Cinema and politics collide: Trump shakes up Oscar races

It looked as if Oscar race was all over, until Donald Trump walked into the White House. Now La La Land has a fight on its hands.

In less than a month, when the 89th Academy Awards take place, it's safe to assume U.S. President Donald Trump will be the target of many acceptance speeches.

With a potential viewing audience in the hundreds of millions, the Oscars are the ultimate megaphone. From Marlon Brando deferring his award to Sacheen Littlefeather, to Jane Fonda and Michael Moore, some of the most memorable and uncomfortable moments have come when cinema and politics collide.  

While the president can dismiss the comments as the whining of "overrated" actors, the roughly 6,000 voting members of the academy have another way to express themselves: their ballots.

And here is where things get interesting. Up until last week the Technicolor movie musical La La Land appeared to be the one to beat. The film about following your passion performed well at the Golden Globes and earned an impressive 14 Oscar nominations, tying record holders Titanic and All About Eve.

From The Artist to Birdman and Argo, Academy voters have shown a soft spot for films that celebrate the creative process. Part of what makes La La Land so enticing is how it pokes fun at the business while functioning as a cheeky love letter to Hollywood's past.

But once Trump moved into the White House and began signing a series of executive orders, the pop culture landscape began to shift. First there was the star-studded Women's March in Washington.

Then over the weekend Trump imposed a travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries. As protesters rushed to airports, actors took the opportunity to express themselves at Sunday's Screen Actor Guild Awards.  

Accepting the award for outstanding cast, Hidden Figures actor Taraji P. Henson described her film as a "story about what happens when we put our differences aside and we come together as a human race."

In a powerful acceptance speech Moonlight's best supporting actor winner Mahershala Ali identified himself as a Muslim, saying, "What I've learned from working on Moonlight is we see what happens when you persecute people."

La La Land's weak spot has always been lack of diversity and the criticism that the film whitewashes the jazz scene.

Yes, John Legend makes an appearance as a nouveau jazz-pop star, but it's Ryan Gosling, from London Ont., who lectures Emma Stone on the virtues of the art form. (The irony is that director Damien Chazelle already made a movie about a black jazz player falling out of love: 2009's Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.)

With fears of discrimination on the rise, Moonlight offers academy voters a film that celebrates empathy, not song and dance. Plus, Barry Jenkins stands a chance of making history as the first black director to win an Oscar. 

At the moment it seems the momentum is behind Hidden Figures.

Moonlight is lyrical, but it is also a raw and uncompromising look at the life of a young gay black man. I imagine there are a lot of copies of Moonlight sitting around the bookshelves of academy voters still waiting to be watched.

Conversely, not only has Hidden Figures been a box office smash, but it's a feel-good film that presents a story about segregation that leaves you smiling. 

Even in the lead acting category Gosling and Casey Affleck's competition just got a little more complicated with Denzel Washington's surprising SAG win for Fences.

It's worth considering the SAG actor category has predicted the Oscar winner for 10 years running. Plus, with controversy around Casey Affleck and a series of sexual harassment cases bubbling in the background, voters may prefer to welcome Washington back to the winner's podium.

From the Italian perspective of the refugee crisis found in Fire at Sea,  to director Ava Duvernay's incarceration documentary 13th, the Academy Awards has ample opportunity for voters to show their support.

Academy members concerned about the travel ban have two films about Syria to choose from in the documentary short category. In the foreign language category Iran's director Asghar Farhadi has already announced he refuses to attend due to the ban. 

When it comes to the best picture prize, the support for diverse and timely tales could split, leaving La La Land the winner.

Indeed, in these strange days, academy members may find the need to escape all the more intoxicating. But just like life under Trump, nothing is certain.

Article Cinema and politics collide: Trump shakes up Oscar races compiled by www.cbc.ca

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