Anne T. Donahue on Why the Oscars Still Matter

In such troubled times, the Oscars can seem like a self-important, expensive time-waster. But when it comes to providing a boost for smaller films, starting important discussions and giving stars a platform to get political, they take home the gold

With every news cycle bringing a new round of endless screaming, rallying excitement for the Academy Awards seems almost like a waste of time. It can feel like they’re still clinging to outdated norms. This year, nominees will receive gift bags worth upwards of $232,000 while La La Land—Hollywood’s tribute to itself—is likely to pick up the Oscar for Best Picture. Not to mention that the ceremonials seem like a silly distraction from the very real issues of real life. In the wake of Trump’s inauguration, three hours dedicated to movies feels almost pointless, which makes the Oscars easy to dismiss.

But there’s a place for them amidst the madness. First of all, just receiving a nomination can raise the profile of a smaller film that features people of colour or queer people (like Moonlight), or actively addresses sexism or racism (like Loving). Moonlight may have been a big hit at TIFF and got raves from critics, but, for better or for worse, it is a nod from the Academy that will move the privileged masses to seek out these indies and engage with the issues they tackle.

Anne T. Donahue on the Oscars, and why they still matter as a platform to inspire discussion, a la Mahershala Ali

Mahershala Ali in Moonlight

The ceremony itself can also raise awareness of serious issues. Last year, the #OscarsSoWhite movement rightfully eclipsed the Oscars themselves, as the legions of white nominees served only to make the Academy seem out-of-touch, ignorant and even racist. As a result, we’ve seen diversity among nominees increase in 2017, even if there’s still a long way to go. We’ve also seen more of a backlash against nominations being given out to people like Casey Affleck. The sexual harassment allegations against him have been called out repeatedly by actors like Constance Wu, who went on to reveal she’d actually been urged not to speak on the topic anymore, and Nate Parker’s Oscar chances were dashed once details from his rape trial received enough press.

Anne T. Donahue on the Oscars, and why they still matter as a platform to speak out a la Viola Davis

Viola Davis at the SAG Awards (Photo: John Salangsang/BFA/REX/Shutterstock)

This year’s nominees have also been using their platform to call out the racism, xenophobia and elitism defining this particular chapter of American history. Upon winning the Cecil B. DeMille award at the Golden Globes in January, Meryl Streep excoriated the President’s ableism (i.e. the time he mocked a disabled reporter), while Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali used his SAG win as a way to speak up about persecution. Meanwhile, Viola Davis’ speech in the wake of her BAFTA win for Fences left the audience in tears as she spoke about her late father and black American lives.

Those words mean something. And not just because they address and impact a president who’s sadly worked much of his life to run in Hollywood circles, but because they’re the catalyst for bigger conversations worldwide. Given a platform like an awards show stage, words like Davis’ and Ali’s will find their way into the homes of millions of people—people who will, hopefully, be inspired to also speak out against injustice, or even just to educate themselves or even to re-think what they thought they already know. As depressing as it is, celebrities are the people that many folks listen to the most, so eliminating the platform would be a huge mistake.

The Oscars can provide the catalyst for much-needed conversations and subsequent change. To dismiss award shows as fluff discredits the visibility they give to films that feature unheard voices, and the work of artists who’ve used their profile at award shows to politicize themselves or raised their megaphones for important causes. We tune in to acknowledge the work being done by the people there, whether it’s on-screen or at the podium.

Watch the latest Briony’s Teeny-Tiny Talk Show for more Oscars action!

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