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Nomineering, Week 4: The Birth of a Nation and Hollywood’s struggle to course-correct

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Elliot Davis / Mandalay Pictures

Welcome to Nomineering, where we take a weekly look at the news and stories behind the most lavish, high-budget spectacle the film industry has to offer: Oscar season. No matter how you feel about them, awards are one of the key ways to gut check what Hollywood itself thinks is important, with winning films often opening doors and setting the agenda for which kind of movies will be made in the coming years — and which ones won’t. From the surprise nominations that foretell an upset, to the last minute surges that see the most unlikely of films, um, crash into a Best Picture win, Nomineering tells the story from the beginning of the year all the way until the ceremony itself. This week we look at how the Sundance Film Festival has already set the tone for the 2016 Oscars with the debut of The Birth of a Nation.

Last week the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally took some substantive action to address the severe lack of representation among its members, temporarily quieting what had become the awards season story. Revising its rules so older members couldn’t stick around — thereby letting new, more diverse members have a bigger, quicker impact — was the least the Academy could do, and unquestionably a step in the right direction. Hollywood appeared to finally be listening, but movie studios like nothing more than to capitalize on a trend, and just a few days later they got their chance.

On Monday Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, blowing away audiences and setting a record for the biggest acquisition in the history of the festival. Parker co-wrote, directed, and stars in the story of Nat Turner and the bloody slave rebellion he led in 1831, and the film was met with immediate praise from both the audience and critics (the film received a standing ovation that ran throughout the entire end credits and up until Parker himself took the stage for a post-screening Q&A). The film had already been stirring Oscar talk going into the festival, but after the screening it received the kind of reception that signals the arrival of a culture-shifting film, and less than 12 hours later Fox Searchlight snatched up The Birth of a Nation for a record-setting $17.5 million.

Movie studios aren't trying to change the world

It happened during a week in which streaming services were throwing fistfuls of cash and ratcheting up prices, but Nation was at an entirely different level (according to a play-by-play from The Hollywood Reporter, Netflix even outbid Searchlight with $20 million, and still lost the movie). But while the film is universally lauded, it would be naive to think that distributors are willing to shell out that kind of money due to reviews or a desire to change the world. This is Hollywood we’re talking about, after all, and places like Fox Searchlight smelled two things: money and awards.

On one hand, that doesn’t matter at all; an important film from a black filmmaker is setting records and the agenda, and that’s unquestionably great. Where it gets tricky is that studios are cynically trying to co-opt the moment, hoping that the same broken system that resulted in #OscarsSoWhite will reward them next year.

Hollywood has a particular fetish when it comes to films about atrocity during awards season — and lately it’s been especially interested in slavery. Movies like Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave are exceptional films, but they don’t exist in a vacuum, and when viewed in conjunction with things like the nomination controversy, a more problematic picture appears. One in which these movies aren’t just being celebrated for being great films, but because they hew to troubling representations that Academy voters seem disturbingly comfortable with. As Kara Brown writes at Jezebel, "When movies about slavery or, more broadly, other types of violence against black people are the only types of films regularly deemed ‘important’ and ‘good’ by white people, you wonder if white audiences are only capable of lauding a story where black people are subservient."

"Oscar movie" has a narrow definition for filmmakers of color

As if proving the point, there were a number of films at Sundance this year from or about people of color that were lauded and even picked up, yet none have stirred up the kind of attention that Nate Parker’s film has. In fact, you may not even have heard of them — movies like J.D. Dillard’s biohacking superhero movie Sleight, or Steven Caple, Jr.’s The Land. Like Dope and Tangerine, two films that emerged from last year’s Sundance with big buzz only to be utterly absent from this year’s Oscars, these are films that never really enter the conversation because they’re not seen as "Oscar movies" — a term that for white filmmakers can mean everything from stories about running a baseball team to having a midlife crisis, but for everyone else has a distressingly narrow definition.

The irony of it all is that the changes the Academy is implementing over the coming years — booting out inactive members, doubling the number of diverse members by 2020 — are the exact kind of moves that will upset the cynical calculus being implemented here. And if we’re to look at things like the Academy Awards as a credible barometer of, um, anything, that’s an essential and welcome change, allowing more varied films to garner acclaim, inspiring studios to then make more varied films to get said acclaim, and having it all trickle down from there. The Birth of a Nation may be crystallizing a moment in which Hollywood finally understands it has a problem, but it’s not the end of that conversation. It’s only the beginning.

Catch up with awards season news from the week:

The Academy announces goal to ‘double number of diverse members’ after Oscar backlash
"The Academy pledged to double its number of women and diverse members by 2020."

Chris Rock still hosting Oscars; monologue to tackle #OscarsSoWhite
"Rock reportedly reworked his entire set of jokes when such figures as Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith announced they would be boycotting the ceremony." (Variety)

I’m so damn tired of slave movies
"We have more stories to tell. It’s time we give those a fair chance." (Jezebel)

Birth of a Nation: Sundance’s record-breaking remedy to #OscarsSoWhite
"It’s not so much the series of documented events depicted in The Birth of a Nation that earn it its resonance, as it is the stirring, soulful, and incendiary spirit that courses through its veins." (The Daily Beast)