This Year, You Can finally Watch the Oscars Without Guilt

For me, January is notable for exactly three events: My best friend’s birthday, my grandmother’s birthday, and the Oscar nomination announcement.

I’ve watched the Oscars for about as long as I can remember. But only a few years ago did I start to care about them enough to track critics’ early-awards season prediction lists and actually try to watch as many new releases from September–on so that come January, I could have my own opinions about what movies got surprise nominations and what movies were totally snubbed.

As a casual movie-watcher with no background whatsoever in film or film criticism, keeping up with the Oscars should mean exactly what it did for me two years ago during the 87th ceremony. That year, I was blissfully unaware of the social implications that come with nominations and the heavy hand of politics hovering over our enjoyment of movies. Two years ago consisted mainly of me fist-bumping the air when J.K. Simmons won Best Supporting Actor for “Whiplash” and groaning when Jóhann Jóhannsson lost Best Original Score for “The Theory of Everything.” 

Sure, I was aware of the politics going on during that ceremony—for example, the impromptu feminist rally that broke out during Patricia Arquette’s Best Supporting Actress speech—but it wasn’t until last year that my love of the Oscars turned from a simple love of movies to a love of representation. Then, I fully realized how political Oscar nominations can be.

You don’t have to understand the inner workings of the film industry to know that there’s more to the Oscars than personal opinions. You just have to understand that for some groups of people, it’s hard to have a voice that is heard. That means that the societal and political recognition that comes with an Oscar win (or even a nomination) is more important for those people.

Though I was unaware of it at the time, the 87th Oscar nominations prompted the #OscarsSoWhite movement, which took Twitter by storm. I know that now because last year, the 88th Oscar noms brought that movement back to life, reincarnated as #OscarsStillSoWhite.

I was just as mad as everyone else about last year’s nominations. The lack of POC representation in all Actor and Actress categories was unbelievable given that 2015 produced some seriously incredible films starring POC. (Dear Will Smith in “Concussion”: I’m still very sorry.)

But this year, the Academy has pulled a complete 180. Already, with just the nominations out, underrepresented people have a louder voice than ever at the Oscars.

Of the twenty slots that exist every year in the Actor and Actress categories, this year six POC were nominated. In addition to that, movies about POC snagged four out of nine Best Picture nominations. Not only this, but “Hidden Figures,” a movie about three black women breaking the glass ceiling at NASA in the 1960s, is also up for Best Picture, telling women that a bunch of Academy geezers care enough about their fight for validation to recognize it on this lofty a platform. (That this movie represents both women and POC is the only reason I’m not enraged that “20th Century Women” was snubbed.)

Moreover, no one doubted the ability of “Moonlight” to join the race for Best Picture. It’s been an awards season favorite since its Telluride premiere back in September. The quiet, understated story of a black gay man growing up in a Miami slum resonated with enough people that it was deemed Oscar-worthy from the start, despite being the exact opposite of what the Academy usually nominates.

Last year, the pro-lesbian movie “Carol” got shut out of the Best Picture category even though it was one of the most critically acclaimed of the year. The Weinstein-backed film got nominations in both Actress categories—Cate Blanchett for lead, Rooney Mara for supporting. Perhaps the Academy really didn’t think “Carol” good enough in full to be nominated, but with its stellar reviews and two slots unfilled under the Best Picture category, that seems doubtful. A Best Picture nomination for “Carol” would have meant that some higher-ups cared enough about a movie about the struggles of being gay to consider it worthy of that capital-R Recognition. This year, “Moonlight” has proven otherwise.

Two years ago, I embraced the Oscars with wide arms because I didn’t know how important it was for non-white, non-hetero, and non-male movies to get nominated. Last year, I still embraced the Oscars (albeit ashamedly) because corrupt or not, I love celebrating movies and I wasn’t willing to give that up.

This year, I embrace the Oscars with wider arms than ever, because for once in as long as I can remember, the movies it’s celebrating actually are non-white, non-hetero, and non-male. This year, I don’t have to be ignorant of the political implications of Oscar recognition to agree or disagree with the nominations, and I don’t have to feel guilty for enjoying the ceremony.

It’s a little sad that representing POC and queer people has been such an issue for the Oscars. We’ve seen them do it before (if anyone remembers “Brokeback Mountain”), but representing underprivileged people isn’t a one and done-type deal. No ceremony should have ever warranted the #OscarsSoWhite (or its sister hashtag, #OscarsSoStraight) movement, and it’s wonderful to see such a huge adjustment this year in the demographic of the nominations.

Maybe this year, the 89th Oscars will mark a change in how awards season views movies worth recognizing. It's what I hope for, at least because change has to start somewhere. Maybe by the 100th Oscars ceremony, we’ll have progressed so far that the transgressions of 12 years ago will be little more than a memory.

Read the full list of nominations here.

Feature photo by Ahmet Yalcinkaya via Unsplash