Thursday, July 18, 2024

Representation Amongst This Awards Season’s Contenders

As a white male, it may not be my place to weigh in on whether “Killers of the Flower Moon” is harmful in having white men, even one such as Martin Scorsese, tell the story of the 1920s Oklahoma Osage murders mainly from the perspective of white men. Such criticisms mean more from people like the film’s own Osage language consultant Christopher Cote or from Native actress and writer Devery Jacobs – whose FX comedy “Reservation Dogs” had Lily Gladstone herself as a guest star. But however one stands on the issue of who should get to tell another culture’s stories, struggles, and tragedies, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is not the only Oscar contender to face such questions this awards season – or it won’t be soon enough.

Every Oscar season, we talk or argue about movies that actually have minorities telling their own stories – like “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Parasite” – movies about minorities that are actually from the perspective of white men and made by and for white men – like “Green Book” – or both at once. This season, “Killers of the Flower Moon” has set the early bar on those debates in garnering praise for shedding light on the Osage massacres and heated criticism for exploring them largely through the eyes of their killers – even as the actual moments centered around Gladstone’s Native survivor Mollie are cited as the real highlight of the movie.

Despite Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth changing a first draft that would have centered even less around the Osage, despite their work with Native voices and consultants like Cote, and despite a finale that all but confesses the movie’s storytelling is part of the problem, it hasn’t made certain criticisms go away. At the least, it hasn’t done so in the way that hiring an actual Osage or Native screenwriter, if not a director, to craft this story from a majority Osage/Native perspective would have done – whether or not it still could have landed Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro or a $200 million budget in doing so.

As muted as those criticisms might be now, compared to the louder rave reviews, box office, and expectations of a neck-and-neck Best Picture showdown with “Oppenheimer,” it’s an issue that “Killers of the Flower Moon” will have to contend with the rest of the season. However, it won’t be the only massive contender to face questions on whether its important story was told by the most fitting people.

Next to “Oppenheimer” and “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the biggest Best Picture contender is set to be “Poor Things.” Since winning the Venice Golden Lion, it has stormed ahead as not only the wildest, most sexual, and most visually colorful frontrunner of the year but also as a movie; its biggest champions are already calling it a feminist masterpiece. In remixing the Frankenstein legend through the eyes of a woman who’s brought back to life and forges her own identity and independence, “Poor Things” has stolen a bit of “Barbie’s” thunder as the year’s biggest statement about feminism and defying the patriarchy.

Nonetheless, while “Barbie” made such statements to summer audiences who paid $1.4 billion to hear them, “Poor Things” has mainly been seen by rapturous film festival audiences so far. When it reaches general audiences in December, the unanimous rave reviews may well not be so unanimous before too long. And inevitably, one complaint sure to be made against the film’s feminist arguments is that no woman actually created them.

Poor Things” is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, written by Tony McNamara, and adapted from a book written by Alasdair Gray – none of which are women. In fact, having star Emma Stone produce the film is the closest it gets to putting a woman in charge of crafting the movie. Between that and a wide variety of sex scenes, certain critics will inevitably argue at some point that “Poor Things” is more of a “male gaze” like take on feminism, if not a hypocritical one. And while it is more graphic and less restrained to commercial obligations than “Barbie” was, at least “Barbie” was actually directed, conceived, and co-written by a woman.

If one argues that “Killers of the Flower Moon” doesn’t truly represent or speak for the Osage because no Natives got to make it, how then can “Poor Things” be a truly impactful statement about women and female liberty if no women got to write or make it? Then again, “Poor Things” actually does have a woman as its undisputed main character, whereas no one can even agree if “Killers of the Flower Moon” should submit Gladstone as a lead or supporting actress. Still, while the white male creative team behind “Poor Things” does do more to decentralize its white male characters, some will still argue a story like this shouldn’t have an all-white male creative team to begin with – or they will the deeper it goes into the season.

Lanthimos and McNamara already made a female-driven movie before with “The Favourite,” and McNamara himself helmed three TV seasons showing Elle Fanning as “The Great” on Hulu. Maybe that will earn them some leeway on this issue, though how much remains to be seen. If even Scorsese isn’t immune to it, despite his far more lengthy and legendary resume, maybe no one is for better or worse. However, while some can or will argue that “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “Poor Things” have the wrong people telling their important stories, there is one movie that could be a very direct and fiery rebuttal to that trend – at least in theory.

In theory, “American Fiction” is the exact antidote to something like “Killers of the Flower Moon” and countless other white-tailored stories about suffering minorities. Not only does it have an African-American writer and director in Cord Jefferson, but it also has Jeffrey Wright as a fed-up African-American novelist who tells the most stereotypical, offensive story about the African-American struggle he can think of – and becomes a literary sensation for it. And in a case perhaps of life imitating art, “American Fiction” has already won the coveted TIFF People’s Choice award, with a chance to be a late surging Best Picture player after its wide release in December.

In a season where “Killers of the Flower Moon” already showed the dangers of stories about minorities being made mainly for white audiences, “American Fiction” may become the timeliest film possible in satirizing that exact issue in a movie that actually stars and is made by minorities. In that context, there might be no louder statement than to have something like “American Fiction” become a real factor this season. However, even that could have some asterisks and controversy attached to it.

Like “Poor Things,” “American Fiction” has only been screened for eager film festival audiences this fall. Therefore, word about it might get more divisive once a more diverse collection of audiences sees it, and perhaps there’s no way that it wouldn’t be. While film festival audiences and Oscar pundits have loved “American Fiction” so far, it can easily be argued that they’re the exact same white-dominated audiences the movie is mocking – so then why exactly are they laughing?

Is “American Fiction” really an unsparing attack on the kind of mentality that makes stereotypical, white-tailored movies about minorities possible, or is it just part of the problem by becoming another movie tailored to those same audiences – whether they are really in on the joke or not? Is this something really made for black and minority audiences truly tired of these same old movies, or is it really just another movie made to pander to a whiter crowd – like a watered-down version of Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled”? And since it’s been so highly embraced by those crowds so far, is that a promising or ominous sign of how different crowds and voting bodies will judge it later?

Even with “American Fiction” being made by someone like Jefferson and starring someone like Wright, it too will face tough questions about whether it is a true step forward or backward on these issues. “Killers of the Flower Moon” faced those harder questions after audiences outside of film festivals saw it, “Poor Things” will probably face them as well once it goes wide in early December, and then it will be “American Fiction’s” turn to face the fire in late December.

Yet while we debate and argue about how far these films go, how they don’t go far enough, and whether they would if someone else made them instead, other contenders don’t have to face those questions. In fact, if “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Poor Things,” and “American Fiction” aren’t careful in how they hold up to these debates and potential backlash, it could make things a whole lot easier for “Oppenheimer” to sweep them all – despite how it is far less diverse in every way than all of them.

The biggest question about diversity that “Oppenheimer has faced is whether it should have shown any dead or dying Japanese citizens from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Aside from that and the usual complaints about Christopher Nolan’s writing for female characters, “Oppenheimer” has not faced the kind of extra scrutiny “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “American Fiction” and “Poor Things” have, at least in regards to its far whiter and more male P.O.V. and cast.

For all the potholes and nitpicks that “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “American Fiction,” and “Poor Things” have or will fall in, they still make a far greater effort to be about more than just white men and white male problems than “Oppenheimer” does. Yet if those efforts don’t hold up among wider audiences and critics over the next few months, “Oppenheimer” will ironically get more of a pass by comparison and glide to a Best Picture sweep much easier.

Either that or maybe it’ll make it easier for “The Color Purple” to swoop in and steal the thunder from everyone. A movie from a black director, with an all-minority cast, in a movie about an African-American woman’s liberation from oppression, may just well be the film to sweep through competition like this after all – assuming it keeps its Christmas day release date. In fact, it would be extra ironic after Steven Spielberg’s version of “The Color Purple” was an early poster child for movies made by white men about minority struggles.

No one can say Hollywood hasn’t come further on these issues than where it was in 1985. But in 2023, more challenging questions can and should be expected about them – not just about letting minorities be more visible in front of the camera, but behind the camera or the typewriter at the same time.

Killers of the Flower Moon” has already won praise for doing the former while facing far harsher criticism for not even trying to do the latter. Perhaps by comparison, films like “Poor Things” and “American Fiction” won’t get taken to task as harshly, even by whatever harsher critics come for them soon. Nonetheless, wider audiences are sure to give them their own critiques about who got to craft these specific stories, for what purpose, and for what specific audiences.

Whether “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Poor Things,” or “American Fiction” ultimately holds up better to these critiques, the answer may well determine some far bigger races on Oscar night.

How do you think “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Poor Things,” “American Fiction” and “The Color Purple” will perform at this year’s Academy Awards? Do you sense any backlash on the horizon for any films that have yet to come out? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account and check out their latest Oscar predictions here.

You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @Robertdoc1984

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