Oscars: 5 Ways to Depolarize the Broadcast

Illustration by: Taylor Callery

A politically charged environment filled with controversy over 'American Sniper' and charges of Academy racism over the 'Selma' snubs means only one thing: A makeover must happen — fast — for the show on Feb. 22, Hollywood's biggest night to market itself to the world.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Can Oscar escape politics? Not this year.

When the 87th annual Academy Awards airs Feb. 22 on ABC, producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan will have to walk a political minefield between the right and the left, navigating potential explosions that could turn Hollywood's annual lovefest into a virtual war zone.

Two of the best picture contenders have stirred fans and foes alike. First, there's Paramount's Selma, the paean to Martin Luther King Jr. Its striking lack of nominations (it earned one for picture and another for song) drew outrage from women and the left. They blamed the Academy's overwhelmingly white and male membership for failing to recognize Ava DuVernay as director — and television's increasingly African-American viewership won't overlook it. The same audience that is turning Empire and How to Get Away With Murder into ratings bonanzas is critical of the Academy's ongoing deal with ABC.

Then there's Warner Bros.' American Sniper, Clint Eastwood's sympathetic portrait of war hero Chris Kyle. A red-state juggernaut that has grossed more than $200 million domestically, the movie has been massively successful with veterans and in cities with strong military bases. Huge swathes of that audience will tune in, expecting the movie to win — and they'll blame the left-leaning Academy if it doesn't.

These are just two of a host of challenges. There's also no black or Hispanic acting nominees, only the first time since 1997; a Polish picture (Ida) that has enraged some of its countrymen for pointing a finger at them for Holocaust atrocities; and a Russian film (Leviathan) that has earned the enmity of Vladimir Putin's allies.

Should the Academy turn a blind eye? Of course not. Instead, it should follow Rahm Emanuel's mantra, "Never let a crisis go to waste." Here's how:

1. Put the civil rights movement front and center

Hollywood went from being shockingly insensitive to civil rights (Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind) to being at the forefront of change. Show that in a montage instead of the usual anodyne clips (like last year's tribute to "everyday heroes"). Get footage of some of the movie greats who were out there campaigning for King — Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., Marlon Brando and, yes, even Charlton Heston, all of whom took part in the 1963 March on Washington. Recount how the 40th Academy Awards, originally scheduled for April 8, 1968, was postponed for two days in the wake of King's assassination.

2. Give Harry Belafonte a place of honor

And then, instead of quickly setting aside the issue of civil rights and cutting to a commercial break, invite icons such as Belafonte and his longtime comrade-in-arms Poitier to make a clarion call for change. Having been honored with the Academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at November's Governors Awards, Belafonte will be invited to the Dolby Theatre. But do more than give him a quick acknowledgment. Air a significant portion of the speech he delivered when he accepted the Hersholt, in which he chastised Hollywood for its past racial insensitivities and called on the industry to do better. "It could be civilization's game-changer," he said.

3. Retire the Old Guard

OK, we all know how great Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are. But it's time to show audiences Hollywood has a future as well as a past — and that future is biracial, international and multigender. Have some of the cutting-edge artists who are leading the way to the future — Oscar winners such as Octavia Spencer, Lupita Nyong'o and John Ridley — present some of the more prominent awards.

4. Show how war has shaken up the Hollywood establishment

Jane Fonda was at the heart of Hollywood's critique of the Vietnam War, but she has embraced conservative Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, tweeting about her high regard for the film and likening it to her own Coming Home. So bring out the former "Hanoi Jane" along with Clint to pay tribute to America's war heroes, with Kyle's widow, Taya, seated among the stars. At the same time, remind audiences that Hollywood has been at the forefront of showing what war is like, from the silent-era All Quiet on the Western Front to The Deer Hunter and the recent The Hurt Locker — all Oscar winners for best picture.

5. Remind the audience there's a real world out there

You can keep the glitz and glamour of the Academy Awards without forgetting that Hollywood has the power to change the planet. Movies all around the globe are doing that, and the Academy should pay tribute to them. Don't shove the foreign-language films aside: Show us what went into making them, with an American Idol-style lead-up to each one.

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