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Nomadland takes the hat-trick

From digital streaming to diversity, Christopher Silvester rounds up the longest ever awards season

The longest ever awards season has culminated in an almost entirely predictable line-up of Oscar winners. After the self-flagellation of all three award-giving bodies – the Foreign Press association in America, which hands out the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and the Academy – over insufficient diversity in the 2020 awards season, they have negotiated this year’s choices with commendable sensitivity. Gone are the days when we cringed at the scripted semi-barbs of comedians and late night TV chat show hosts. Instead we had a black woman director Regina King opening the Oscars by saying that if the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial had gone the other way she would have traded in her heels for her marching boots.

Gone are the days when we cringed at the scripted semi-barbs of comedians and late night TV chat show hosts

The Aaron Sorkin movie The Trial of the Chicago 7 – he both wrote and directed it – was in with a chance for Best Picture at the Oscars, but it seemed like a very conventional, although well-structured and classy, television movie, which is essentially what it was, being released on Netflix. The story has been told before, both on television and film, and it struck me as a safe but boring choice. Sorkin won for Best Screenplay at the Golden Globes, but by the time the Oscars came around sentiment had turned towards Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman, an obvious bid for approval from #MeToo campaigners.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, another Netflix offering, remained a prisoner of its origins as a stage play by the acclaimed black playwright August Wilson, despite the best efforts of screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson and director George C. Wolfe, who is nonetheless best known for his work on Broadway. With all the principal roles played by black actors and actresses, it must have seemed a slam-dunk for a producer Denzel Washington seeking to take advantage of the Academy’s drive for diversity, but I found it a hard watch. Santiago-Hudson did his best to substitute action and gesture for dialogue, but it still seemed overly talky, and while Viola Davis created a solid, though by no means extraordinary, star turn out of limited material in the role of openly bisexual blues singer Ma Rainey, Chadwick Boseman’s Oscar-nominated Best Actor performance as trumpeter Levee seemed overwrought. That wasn’t his fault, rather it’s a problem with the play; and I had no quarrel with his nomination. He was nominated posthumously and picked up the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama as much in crowning recognition of his promising but curtailed career as for the performance itself. The climax of the play comes when Levee kills a fellow musician who has accidentally scuffed his newly purchased shoes, a perceived micro-aggression that unleashes Levee’s psychic scar of having witnessed, as a child, his mother’s rape and his father’s murder at the hands of a white man. Yet Santiago-Hudson has added a coda about the white man (as a generic) cheating the black man out of his musical heritage.

I so much wanted to like this film, and yet it left me cold

And what of Mank, David Fincher’s homage to Citizen Kane co-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz? Yes, it’s another Netflix movie, but I was lucky enough to squeeze in a cinema screening at the Barbican in that brief intermission between lockdowns. To me this film was the most disappointing of 2021’s crop of nominees. As a historian of Hollywood with some knowledge of the events it depicts, I so much wanted to like this film, and yet it left me cold. It re-litigates the dispute over the true authorship of Citizen Kane (a dispute provoked by New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael in 1971) by positing the idea that “Mank” is seeking revenge for William Randolph Hearst’s collusion with MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer in frustrating the campaign by socialist novelist Upton Sinclair to become Governor of California in 1934. Despite all its nerdy allusions to cinema lighting, sound recording, and pre-digital cinema projection of the period, what it lacked was snappy dialogue and that sense of seething, coiled machination which Mank’s brother Joseph L. Mankiewicz brought to the film All About Eve (1950), which he both adapted for the screen and directed. Gary Oldman, while nominated as Best Actor, mumbles his way through Mank with precious little dramatic agency. Fincher’s film did not come away empty-handed, but had to rest content with the Oscar for Cinematography and the BAFTA for Production Design.

The Oscars shadowed the BAFTAs almost exactly this year, but with the added twist that Nomadland won Best Film and Promising Young Woman won Outstanding British Film. Otherwise, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Adapted Screenplay went to the same winners in both the BAFTAs and the Oscars. Sir Anthony Hopkins edged out Boseman for the Best Actor BAFTA and the Oscar – a rare outing by a pale and male nominee – for his performance as a dementia sufferer; while Daniel Kaluuya as Best Supporting Actor for Judas and the Black Messiah (even though most would regard it as a leading role) and Chloé Zhao for Nomadland both pulled off the hat-trick.

Nomadland, about the displaced victims of an American dream riven by the 2008 global economic crisis, was a worthy hat-trick winner at the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, and the Oscars, as was its director. The BBC and the Guardian described Chloé Zhao as “a woman of colour” rather than as the first Asian woman to win the Award for Best Director – a classic category error. I’m not sure Ms. Zhao would feel entirely comfortable being so described, but such is the new orthodoxy to which we must all – for now, at least – make obeisance. But then the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese media, normally happy to talk up all things Chinese, would gladly see Zhao cancelled as Chinese for comments she made in a 2013 interview in which she said the land of her birth was a place “where there are lies everywhere”. If you haven’t seen it, you should watch her earlier film The Rider on DVD or on a streaming platform as well as going to see Nomadland in the cinema this summer.

Nomadland, about the displaced victims of an American dream riven by the 2008 global economic crisis, was a worthy hat-trick winner

Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round was widely tipped to win the Oscar for Best International Feature Film. After all, it had already picked up the Golden Globe and the BAFTA in the same category. It is a slightly cynical jeu d’esprit with an unashamedly feelgood ending – has dad dancing ever seemed so cool as when Mads Mikelsen spins and turns to the Danish club anthem “What a Life”? But it is a little too pleased with itself and I doubt if it will seem memorable in the years to come when compared, say, to the Bosnian drama about the massacre at Srebrenica, Quo Vadis, Aida?

Did anyone ever doubt the Disney PIXAR’s animated movie Soul would scoop the BAFTA and the Oscar? Jamie Foxx, who voices the main character of black jazz musician Joe, has said in interviews that his daughter was pleased he had been cast in a PIXAR movie because it meant he had finally made it. Co-written by Pete Docter, Kemp Powers and Mike Jones, Soul is Pixar’s first black-led animated feature, but more than that it is a film about “passing”, which usually means a mixed race person passing for white, but is here reversed, because Joe accidentally dies when he is on the verge of fulfilling his goal as a jazz musician, and another soul from the Great Beyond called 22, voiced by middle-aged white actress Tina Fey, is incarnated in Joe’s body and returns to earth. The film’s audience hears Fey’s voice, but the characters in Joe’s life hear Joe’s voice. To say that the film sidesteps a few conceptual problems is an understatement. Of course, if you tell a story about a human soul assuming a different body, why would you assume that said soul has a racial characteristic? But a PIXAR animated movie not only has to have voices but it has to have famous actor or famous actress voices, and these cannot therefore be raceless.

There is a further complication in that the word soul has obvious racial as well as ontological connotations, since, like jazz, it denotes a strand in black American culture. Some black critics, therefore, have scorned Soul for having the white-voiced “white-saviour” 22 give true fulfillment to the life of black Joe. As Robert Daniels put it in his review for polygon.com: “By valuing Joe’s body, experiences, and tastes more than they value Joe himself, they chart this existential animated odyssey into familiar waters – the ones where Black bodies and Black dreams come second to the white good.” So Soul appeases the diversity gods on the superficial level of recognising black talent, but on a deeper level it is nonetheless charged with Uncle Tom-ism.

So until 2022’s diversity season, I wish you a merry year of white-shaming and man-slaying.

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