If You Think the Oscars Have Gotten More Political, Here’s Why You’re Right

If You Think the Oscars Have Gotten More Political, Here’s Why You’re Right

February 21, 2019

Last year, when the Oscars television audience fell to an all-time low of 26.5 million viewers, some commentators said the awards had become too political. This year, it’s easy to find Twitter users declaring they’re skipping the broadcast to avoid politics, and a survey of potential viewers found that 39 percent of them may tune out for the same reason.

Sometimes, “too political” means partisan acceptance speeches. But if that means movies with a political flavor, then those fed-up fans are correct: the Oscars are particularly political this year.

I analyzed all 554 best-picture nominees over the Academy Awards’ history and concluded that this year more contenders emphasize politics than in any of the past 75 years. Granted, many of those years had fewer best-picture nominees, but even on a percentage basis, 2018 still ranks among the most political years in Oscar history.

To reach this conclusion mathematically rather than anecdotally, it is necessary to classify all 554 films as political or apolitical, and this is no easy task. Nearly every film could be construed as political in some fashion: politics affects every human endeavor, and it’s possible to interpret a film as commenting on any number of issues.

So, I set some ground rules. To be considered political for my purposes, a film had to meet at least one of five standards:

— It could show an attempt to gain political power, as in “Citizen Kane” (1941) in which the main character runs for governor of New York.

— It could portray a debate over how to govern, as with the one-man stand against Senate corruption in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939).

— It could cover political events past or present, as in the historic interviews depicted in “Frost/Nixon” (2008).

— It could explore conflict between sovereign powers, like the Cold War negotiations in “Bridge of Spies” (2015).

— Or it could very plainly be making a statement about an issue, like the overt antiwar message of “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930).

Of course, classifying films in this way can never be perfectly objective, but I did my best to handle all titles with consistency.

With those rules in place, I count six of this year’s best picture nominees as political. “BlacKkKlansman” deals with a Ku Klux Klan plot and the black power movement in the 1970s. “Vice” is a stylized recreation of the career of former Vice President Dick Cheney. “Black Panther” reimagines the classic comic book series about two cousins fighting for the throne of a fictional African superpower. “The Favourite” depicts two women competing for political clout under the thumb of Queen Anne.

While perhaps not quite as clear-cut as those four, “Green Book” shows a black pianist making a stand for civil rights by bravely touring the South in the 1960s. “Roma” takes a dark turn when a Mexico City student protest turns violent.

Among the nominees for the academy’s grand prize, only a pair of musical dramas — “A Star Is Born” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” — did not include enough of a political emphasis to classify them as such under these ground rules, though subtle political themes could certainly be teased out.

With six politically tinged nominees, this year is tied with 1944 for the second-most ever, behind the seven such nominees of 1943. Clearly, politics was on the minds of moviemakers and moviegoers alike at the height of World War II. In 1943, the winner was “Mrs. Miniver,” the story of a British woman on the home front that concludes with a pro-Allies speech so stirring that President Roosevelt had it printed and released via airplane over German-occupied areas. In 1944, the triumph belonged to “Casablanca,” the classic tale of wartime political intrigue and an American expatriate reluctant to be a hero.

On a percentage basis, 75 percent of this year’s nominees feature political themes, which sits in sixth place behind five years at 80 percent apiece. To put this in perspective, across all years only 38 percent of films were marked as political.

But that mark of 38 percent has not remained constant over time. Through the 90 years of Oscar history, the data show a modest upward trend in the percentage of best picture nominees tackling issues each year. In the first 30 years of the Oscars, 34 percent of nominees were political; in the most recent 30 years, that figure has jumped to 41 percent.

Not only do the 2018 nominees share a political theme, but two of them also go so far as to specifically put President Trump’s face onscreen. In “Vice,” his image briefly flashes by during a montage of the 1980s, though it surely was meant to convey a larger point about the tie-ins between Dick Cheney’s politics and Donald Trump’s. In “BlacKkKlansman,” the film concludes with a flash-forward to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. During that final sequence, the president delivers his infamous “many sides” comment, as Spike Lee suggests that the evil he filmed in the 1970s is still alive today.

Going through the 554 best-picture nominees, to the best of my research abilities I found only one other year in which a sitting president appears onscreen twice: 1976, when Gerald R. Ford could see himself on the silver screen a couple of times. In the opening scene of “All the President’s Men,” which dealt with The Washington Post’s Watergate investigation, Ford stands and applauds as Richard M. Nixon, still the president, enters Congress to deliver the State of the Union address. In “Network,” an ahead-of-its-time cautionary tale about the corrupting power of television, Ford can be briefly seen on a TV in the control room before the screen flickers over to the eccentric newsman Howard Beale. By the time the Oscars rolled around, in March 1977, Ford had already lost the office to Jimmy Carter, and the Philadelphia boxing classic “Rocky” beat both films for best picture.

“Rocky,” incidentally, was the only best-picture nominee that could be considered apolitical that year. In addition to “All the President’s Men” and “Network,” that crop of contenders included an alienated man contemplating a presidential assassination in “Taxi Driver,” as well as Woody Guthrie strumming a pro-union tune in “Bound for Glory.” That makes “Rocky” one of only two apolitical films to beat a field composed entirely of political films, along with the 1984 biopic “Amadeus,” the tale of rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri.

Those years are a bit outside the norm because historically, political films have a small leg up. Apolitical films have won on 15 percent of their nominations, but political films have won on 19 percent of theirs. Perhaps that’s a good sign for “BlacKkKlansman,” “Black Panther,” “Green Book,” “The Favourite,” “Roma” or “Vice.” Because the Oscars are still very political, and they show no signs of dropping the campaign.

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