There’s nothing in the Academy Awards’ “About” section suggesting that a film is more likely to win an Oscar if it addresses important humanitarian issues: Best Picture nominee Lion’s social impact campaign this year likely won’t be boosting its chances at the Dolby Theatre, just as 2013 Best Foreign Language Film nominee No’s online free speech advocacy platform was merely the culmination of a meticulously well-plotted awards campaign, not a prerequisite for winning a golden statuette (it didn’t).
Still, this year, studios have especially good reason to celebrate and advertise their achievements in grappling with contemporary issues onscreen. Just one year after #OscarsSoWhite began circulating to protest another all-white acting nominee pool, seven of this years’ 20 acting nominees are people of color. And several of this year’s films celebrate and spend time in the shoes of outsiders facing bigotry at home and abroad—Fire at Sea, OJ: Made in America, 13th, Hidden Figures, Moonlight, Fences.
Hollywood, of course, hasn’t let us forget it. Several notable acceptance speeches at the Golden Globe Awards, the SAG Awards, and the Writers Guild Awards have all lampooned or attacked the new administration’s rhetoric and foreign policy. But while the Oscars are always an insufferable, self-congratulatory ceremony, in 2017 it’s hard not to sip the Kool-Aid when Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali talks about outsiders and Atlanta’s Tracee Ellis Ross dedicates her Golden Globe to people of color whose stories, she said, are “worthy,” and admit a sizable number of their nominated titles matter this year.
Some of these titles have already gotten a great deal of press attention and box-office yields, Hidden Figures and Zootopia among them. But what about the movies that haven’t gotten quite as much attention, but are nevertheless pushing the needle on representation in media or shining a spotlight on inequity? This year, we’re highlighting the slightly more obscure titles with our list of Oscar nominees that matter. As per Oscar-prediction experts, only some of these titles have shots at the grand prize. But, hey, if they don’t win, at least they’ve already landed the major achievement of earning Pacific Standard’s praise.
Films starring autistic characters don’t often get any kind of mainstream attention—just 38 films throughout history feature characters with autistic characteristics, according to the The Iris Center at Vanderbilt University. So it was an unexpected delight when Sony Pictures gave Life, Animated, a documentary about an autistic boy who learned to communicate by memorizing lines from Disney movies, a limited release last fall, and when the Academy nominated it for Best Documentary this winter. When the film’s subject, Owen Suskind, walks the red carpet on Sunday, he’ll be a rare person with autism to get the opportunity.
Life, Animated could definitely use the Dolby Theatre/ABC streaming double boost. While the film’s been featured in screenings arranged by autism advocacy organizations internationally—University College London’s Centre for Research in Autism Education and the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and Central Texas have all showed it to viewers—and received a glowing review from autism advocate Temple Grandin, it still hasn’t yet surpassed $300,000 at the box office. The movie shows life with autism can be “difficult in ways that you hadn’t anticipated, and it can beautiful in ways that you hadn’t anticipated,” as Suzanne Potts, executive director of the Autism Society of Central Texas, told us in October.
‘The White Helmets’ and ‘Watani: My Homeland’
When entertainment journalists write their Oscar round-ups on Sunday night, they likely won’t be including the Best Documentary Short category in their ledes or nut grafs. But no matter: Two nominees in the obscure category have already made headlines in recent weeks. After Donald Trump issued his executive order on travel in late January (and just days after the 2017 Oscar nominees were announced), The White Helmets and Watani’s creators were featured in stories about how the ban would affect the arts; in these cases, their Syrian subjects would likely not be able to bring their films’ subjects to the ceremony, creators said. The films made the news again when Syrian Civil Defense leader Raed Saleh and Watani subject Hala Kamil issued statements saying they would be able to attend after a federal judge stayed Trump’s executive order in February.
The shorts are notable for the headlines they inspired, but also for their unique snapshots of conflict in Syria. Netflix’s short The White Helmets follows a few weeks in the life of the Syrian Civil Defense, a group of civilians that ventures into bombed areas to save survivors in the rubble. Meanwhile, RYOT Films’ Watani: My Homeland depicts one of the migrations such conflict has necessitated—one Aleppo-based family’s journey to Germany after the children’s father is kidnapped by ISIS, where the matriarch of the family is unhappy but her children thrive. Both find uplifting stories within a dangerous and violent crisis—and elicit empathy both for the Syrian people who choose to both leave and stay.
‘20th Century Women’
On its face, Best Original Screenplay nominee 20th Century Women tells an apolitical, personal story story: It’s about a single mother enlisting two young women to help her raise her son in Santa Barbara, California, in the 1970s. But when the movie screened for critics in the fall, several called it a salve to the 2016 presidential election’s misogynist rhetoric—in the film, three women must square their generation-specific approaches to feminism in order to raise a boy at a time when the mother fears there are no male “role models” left. Though their approaches clash at times, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) welcomes his education in menstruation, female orgasms, and feminism, topics that his circumstance as a white, cisgendered, heterosexual man have allowed him to avoid until his mother makes it part of his curriculum.
In the hands of a less-capable writer, 20th Century Women might have become a sappy story with an easy resolution. Instead, Mike Mills’ screenplay shows the women dividing to reach their common goal—and suggests that those divisions may be integral to Jamie’s education. As we argued in December: “20th Century Women ultimately suggests that, if not all feminisms are created equal, their approaches can at least be equally valid in raising a child.” After an election that shattered the notion that female voters would form a coalition against Trump—and that brought the ideological differences between second-wave and intersectional feminisms into relief—that message is crucial, and a bit comforting.
‘I Am Not Your Negro’
James Baldwin died 30 years ago—but he’s as relevant as ever in 2017, as Raoul Peck demonstrates in I Am Not Your Negro, nominated for Best Documentary. Peck brings Baldwin back to life as he adapts the author’s notes for Remember This House, an unpublished memoir about the assassinations of Baldwin’s three friends Malcolm X, Medgar Evans, and Martin Luther King Jr. Weaving original recordings of Baldwin’s television appearances with footage from the Ferguson unrest and Barack Obama’s inauguration, Peck stresses that Baldwin’s message about the lack of empathy at the core of American racism still applies, decades after the official end of Jim Crow. “I have always been struck, in America, by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch,” Baldwin says in the documentary. “A young, white revolutionary remains, in general, far more romantic than a black one.”
And Peck’s movie, the highest-grossing of this year’s documentary contenders at the box office, is coinciding with a renewed period of appreciation for Baldwin’s work. Since it premiered at the New York Film Festival last October, I Am Not Your Negro has screened at think tanks, museums, and film festivals, further spreading Baldwin’s call to action. Peck’s film has inspired a fresh body of writing heralding Baldwin as an ever-influential voice on civil rights issues: The New Yorker’s Richard Brody pointed out how Baldwin analyzed “the yet unbridged gap between the legal end of segregation and the practice of white supremacy”; Salamishah Tillet of the New York Times says the film “demands that we all become witnesses who choose to either end American racism or be swallowed up whole.”
Many American students know—even memorize—the entirety of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude. But in her Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary 13th, director Ava DuVernay focuses on a small, crucial, and occasionally overlooked phrase in this famous text — “except as punishment for crime.” DuVernay argues that this short clause opened the door to decades-long, rampant discrimination and the persistence of slavery via the prison system. “We now have more African Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves back in the 1850s,” Senator Cory Booker remarks in the film.
Reviewing 13th, critics have taken note of the documentary’s diverse pool of subjects: DuVernay speaks to “Just Say No” supporter and New York representative Charles Rangel in addition to figures who have famously opposedthe prison-industrial complex, including activist Angela Davis and writer Michelle Alexander. Beyond the glowing reviews and Oscar nomination, 13th has screened at the Harvard Kennedy School, the Yale Law Library, and the Duke University School of Law. As it reaches the next generation of policymakers and lawyers, 13th is poised to instruct them on how to learn from mistakes of the past.
Journalists often lament the Hollywood trend of confining black narratives exclusively to tales of slavery; Moonlight offers a rare depiction of black queerness within the tale of a gay child dealing with bullies, meeting unlikely role models, and finding love over three acts. Writer-director Barry Jenkins’s drama is nominated in eight categories at this year’s Academy Awards and is notable for being a crossover hit among black audiences: Moonlight is an arthouse film that pulled huge non-niche crowds, as significant numbers of black moviegoers supported the film. On the whole, it boasted the highest per-screen average of the year, at $103,685 each.
But perhaps the film’s most resounding impact this year has been to tell a story that captures the minds of viewers beyond the black LGBT community (itself so rarely glimpsed on film). “I love the fact that so many diverse audiences have been able to see themselves in this film,” Jenkins told IndieWire in December. Moonlight’s awards campaign has emphasized the positive message the film can send to outsiders. “What I was so grateful about in having the opportunity to play Juan was playing a gentleman who saw a young man folding into himself as a result of the persecution of his community and taking that opportunity to uplift him and tell him he mattered,” Moonlight actor Mahershala Ali said in a widely shared SAG Awards speech that touched on his Muslim identity in January. “I hope that we do a better job of that.”