clockwork. Here Atlas captures the true nature of oppressive systems in a way that eludes Django. Slavery wasn’t just practiced by fat, stupid hillbillies and wealthy sadist–it was the clockwork of the South.
The story of adapting David Mitchell’s novel for the big screen is also one of power differentials and systematic oppression. Every major Hollywood studio passed on funding Cloud Atlas. It’s an independent film (albeit, one of the most expensive ones) made mostly with money from foreign investors and the directors themselves. Unsure of how to market the movie, Warner’s bungled the distribution leading to an opening weekend flop. Atlas’ creative team endured all of that only to be torn to shreds by baffled critics and elbowed out of the big awards ceremonies. By squelching Cloud Atlas and movies like it, the Academy has made itself precisely what the movie vilifies.