All That Jazz

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is going to win Best Picture at this Sunday’s Academy Awards.  That’s not a prediction:  That’s a fact.  As Oscar wagers go, this is a slam dunk to end all slam dunks.  No ’bout-a-doubt it.  If you enter an office pool this year, go long on La La.

We know this for two reasons.  First, Chazelle’s movie is unabashedly about Hollywood’s all-time favorite subject:  itself.  And second, it’s a live-action musical propelled by an original soundtrack—something Hollywood seldom even thinks of doing, let alone executes with passion, charm and finesse.  As with 2011’s The Artist—a black-and-white silent film bubbling with cheeky nostalgia about the glory days of the old studio system—La La Land is a once-in-a-decade novelty whose very existence is such a miracle of ingenuity that the Academy couldn’t ignore it even if it wanted to—and why on Earth would it want to?

That said, La La Land was not the best picture of 2016.  Nor, for that matter, is it the most deserving among the nine nominees in that category.  To be sure, this will hardly make a difference:  By my estimation, the Academy gets it right about once every five years, and since it did exactly that 12 months ago, we can expect quite a long wait until it happens again.

And I’m totally fine with that.  After 15 years of taking movies seriously—and obsessing over the Academy Awards in the process—I’ve come to realize that the Academy’s opinions needn’t align perfectly with mine every year.  Just as I learned to live with (and vote for) a presidential candidate with whom I agreed “only” 90 percent of the time, I don’t need my tastes in cinema validated by 6,000 anonymous industry professionals in order to achieve inner peace.

In truth, I’ve flirted with this I-don’t-care-what-the-Academy-thinks attitude for a while now.  Indeed, if I had any sense, I would’ve thrown in the towel a decade ago when the Academy chose Crash over Brokeback Mountain—a decision that looks even dumber in retrospect than it did at the time.

My problem is that I’m a natural elitist who believes the Oscars should mean something and should reflect some sort of objective truth about what constitutes cinematic greatness.  That such a thing doesn’t actually exist has never prevented me from wishing otherwise—just as the inherent worthlessness of paper money has never prevented anyone from using it to buy a Volvo.  The value of golden statues is like God:  It exists because we say it does.

As far as I’m concerned, the true purpose of the Academy Awards is simply to highlight a handful of terrific films that most American moviegoers probably wouldn’t have discovered on their own.  If cinema itself is a window into the lives of others—a “machine that generates empathy,” as Roger Ebert put it—the Oscars are the most visible means of pointing people in the right direction.

The best movie of 2016 was Moonlight, an intensely personal project that, by dint of its miniscule budget and largely unknown cast, could easily have opened in 20 theatres for one weekend and then disappeared forever.  If its eight (!) Oscar nominations lead another million people to seek it out—in addition to the $21 million in revenue it has generated thus far—I will consider the Academy to have done its job with gusto.  Same for the Best Actress nomination for Isabelle Huppert in Elle, a demented tour de force that most Americans wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole but now might give a fair shot.  And ditto, especially, for the trio of masterpieces in the Best Documentary field—Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America—all three of which deserve the widest audience possible and whose inclusion in Sunday’s telecast is entirely to the benefit of both Hollywood and society as a whole.

Of course, the Academy can’t get everything right, and this year was no exception.  As ever, the list of unjust omissions is longer and more enticing than the list of worthy nominees, and if your only interest is to bitch about Hollywood’s perennial wrongheadedness, you have plenty of material to work with.

What I would prefer, however, is not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and to accept that a gang that gives eight nominations to Moonlight is not entirely irredeemable.

For context, allow me to present the year 2002, which I consider the genesis of my life as a semi-serious film buff (and the first time I watched the Oscars).  For whatever reason, 2002 was an extraordinary year for cinema, producing such visionary, enduring works as Minority Report, Spirited Away, 25th Hour, Adaptation., and City of God.

Of those five modern classics, how many were nominated for Best Picture?  You guessed it:  Zero.  The Academy was offered an embarrassment of riches and it chose to embarrass itself.  Provided a golden opportunity to embrace any number of challenging, thoughtful, innovative films, Oscar voters decided to turn their backs and play it safe.

And what sort of movie did they ultimately choose for Best Picture?  A musical!  Specifically, an adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, directed by Rob Marshall and starring a group of A-list actors with minimal experience in musical theatre.  Why did Chicago win?  Presumably through a Hollywood consensus that appreciated the novelty of a movie musical—then, as now, an exceedingly rare event—and was understandably dazzled by the catchy songs and hypnotic choreography.

As they say:  The more things remain the same, the more they remain the same.  Given the choice, the Academy will err toward fluff when something much more daring is called for.  The good news is that, outside of the movie industry itself, the recipients of these eight-pound gold trophies ultimately do not matter in the grand scheme of cinema.

The Oscars come and go, but the movies are forever.

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Bearing Witness to the Truth

James Baldwin was among the most essential American writers of the 20th century.  Now, thanks to a new film about his life and work, called, I Am Not Your Negro, we can be assured that his influence will extend well into the 21st.

It may have been mere coincidence that this movie, directed by Raoul Peck, opened in Boston on the first weekend of Black History Month, but that doesn’t make the timing any less perfect.  After all, it was Baldwin—paraphrasing his hero Richard Wright—who observed, “The history of America is the history of the Negro in America.  And it’s not a pretty picture.”  If you don’t understand that very basic truth about our country, you don’t know anything at all.

The good news is that—for several obvious reasons—you couldn’t have picked a riper moment to get yourself up to speed on the subject of racism in the United States.  To that end—and just as a jumping-off point—you could do a lot worse than to track down every word that James Baldwin ever wrote.

Though the man himself has been dead for nearly three decades, the force of Baldwin’s ideas has never been more robust or germane to our ongoing National Conversation About Race.  While there are many great writers today who’ve devoted their lives to the struggle against white supremacy in our society, they are essentially carrying on an argument that originated with Baldwin and his contemporaries in the 1950s and 1960s—an argument that was, itself, adapted from the generations of black intellectuals who came before.  If the specific battles have evolved from one era to the next, the overall war has remained the same, with the forces of oppression on one side and the forces of emancipation on the other.  As we know, the good guys do not always win.

Among the leading luminaries of his time—the majority of whom he knew personally—Baldwin served as a sort of philosophical and temperamental way station between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X—an unhappy medium bridging the Civil Rights Movement’s righteous anger to its “better angels” restraint.  Like Malcolm, Baldwin was prepared to excoriate the entirety of white America for its crimes against black humanity, while, like Martin, he was also willing to give (some) white people the benefit of the doubt.  Not unlike our most recent ex-president, he could acknowledge that evil springs from ignorance as much as from malevolence, insisting all the while that even accidental racism can ultimately poison a society to death.

As a polemicist—most famously in The Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son—Baldwin’s great strength was to follow the truth wherever it led him, and to do so without compromise or fear.  Fiercely confident in his convictions—all of which were borne from hard-won personal experience—he never hesitated to tell people what they needed to know, rather than what they wanted to hear.  He had little patience for making his readers complacent—including fellow African-Americans—opting to challenge their assumptions at every opportunity, never sure that the fight for racial equality would—or could—end happily for either side.

The secret to his success—the reason so many readers discover him and can’t let him go—is the unparalleled beauty of his words—the way he bleeds poetry from a mountain of pain and despair.  It’s one thing to possess a probing mind and a fiery heart—both of which he had in spades—but to pour it all out in evocative, lyrical prose—so deep, yet seemingly so effortless—is the mark of not just a great thinker, but a great artist, as well.

Indeed, when he wasn’t churning out furious copy on the breadth and depth of racial injustice, Baldwin was penning first-rate novels like Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, which tell passionate, sexy, tragic stories of social outcasts and were, for their time, extraordinarily frank about such taboos as homosexuality and mixed-race relationships.  Here, as in his essays, Baldwin felt liberated to portray the world as it really was, unburdened by cultural mores that supposedly made such honesty impossible.

And it’s not like this moral courage didn’t have a real cost.  As shown in I Am Not Your Negro, by the mid-1960s Baldwin became a major target of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.  All told, the Bureau’s file on Baldwin ran 1,884 pages and chronicled everything from his political activities to his sexuality—both of which were complicated, to say the least—and seemed to view him as a national threat almost on par with Communism and the Black Panthers.

In retrospect, there may be no higher honor for a writer than to earn a spot on J. Edgar Hoover’s enemies list—particularly when Baldwin himself always claimed to be an observer of the Civil Rights Movement, not an active participant.  That the FBI could be so terrified of a man whose only weapon was a typewriter should give real hope to those who doubt the elemental power of the pen.  That Baldwin’s homosexuality caused his own allies to view him with suspicion is a tragic irony that underlines why the fight for equality tends to be so goddamned messy and disappointing.

However controversial he proved in his own time—indeed, because of it—James Baldwin has long since earned a place of immortality among the brave black men and women who risked life and limb to secure a measure of dignity and autonomy in a society determined to give them neither.  To the extent that millions of Americans are unaware of Baldwin’s immense contemporary importance to the ongoing struggle against white supremacy, I Am Not Your Negro provides a superb introduction to both the man and the worldview he espoused.  If Peck’s movie leads more people to explore the primary sources—and, through them, to achieve a greater understanding of the meaning of a life inside a black body—it will count as an unqualified triumph of documentary cinema.  No Oscar required.