On Feb. 26, the brightest stars in Hollywood will flock to the Dolby Theater for the Oscars. They’ll be covered in couture worth more than what most Americans earn in a month (or year—or lifetime, depending on the size of the diamonds), to reward themselves for another 365 days of work well done. The Academy Awards, as always, will be a lavish, self-congratulatory ode to vanity, an over-the-top affair so inaccessible for most viewers it might as well be on the moon. For that very reason, the Oscars are typically a blast. They’re a fascinating glimpse into “la la land” for the crowd of regular folk who care enough to go see movies like La La Land. But in this unpresidented year, an unprecedented question arises: is a standard Academy Awards ceremony appropriate, or does keeping with tradition deny Hollywood an opportunity to put its humanitarian money where its mouth is?
This past Tues., Jan. 31, Vox.com’s Todd VanDerWerff called on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to cancel the Oscars in response to President Trump’s immigration policy. As a result of Trump’s executive order, Iranian nominee Asghar Farhadi (a previous winner for 2011’s A Separation) and the Syrian subjects of the nominated documentary short The White Helmets have been barred from entering the United States and cannot attend the ceremony. To underline Hollywood’s connection to this political issue, VanDerWerff compares today’s refugees to some from the past, namely the European Jews who decades ago helped build the film industry as we know it. VanDerWerff admits that the Oscars will undoubtedly recognize Trump’s action in some way, but to him, the effect of political jokes and thoughtful acceptance speeches hardly compares to the sort of forceful statement calling off the ceremony would make.
In its 89 years of existence, the Academy Awards has never been canceled. Through every war, president, and political climate, the show has gone on. Still, would calling off the event even make for an effective protest? It would, as VanDerWerff suggests, serve as an enormous demonstration of solidarity with those affected and of opposition to Trump’s policy, but what power, if any, this statement would have remains unclear. A politically-motivated cancellation of the Oscars could surely cause a media firestorm, but any such hype doesn’t guarantee a lasting impact. More than that, those who already think of Hollywood as an out-of-touch body of “liberal elites” would have plenty of opportunity to sell this move as a temper tantrum. And to the average American, the cost of cancelling the Oscars—financially, as well as sentimentally—may not register as a sacrifice at all. Such an excessive ceremony hasn’t ever been necessary.
On the other hand, calling off the Oscars would cost powerful voices the opportunity to publicly express their contempt for Trump’s immigration policy. To a greater extent than the recent Golden Globes and the SAG Awards, the Academy Awards receives a massive, attentive audience from around the world. (Last year’s ceremony was watched by about 34 million people in the U.S. alone, over three million more than the number that tuned in for Trump’s inauguration.) Words of dissent between the dispensing of awards can still be potent. Look to last year’s ceremony for evidence, where Leonardo DiCaprio dedicated his acceptance speech to the issue of climate change. According to San Diego State University scientist John Ayers, DiCaprio’s call to action resulted in “the largest increase in public engagement with climate change ever.” And if the goal is truly to increase public engagement, a YouTube clip from the Oscars is probably more likely to make an impact than a Tweet announcing the ceremony’s cancellation.
Although only tangentially related to the controversy of Trump’s immigration ban, the politics unique to the film industry must also be considered in evaluating the importance of this year’s Oscars. After two years of criticism for filling fields exclusively with white nominees, the Academy has nominated people of color in nearly every major category. This stands as evidence of progress for both the Academy, in its effort to expand its membership, and the entertainment industry, in producing more films that reflect the diversity of the American people. More than in recent memory, the pool of nominated films signifies the start of progress in cinematic representation. While this progress cannot directly combat regressive federal policies, the importance of celebrating these advancements shouldn’t be underestimated. The movies themselves—in an ideal sense, windows into the lives of those different from ourselves—give us the strongest argument in favor of forging on with the Oscars this year, and for trying to enjoy them.
As it stands, are the Oscars a perfect fit for February 2017? Almost definitely not. The extravagance and gaiety of the event appear mismatched with the current political moment. (Not to mention how the Academy’s apparent determination to fête La La Land, a movie about Hollywood and a poor example of its progress in representation, doesn’t exactly exemplify the industry’s new outlook.) But through the glamor, the excess, and the artifice, there are plenty of opportunities for the Oscars to make a statement against Trump and his immigration ban, without calling the whole thing off.