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Ordinary People, Part I

Ordinary People, Part I

On Artistry and Hollywood’s Insular Diversity

When film critics began their postmortem of the 2010s’s role in cinema history, David Fincher’s Facebook biopic The Social Network easily dominated the conversation. With its brash and confident Aaron Sorkin screenplay that positioned Mark Zuckerberg’s legal hurdles in the startup’s early days as a postmodern Greek tragedy, the movie received near-universal acclaim as an of-the-moment triumph—a reputation that has only grown over the ten-and-a-half years since its release. Given the film’s immediate attainment of decade-defining classic, the upset that led to The King’s Speech winning Best Picture over it seems abominable or expected depending on one’s opinion of the Oscars.

For most of The Social Network decade, the Academy Awards served simultaneously as a  bastion of “racist, old white men” who would, of course, salivate over an innocuous movie about a plebian Australian speech coach helping King George defeat the Nazis and a forum where a Mexican cinematographer could win three consecutive-Oscars and Joaquin Phoenix could babble about the artificial insemination of cattle while accepting an award for playing a clown. It is an event over which Tweeters fashion #oscarssowhite to describe an organization under the leadership of its first African-American president and during which a film like Moonlight can win Best Picture despite that four times more people have watched the YouTube video of the announcement gaffe that led to its coronation than ever bought tickets to see the movie.

In the end, the Oscars is an awards show about the assertion of its own influence, a forum to showcase the formidable entertainment its elites approve as it relegates the blockbusters that finance its existence to technical categories and sidelines singular artistry unless attempting to defend its own legitimacy (most evident in Moonlight’s selection and last year’s win for the South Korean film Parasite). Of course the Oscars would never venerate a movie like The Social Network as the year’s best film; it’s a scathing indictment of everything to which the Academy aspires.

The Social Network is not really a movie about Facebook or even about Mark Zuckerberg; it’s about the futility of escaping the American class system, how even our most liberating and seemingly democratizing technological advances propagate the class divides that govern oligarch-conceiving institutions like Harvard. More than any other movie, it has remained at the forefront of my mind for most of the last year. Not because Fincher’s Mank about the making of Citizen Kane and the Sorkin-helmed The Trial of the Chicago 7 led the 2021 Oscar nominations; nor because of debate concerning Facebook’s section 230 protections in response to its de-platforming and censorship of controversial speech. The primary reason stems from the realization that 2020 may be the period in history when the decisions of those belonging to Ivy-League networks and their elite imitators have had the most obvious and direct effects on the lives of ordinary Americans from Dr. Anthony Fauci’s Cornell credentials to Harvard-trained critical-race theory pioneer Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s conception of intersectionality that has seeped into popular culture—most obviously in the Academy’s controversial diversity qualifications that any film hoping to compete for Best Picture must meet in 2024 irrespective of its artistry. Such criteria appear as a direct assault on the meritocratic ideals that allegedly drive American excellence. Yet, as Fincher and Sorkin suggest in their Facebook movie, inclusive and populist actions built within the upper echelons of American class chiefly serve to expand the reach of said structure.

In his 2012 book Twilight of the Elites, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes interrogates the myth of meritocracy while exposing the rigged networks Ivy-educated elites have built for themselves that intentionally sever their ties with the American middle class. Hayes offers a call to action to unite against meritocratic discourse for a more equitable future. His Brown degree and inability to envision that future as anything more imaginative than tax increases on the rich aside, Hayes’s argument has defined the past decade to a similar degree as The Social Network. To his credit, Hayes acknowledges the elite’s embrace and admission of diverse figures such as Barack Obama into its fold, but his argument fails to extend to the nefarious ways in which the meritocratic class cultivates the illusion that their ranks are open beyond their own self-serving and narrow constructions of diversity and inclusion.

As numerous think pieces have stated since the Academy revealed the nominations for its 93rd Oscars on March 15th, this year’s slate is the most diverse in the event’s history. Two women received nominations for directing, including Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao. Asian-American Lee Isaac Chung also earned a directing nomination in a category comprised of 60% underrepresented filmmakers. Nearly half of the nominations across the Oscars’s four acting categories belong to People of Color. Likewise, five of the year’s eight Best Picture nominees either focus on characters of color or are the work of underrepresented creators. As the press meditated on the true impact of such progress, journalists and critics seemed disinterested in examining the nuance of such diversity.

Though an asterisk will forever mar 2020’s cinematic output, the year’s Oscar slate is one of the most dynamic in recent memory, featuring challenging films with distinctive visions. Yet, while seemingly diverse, these distinctive visions are resoundingly within the realm of Hayes’s meritocracy. The discussion of each of the eight Best Picture nominees featured in next week’s newsletter is not meant as a harangue or a stamp of problematic on works of artistic expression. It is meant to highlight the faults inherent to elevating art simply on the basis of quotas or an ever-changing criteria of inclusion. As Gary Oldman’s incarnation of Citizen Kane writer Herman Mankiewicz says to a conscience-stricken colleague about moviemaking in Best Picture-nominee Mank, “People sitting in the dark, willingly checking their disbelief at the door. We have a huge responsibility.” That responsibility is not only to an audience looking to the movies for its myths and meaning but also to the creators who all deserve to be judged first for their contributions to the art form.

This is the first essay in a two-part series on the Oscars. Part II can be read here.