By Claudia Mulholland
The 89th Academy Awards saw millions tune in to TV networks across the world to watch stars take to the red carpet, and to pay homage to the most successful films of 2016. But aside from the usual Hollywood glitz and glamour, the Oscars, held on Sunday night, were perhaps the most political in recent memory.
The hallowed awards ceremony has long acted as a stage for political activism. In 1978 Vanessa Redgrave famously used her acceptance speech as an opportunity to speak out against the Zionist aggression of the Israeli government in Palestine. More recently, in 2015, Patricia Arquette, of the film Boyhood, condemned gender pay differentials, motivating the state of California to pass equal pay legislation. But, with the recent election of Donald Trump, it is perhaps no surprise that 2017 was the year to shoot the Oscars to political superstardom.
Trump of course took centre stage. The ceremony’s host, Jimmy Kimmel, quipped seamlessly, revealing his political affiliations by delivering punchy but pertinent one-liners condemning Trump’s legislative decisions. He jokingly comforted Linus Sandgren, the Swede who won the award for best cinematography with La La Land, about “what happened in Sweden last week,” and trod close to the line as he took a tongue-in-cheek, nostalgic look back at last year’s Oscars, comparing the accusations of racism within the Academy and film industry to the immigration policies of Mr Trump.
However, in spite of his comic political tone, Kimmel’s speech was laced with severity as he appealed for all Americans to unite, Republicans and Democrats, regardless of race, creed or colour, to make America truly great again.
The Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, awarded the prize for best foreign language film for his 2016 work The Salesman, created the largest controversy of the ceremony. Boycotting the awards himself, Anousheh Ansari (the first Muslim female astronaut) and Firouz Naderi (a former director at NASA) read out a statement on his behalf. “My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of the other six nations whom have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S. Dividing the world into the ‘us’ and ‘our enemies’ categories creates fear—a deceitful justification for aggression and war.’”
Farhadi’s words had a justly sobering effect on the audience of the Dolby Theatre. But rapturous applause in support of his actions reverberated through the glittering auditorium as the community of actors, directors and film-makers became united by the idea that “film-makers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions.”
The Independent Spirit Award Ceremony of the previous night should also not be overlooked for the important political messages it played host to. Casey Affleck, who was notably lost for both words and political sermonising at the Oscars, branded Trump’s policies as “un-American” as he collected his award for Manchester by the Sea in a bold use of the phrase, so associated with the relationship between the American government and the film industry. The actor, who donned a T-Shirt proclaiming ‘love’ in Arabic, gained great support across social media as he declared himself as “lending [his] voice to the chorus” and uniting against Trump.
In previous years, recounts of political speeches at The Oscars have questioned whether the rallying cry of film stars really motivates political change. It is also true of 2017 of course. One director’s boycotting of an undeniably glamorous event will certainly not provoke legislative change in the Trump administration. But what is different about 2017 and the 89th Academy Awards is unity. In a climate of political discord, the victors, attendees and viewers of Sunday night’s ceremony became united in the face of the ideological conflict that taints the US today.
Photograph: Hamed Malekpour