Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1335, (9 - 15 March 2017)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1335, (9 - 15 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Hollywood or bust: Politics and the Oscars

When politics enters a field where it ought not to be, the result is almost always negative. A case in point was this year’s Oscars

One of the most glamorous nights of the year for nearly nine decades, with the last three decades being televised live all across the world, the awards of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences are among the most celebrated nights all across the world. It is the annual night when people from all across the globe watch how American and other international actors, industry specialists and professionals receive the golden trophy of excellence in cinema. The show has helped to solidify the American image for decades as the land of dreams and glamour in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Despite the fact that the reality is not as glamorous as the show displays, the beauty, style and glamour of the actors and actresses attending the show left billions across the world envious of the American way of living and wishing to realise the dream to be there one day among those beautiful elites. Many non-Americans did accomplish that dream in the cinema field and managed to stand on that podium receiving their own Oscars and citing how they used to watch the show as kids, hoping one day they would be one of those glamorous people themselves. All of these experiences through the years made the Oscars meaningful not just to people in the United States but all across the world and even in different professions other than movie producing or the arts.

A MESSAGE TO THE WORLD: Mahershala Ali’s win doesn’t simply reward a magnificent and underrated actor who has been part of the Hollywood scene for years, but also sends several clear messages. Being the first Muslim to win this award as an actor, he is also an African-American who acted in a movie discussing social attitudes towards homosexuality. That choice was perfect for the academy to satisfy all the criteria needed to send a message to the US president and the world. That message is that Hollywood and the United States will remain an open place for all. A message that was recurring throughout the night of the Oscars ceremony.

Awarding the Iranian director Ashghar Farhadi his second Oscar for his movie The Salesman, knowing he will be absent in protest of Donald Trump’s ban on citizens from his country, was another message.

Today, many Americans are losing focus on what made them a great and popular nation all across the globe during the 20th century, especially in post-World War II. It is not American military strength. Rivals such as Russia have much larger stocks of devastating nuclear weapons. It is not US cars; better cars are made in Germany and the United Kingdom. It is not American clothes, because there are more fashionable clothes from France and Italy. And certainly it is not their electronics, despite great contributions in the field, as there are better electronic gadgets made in Japan and South Korea.

Along with the above respectable industries, the Americans’ real strength lies in their great cultural output, which comprises arts such as cinema, television shows, great music of all genres, news media, comics, books, painting, sculpture, magazines, Broadway theatre and other cultural outputs that the United States helped popularise all across the globe. Hardly any healthy human being living on the planet has not encountered one if not dozens of the countless products of American culture in his/her lifetime.

All these cultural outputs combined are the true strength of the United States compared to the rest of the world. Of course, the world has other great cultural outputs that contend with the United States, whether that is Egyptian, British, German, French, Italian, Greek, Russian, Chinese or Japanese. But American culture dominated the world throughout the 20th century and can do so well through the 21st century, though signs of decline can be traced now.

The fame of US President Donald Trump stemmed from his being host of a TV programme which catapulted him to the public eye, along with his lucrative multi-billion-dollar business. Ironically, that very president seems unaware of the power of American culture and treats whoever opposes him with the same aggressive behaviour he utilised during his famous TV show.

One of Trump’s latest feuds was with the world’s most accomplished actress, the legendary Meryl Streep. Streep, who criticised Trump’s behaviour making fun of a special-needs journalist, Serge Kovaleski, received a barrage of verbal attacks from the president who labelled her as “overrated”.

These kinds of antics and verbal confrontations are exactly what President Trump needs to cease, especially with high calibre celebrities such as Streep. While most of the world may not remember who the US president was in 1980, they do remember Streep receiving her first Supporting Actress Academy Award for the classic movie Kramer vs Kramer. Along her record-breaking 20 Oscar nominations and three academy wins come another 163 miscellaneous prestigious awards and over 336 nominations of all types, making her arguably the most accomplished actress that ever lived.

Accordingly, when Trump describes her as “overrated” he is either unaware of what the term means or he is simply in denial. That kind of behaviour from the president does not belittle the likes of Streep but rather him. The term “overrated” become one of ridicule, and the Oscars’ host used it as a reason to give Streep a standing ovation. It was a sign of respect to her great career and defiance towards the new US president. Presidents should have bigger fish to fry than stooping to verbal feuds that harm presidential prestige.

THE POLITICAL OSCARS: The Oscars should cease the trend of being merited on political reasons or balances among races, ethnicities or points of view. While most of the awards were based on cinematic merit, the vibe of sending political messages still dominated the speeches. A modicum of politics in the arts could enrich the art form. However, turning art and cinema into tools of propaganda to serve certain ideologies downgrades the entire experience.

The quota system that is being implemented by the academy in recent years — such as awarding a trophy for movies featuring homosexuality, another for ethnic minorities and a third for women rights — is dulling the experience and lowering the value of the Oscars. A form of art must be appraised according to its real value, regardless of the ethnicity, race and religion of its maker. A quota system for providing black actors, homosexual ones or activists among them a special quota is ruining everything. That is not to say that Mahershala Ali didn’t deserve an Oscar. Nevertheless, the essence remains that there should be no quota and awards should be strictly based on merit alone.

Last year, outcry from African American artists such as Jada Smith and Oprah Winfrey on how racist the Oscars is becoming seemed to affect the minds of the Oscar committee and placed them under pressure of nominating and awarding Black actors this year, which is what happened. But the awards for Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis were entirely warranted.

CONCLUSION: The fact that the 2017 Oscars ceremony was the least watched in nine years is maybe indicative of a trend, despite the hard efforts of show organisers. Or it could be indicative that TV series are overshadowing the cinema as the preferred means entertainment of the third millennium era.

Also, it could be indicative of a growing rift and profound divisions in American society. Many of conservatives or Trump supporters may have boycotted watching the show. All in all, the 2017 Academy Awards seemed like a political battlefield. As a result, years from now, many may ponder upon some of the award choices and treat them with less respect.

Once politics enters a domain that it is not meant for, such as religion, sports or the arts, the outcome is usually negative. The Oscars don’t seem an exception to that rule. The Oscars needs to tone down the politics and heighten the artistic and glamorous values of the motion picture industry. Keep the Oscars about Hollywood, or you will eventually break the show.


The writer is a political analyst, writer and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and Winding Road for Democracy.

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