Does God Care About The Oscars?

 Jordan Peele, writer and director of  Get Out , made Oscar history last night as the first black person to win Best Original Screenplay.

Jordan Peele, writer and director of Get Out, made Oscar history last night as the first black person to win Best Original Screenplay.

 

What I’m about to say is sacrilege among film lovers.

At several points during last night’s 90th annual Oscars telecast, I had to stop myself from blurting out, “Does any of this even fucking matter?” Throughout the whole show, I found myself painfully bored, anxious, annoyed, like I couldn’t sit still, like something was deeply wrong with the whole thing.

I know, I know, if you like movies, then the Oscars is your Super Bowl, your can’t-miss event of the year. I understand. I love movies. I mean, I paid for MoviePass when it was still $30 per month. I have been known to drive for two hours from my apartment in Santa Barbara down to Los Angeles just to catch a screening of some independent limited-release flick that piqued my interest. I really, really love movies.

It’s hard to focus on fiction when the real world keeps getting in your face.

And usually, I love the Oscars, from the meme-worthy moments (who doesn’t remember Adele Dazeem?) to the winners’ speeches, be they emotional, humorous, smug or just plain incoherent. While I can criticize the Academy for plenty of reasons, that doesn’t negate the fact that watching the awards show is always a highlight of my year.

But in the build-up to this year’s show, things felt just plain weird for me. With the barrage of daily crises in the world today, from White House scandals to mass shootings to the threat of nuclear war, I just couldn’t bring myself to care about several of the nominated films. It’s hard to focus on fiction when the real world keeps getting in your face. A film doesn’t have to be of-the-moment to be great, sure, but I lean on movies like some people lean on organized religion: they provide a guiding light for me, equipping me with the ability to understand and critique the world and make wise, compassionate choices. When so much in the world seems so utterly messed up, it’s like a crisis of faith.

So I’ve been dealing with this question: should I even care about the Oscars?

 AnaYelsi Velasco-Sanchez.

AnaYelsi Velasco-Sanchez.

I’m not the only one who hasn’t followed the Oscar news as closely this year. I talked to AnaYelsi Velasco-Sanchez, the artist and activist behind Brown-Eyed Amazon, an online space focused on the intersection of art, faith and social justice, who told me, “There’s been a number of films that I just didn’t bother with this time around.”

Same with Justin Lee, a long-time LGBT Christian activist and author of Torn and Talking Across the Divide, who said, “Awards shows are just not a high priority for me in terms of my personal viewing.”

 Justin Lee

Justin Lee

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Oscars themselves are unimportant, though; just that the context around them has changed this year. And that’s something Lee is quick to acknowledge: “Because of the cultural significance of movies and particularly some of the films that we’ve seen over the last year, there is some real significance to who wins, who doesn’t, who’s represented and who’s not, because of what it says about us as a culture.”

Velasco-Sanchez brought up a different point: even if the awards weren’t important, the structure of the ceremony itself can provide us with insight on our broader cultural moment. “For me, I’m watching to see where are we with these moments,” she said. “I want to see if there’s any improvement on how representation happens. I think there’s a growing difference between, say, the Golden Globes and the Grammys in how things like Time’s Up and #MeToo are handled and whether it’s incorporated or just a complete erasure, or what aspect is focused on and highlighted. Those questions can be a really important component of how these awards show are done.”

And last night, everyone who got on stage certainly seemed more than willing to address the many problems in the film industry and the nation, from several of the awards announcers calling out the lack of female inclusion in any given category to Coco’s win for Best Animated Feature serving a rebuke to President Trump’s racism and xenophobia. While the tone overall stayed light–this is a celebration, after all–the attitude of this celebration seemed light-years ahead of, say, the 2014 Emmys, in which Modern Family actress Sofia Vergara literally stood on a platform for the audience to ogle her as Television Academy chairman Bruce Rosenblum gave a speech. Or for that matter, this year’s Grammys awards, which overall seemed to shut out female artists, capped with an egregiously sexist and dismissive statement from Grammys president Neil Portnow, stating that “women need to step up” if they want to receive recognition.

 Grammys president Neil Portnow was criticized for stating "women need to step up" in the music industry after the 2018 Grammys faced a #GrammysSoMale backlash.

Grammys president Neil Portnow was criticized for stating "women need to step up" in the music industry after the 2018 Grammys faced a #GrammysSoMale backlash.

Speaking of the Grammys, I went to music producer and documentary filmmaker Sueann Shiah with my questions. I wanted to get a sense from someone inside the entertainment industry. I suppose it’s easy for me, as an outsider, to criticize the Oscars as out-of-touch or irrelevant, but what about the people who are making music and movies and such?

 SueAnn Shiah

SueAnn Shiah

“[An award] matters because institutions still exist. I mean, if we want to live from a purely ideological abstraction, do they matter in the biggest form of things? I’d respond, does the truth matter if you can’t convince anyone it’s true?” she said. “Any artist could be like, ‘I’m a great filmmaker or musician.’ But can you [make a living] on that if you can’t convince other people of your artistry, convince them to buy it?”

Talking to Shiah, I began to recognize that there was some inherent privilege in even asking these questions about the Oscars. For artists working on the margins, awards can bring success and prestige that they may be otherwise denied, due to their gender or skin color. “I would love to win a Grammy, have an Oscar,” Shiah said. “I know my art still matters if I don’t have those, but those are benchmarks of success. And those are not arbitrary; they have significant financial and creative value. They open a lot of doors for you.”

I’m a white male, so the Oscars–and most other awards shows–basically cater to me. They were designed to honor people who look like me and to exclude people like Velasco-Sanchez and Shiah, both female artists of color.

Fortunately, that’s starting to shift, at least based on last night’s show. Jordan Peele–writer and director of Get Out–was the first black person to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and only the fifth black person nominated (all of whom are male) for Best Director. Greta Gerwig, writer and director of Lady Bird, is only the fifth woman nominated for Best Director in the Oscar’s 90-year history, and Mudbound's Rachel Morrison is the first woman ever nominated for cinematography. And let’s not forget about A Fantastic Woman, which won Best Foreign Language Film for its sensitive and inspiring story of a trans woman in Argentina (Daniela Vega, the star of that film, became the first openly transgender award presenter as well last night).

 Daniela Vega became the first openly transgender presenter at the Academy Awards during last night's telecast.

Daniela Vega became the first openly transgender presenter at the Academy Awards during last night's telecast.

And looking at these groundbreaking moves toward diversity and inclusion, I start to recognize that these awards absolutely do matter. In fact, it’s possible that they matter more now because of our global state of affairs, not in spite of them–especially for those who are finally starting to get the inclusion they’ve so long deserved.

Shiah pointed me to a New Yorker profile on Donald Glover, the rapper and television actor behind FX’s hit show Atlanta. In it, writer Tad Friend compares Atlanta, and the world it portrays, to a simulation game where it’s not “technology that’s the catalytic element, the intensifier of our predilection for self-delusion and misery—it’s racism and poverty. The alien power isn’t a watching eye but the absence of a watching eye.” In essence, people historically disempowered by oppressive systems live with little control over how their life will turn out.

This resonates with Shiah. “Most artists of color have to navigate the world in this simulation,” she said. “You’re not designed to win it, but there’s ways to crack it. So yes, you can point out the system is inherently flawed, but… you still have to live in it. And you’ll never crack it unless you try.”

For the artists of color, the female artists, the queer artists, and the disabled artists, last night showed that perhaps the simulation is finally being hacked. That’s a good thing, and it’ll lead to better films, better music, better TV, better art.


There’s plenty of stories about idolatrous gold statues in the Bible, but I’m starting to understand that the problem isn’t that these statues exist; it’s what we do with them.


If the Oscars truly do have the potential to influence the kind of art we consume–to open doors for artists on the margins and empower long-silenced voices to speak up for change–well, that begins to sound a bit theological to me. As a spiritual person, I’m concerned with our values and how we can make the world a more equal, loving, peaceful place. Can the Oscars help accomplish that? Growing up, I heard Christians dismiss Hollywood as too liberal, too sexual, the modern day Nineveh. Is it possible, though, that God (or whatever you perceive to be God), could work in this place?

In essence, does God care about the Oscars?

 Rev. Gilbert Gonzalez, Jr.

Rev. Gilbert Gonzalez, Jr.

“It breaks my heart when someone gets up there and says I want to thank God, and someone criticizes them saying, ‘Do you think God cares about this Oscar when there is starving children?’” said Rev. Gilbert Gonzales, Jr., director of Phoenix Ministry in Los Angeles. “Why can’t God be big enough to care about both? They don’t have to be in competition. Since we think God created everything, when we imitate God and we create, then we allow ourselves to be inspired by other people’s creation because it’s infectious. I absolutely think that movies that get people to dream again, to be creative and celebrate life and challenge each other… I absolutely think God cares about that.”

Lee concurred: “I think that God cares about everything that we care about, because we care about it, because God cares about us. Now I don’t imagine God putting a thumb on the scale to influence the outcome of awards shows and sporting events… but I do think God cares about things that make a difference to people, because they make a difference to us.”

If we care about the Oscars, God cares about the Oscars. That’s comforting but doesn’t quite cut it for me. I can get behind the idea that God cares about what I care about, but I want to know if God cares about the Oscars even when I don’t care. Because if that’s the case–if God always cares about the Oscars–shouldn’t I always care as well?

I started looking for an objective morality to this thing, but partway through writing this piece, I found myself stuck in a hopeless divide: I could either care about the Oscars completely or not at all. Should I be out evangelizing for the Academy, despite its flaws? Or should I be cutting it out entirely from my life, because of its flaws?

Well, as it turns out, there’s room for a little bit of both, by the grace of God.

“I think what is difficult is this unwillingness to let people reside in these liminal spaces where it’s not an either/or,” Velasco-Sanchez advised me. “Either/or meaning, ‘I’m woke and aware and for justice and thus I shoot anything that doesn’t adhere to a certain standard.’ Or ‘I’m shallow and vapid and don’t care about justice and care about awards shows.’We force people to fall into one of these two categories, and I don’t [fall in] and I think most people don’t.”

This is especially important for those on the margins, who, like Velasco-Sanchez, find respite in the awards show. “Life is hard, and caring deeply about justice is exhausting and makes life harder. As problematic as [the Oscars can be], escaping for three hours to watch an awards show—there’s something cathartic about that. I think it is dismissive and callous for anyone to suspect that another person wouldn’t take little moments of catharsis and self-care when they can… I can still call for accountability and growth in those areas without having to remove myself from those shared experiences a lot of people enjoy.”

  Mudbound  cinematographer Rachel Morrison became the first woman nominated in the cinematography category at the 90th Annual Academy Awards.

Mudbound cinematographer Rachel Morrison became the first woman nominated in the cinematography category at the 90th Annual Academy Awards.

“Christian theology around idolatry is really helpful here,” Shiah told me. “You’re not supposed to just not care about these things at all, but you also can’t turn them into idols.”

There’s plenty of stories about idolatrous gold statues in the Bible, but I’m starting to understand that the problem isn’t that these statues exist; it’s what we do with them.

“My youth pastor talked about a lot of Christians who were like, ‘I have to break up with my girlfriend because I idolize her.’ What? The answer to dealing with an idol isn’t to completely get rid of it because that’s still an idol!” said Shiah. “You have to learn how to have a relationship. When you say it means everything or it means nothing, they’re both an idol.”