Oscar's Political Dilemma: How Left Is Too Left?

Illustration by: Taylor Callery

Any awards release with political overtones faces a conundrum: To win the Academy Award, it must court Hollywood liberals, which can mean alienating the ticket-buying public at large.

A day after Universal's Neil Armstrong biopic First Man opened to a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival on Aug. 29, a political rocket came blasting out of the conservative netherworld to knock it from its orbit. That's when news spread that the movie had omitted a real-life scene: Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon.

Right-wing outrage was immediate and helped ding the picture at the box office, where it failed to draw a crucial male demographic and earned a muted $44 million domestically.

What's intriguing in this isn't just how politics suddenly and explosively intersected with an awards-season release, it's how the studio failed to punch back. Universal execs could have argued that the film is a celebration of an American hero; they could even have offered to screen the movie at the White House (a risky strategy, admittedly, if the president didn't end up liking it). They did neither, partly because the filmmakers refused to compromise their principles, and partly because they knew that placating conservatives would backfire at the Oscars.

In the molten firmament of today's politics, any major release faces this dilemma: If it wants to win over the public, it must tread lightly with politics; if it wants to win the Oscar, it must bind to the issues of the day.

Think politics don't impact the race? Think again. In several tight best picture contests, the more overtly liberal contender won. Hence the press-glorifying Spotlight beat epic Western The Revenant in 2016 and the same-sex relationship drama Moonlight beat a more old-fashioned love story, La La Land, in 2017.

That reflects a decades-long shift in the Academy that's grown more marked since 1979, when two Vietnam War-themed films went mano a mano: the seemingly jingoistic The Deer Hunter and the anti-war Coming Home. Deer Hunter won best picture.

This year, several liberal-minded pictures will jostle for an edge, and that means they'll have to underline their politics without alienating ticket buyers. What this means is there are effectively two campaigns going on simultaneously: one for theater audiences, another for the 9,000 Academy members. Marketers have to capture both.

Take Netflix's Roma. The Spanish-language drama, based on a true story about a maid in 1970 Mexico City, throws down a gauntlet at President Trump's anti-Mexican rhetoric. Emphasize the movie's relevance and it will get a boost with the Academy; do so too overtly, and that might squelch its larger appeal.

The same is true of Universal's Green Book, which opened Nov. 16. The feel-good drama — about a white chauffeur and a black musician touring the segregationist South — once would have been an Oscar shoo-in with its message of racial tolerance (a message that helped 1989's Driving Miss Daisy win best picture), but linking the film to the current rise in racist violence and rhetoric might turn off theatergoers.

Two recent releases will have to navigate a particularly treacherous course: BlacKkKlansman, about an African-American cop staging an undercover operation in the Ku Klux Klan; and Black Panther, whose very title reminds liberals of the 1960s political group. Both will be helped by having already completed their theatrical runs, allowing strategists to shift course with impunity.

While a liberal message clearly gives a movie an edge, how much of an edge is unclear. Sexism and racism both came to the fore in the midterm elections and are addressed by the current Oscar crop; but the past two decades show no correlation between the Oscar winner and the most pressing issue of the time.

Two years into a conservative presidency, and less than two weeks after the midterms, the political air is as charged as ever, but tapping into that electricity risks leaving some pictures with a nasty burn. 

This story first appeared in the Nov. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.