Culture

Name-Place-Animal-Thing: Identity Politics at the Oscars

This week’s column reflects on the politics of the Oscars and the significance we attach to the politicised identities of entertainers and their statements.

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Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

The pieces this week present different perspectives on what can be considered political in the entertainment, commercial realm – from a piece that examines the “awkward politics” of this year’s Oscars to a profile of Viola Davis that shows how she has embraced her own politicised identity as a performer and a finally an article that seeks to provide an answer for why Casey Affleck remained unaffected by allegations of sexual harassment.

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(L-R) Best Supporting Actor Mahershala Ali, Best Actress Emma Stone, Best Supporting Actress Viola Davis, and Best Actor Casey Affleck hold their Oscars. Hollywood, California, US. Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

(L-R) Best Supporting Actor Mahershala Ali, Best Actress Emma Stone, Best Supporting Actress Viola Davis, and Best Actor Casey Affleck hold their Oscars. Hollywood, California, US. Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

Is everything political? 

“Everything is a referendum on identity in the age of Trump,” Jia Tolentino says about the Oscars. In this piece, she lays out two alternative readings of the event. One in which nothing particularly political happened – Casey Affleck and Emma Stone were polite and unremarkable in their victories, Jimmy Kimmel as the host was expectedly abrasive and took a couple innocuous hits at Trump. And the other, in which the Iranian director of the best foreign film winner skipped the ceremony in solidarity with those affected by the Muslim ban, Hidden Figures and Moonlight were celebrated and Viola Davis’s talent honoured.

While everything does feel fraught and politicised – to the point where Trump feels the need to tweet about Meryl Streep’s political comments at award shows – it’s difficult to ascertain the political value of such statements. Tolentino is right when she points out the underlying confusion about what the point or value of such awards is – especially when the academy and the Grammys have a long history of privileging white, often heteronormative narratives over all others. Given such context, if a nostalgic, escapist movie (like La La Land) wins best picture then the award means little, the victory is taken as pre-ordained, inevitable. However, if something unexpected happens, like Moonlight winning, then the academy and entire film industry’s approval and validation takes on an entirely new level of significance – suddenly the industry is living up to its claims of being progressively liberal by supporting such cinema. Either the academy is irrelevant because it always picks the same kind cinema to boost with its approval – ensuring that more narratives involving all white casts, telling societally conventional stories are flooded with money over narratives that portray people of colour or other under-represented demographics in rich ways – or the academy is absolutely path-breaking in its decision to award one such ‘underdog’ movie with its approval.

As Barry Jenkins said while accepting the award for best screenplay, “all you people out there who think there’s no mirror for you, that your life is not reflected: the Academy has your back . . . For the next four years, we will not leave you alone. We will not forget you.” To Jenkins, Moonlight‘s success at the Oscars signifies a certain kind of validation for everyone who worked on Moonlight but also opens the industry’s doors for more such unconventional narratives to be made because suddenly, the message at the Oscars is that making such films can be good for business too. However, it’s important to remember that this is an anomaly in the academy’s history and one instance isn’t enough to count as complete transformation.

Tolentino writes “…every detail of the awards show was weighted with racial, cultural, and political meaning that it couldn’t possibly sustain,” because there’s only so much that a best picture award can achieve. Professional recognition, credit where credit is due, but it cannot possibly hold the promise that Hollywood will only go onwards and upwards in it appreciation for diversity, nor can an award fix or somehow justify the history of slights the academy has accumulated. Yet, to have Moonlight win best picture over La La Land is better than the alternative – not just for the symbolic meaning that we can’t help ascribing to it but more because it shows that campaigns such as #OscarsSoWhite actually had some impact.

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Viola Davis posing with her Oscar for best supporting actress. Credit: Reuters

Viola Davis posing with her Oscar for best supporting actress. Credit: Reuters

‘I consider myself a hero’

Reading this profile of Viola Davis made me think the Academy Award-winning actor’s life will probably become the subject of an Oscar-nominated film in the future. A childhood rife with poverty, an alcoholic father who beat her mother, reckoning with racial issues at acting school, years of struggling to get meritorious roles, and now a roomy mansion, loving husband and adoring daughter.

Since Davis became the first black actor to win an Emmy in 2015 and delivered an acceptance speech that reflected her awareness of the cultural and political expectations placed upon her – “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there” – she has continued to be carry both pieces of her identity successfully. As she told David Lahr about that Emmys speech, “I didn’t think it was landing”. And continued, “I wasn’t so concerned with that, because my whole life I’ve been focussed on approval, on acceptance, on shame and all that. I’ve been focussed on it for so much. One day it lifted.”

According to Lahr, “Davis sees her gesture at the Emmys as part of the “unknown responsibility of celebrity.”

What comes so easily (seemingly) to Davis, whose Oscars acceptance speech was no less political – she spoke of wanting to “exhume” the stories of people whose potential died neglected, “the stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition.” – is consciously rejected by many others. Take Priyanka Chopra for example – who not-so-long-ago posed in a vest that rejected labels like ‘immigrant’ and ‘refugee’ but identified as a ‘traveller’.

It’s Davis’s candid acceptance of her identity and the way that she knows she is perceived by most people in the film industry that really comes through in Lahr’s profile. While she often makes dramatic statements about her opinions and life (which in itself is so refreshingly new given the staid profiles and interviews that usually populate magazines in the run-up to the awards season) Lahr exercises restraint in his writing, staying away from emphatic descriptors or an overly dramatic narrative framework to tell Davis’s story. Frankly, her life needs little such embellishment. You can’t really dramatise having to go bed with rags around your neck to avoid being bitten by rats or going to school in clothes reeking of urine because the constrictions of poverty mean even laundry becomes a luxury.

What makes the profile so very good is that it manages to encapsulate multiple aspects of Davis – her childhood, her professional life, her relationship with her husband and daughter, her sense of self. You get a glimpse into a full person. At times, Davis’s confidence took me by surprise, just because it is unusual to read such strongly self-reinforcing language coming from a woman in an industry that prizes certain coy, ‘modest’ ideals of femininity. She told Lahr, “I consider myself a hero,” she said. “I don’t have a cape, I don’t have a golden lasso. I had a call to adventure, a call to live life bigger than myself. I found the elixir.” Adding, “There is no line in my life and in my spirit, but there is a line in the culture for me as a woman and me as an African-American.”

There’s also a lighter side to the same self-awareness. Speaking of the criticism she received at Julliard, Davis told Lahr that her acting teachers spent a lot of time criticising her, “I wasn’t light enough, too much gravitas,” continuing, “For the next four years, this woman with lots of gravitas was leaping across the stage like a ninety-pound Caucasian girl.” It’s a ridiculous visual, not just because it’s hard to imagine Davis leaping but also because of her instructors’ apparent need to have Davis conform to pre-existing notions.

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Casey Affleck accepting his Oscar for best actor. Credit: Reuters

Casey Affleck accepting his Oscar for best actor. Credit: Reuters

Just a reminder

In keeping with the dichotomy that Tolentino pointed out, the focus on Viola Davis’s politicised identity is counteracted by the near-silence that accompanied the allegations of sexual harassment against best actor winner, Casey Affleck. A Daily Beast article published in November provided details from the two cases, filed against Affleck by two women who worked with him on the documentary I’m Still Here. In one such instance, Affleck offered one of the women his bedroom to sleep in after the documentary crew decided to crash at his place after a long day of filming. But the woman woke up to the then married Affleck next to her in bed, dressed only in his underwear and a t-shirt, his breath “reeking of alcohol”. In another instance, he is said to have insisted that a male crew member show one of the women his penis despite her vehement opposition to such an action.

Affleck settled both cases out of court, which makes it difficult to discuss the cases and his statements about the allegations – on the rare occasions that he has been asked about them – have been dismissive to say the least. For instance, he told Variety, “People will say whatever they want.”

As another piece argued, privilege and connections have something to do with why these allegations failed to make it beyond an asterisk in most of the media coverage that Affleck received in the run-up to the Oscars. His critically acclaimed performance in Manchester by the Sea was boosted by the presence and support of his two famous friends – elder brother Ben Affleck and Matt Damon – who campaigned alongside Affleck, adding their significant professional weight to Affleck’s already buoyant reputation. Being critical of Affleck would risk losing access not just to him but also to the other two bigger stars and that would be bad for business.

Sure, identity politics has severe limitations, especially because reading everything as political constantly runs into the problem of ascribing an inordinate amount of significance to small statements, tricking us into taking them as actual actions. But in cases such as these, that appear baffling in the first go, acknowledging the power a person has accrued based on institutional structures of race, class, social connections, can at least help us to understand why certain situations play out the way they do. That in itself does not constitute a solution or a ‘step’ towards progress though.

Want to suggest a piece that should be included in this column? Write to me at nehmat@thewire.in
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