The Politics of the Oscars

long walkThe whole world recognized and paid tribute to South African icon Nelson Mandela when he died at age 95. Ninety-one Heads of State attended his funeral. The UN General Assembly organized a special tribute. His legacy is secure in official circles, and in the hearts of South Africans, but will there be recognition in the place that seems to matter to the media even more: Hollywood?

The Oscar nominations are due any day, and early on, it seemed, as if the epic movie about the world’s most revered icon was a sure thing for Oscar consideration. Most of the main big newspaper reviewers loved it and, and its American distributor Harvey Weinstein has specialized in influencing Academy decisions.

But of late, it lost its buzz, and is appears buried by the hype machine, almost being treated as an also ran. The entertainment media no long seems to take it seriously. All the focus is on other films and the big US  stars.

The producers of the movie, made in South Africa, albeit with a British director, Judson Chadwick, and Oscar celebrated screenwriter William Nicholson, were earlier hopeful that they had a good chance of winning at least one of the statuettes that quickly translate into a place in cinema history and more bang at the box-office.

For them, making this film was always far more than  a commercial endeavor. In my book, Madiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela, producer Anant Singh shares his passion for the subject and explains that it took 16 years and as many as 50 versions of script to put together the money and the cast. He was making it not only to honor Mandela but also tell the story of his country’s liberation. They worked as independents with no major studio behind them.

They were also very commercial in their calculations, doing what they felt they had to do to get it made and get it out, also  conscious of deferring to Hollywood formula, by focusing on the love story between Nelson and Winnie and, in effect, depoliticizing the story of a very political figure once known for saying, “The Struggle Is My Life.”

On the left, there was disappointment as the review in Britain’s Counterfire expressed this way:

“This absence of ideological perspective is probably to be expected but the concluding effect of the film is to produce a sanitized and depoliticized Mandela that does not help us comprehend his massive impact. The apolitical Mandela in the film is the one neoliberal warmongers like Blair, Bush and Obama are happy to eulogize.”

I am sure if the filmmakers had tried to please ideologues on all sides, the movie probably wouldn’t have even been made, much less released, with the small fortune in marketing monies required to be considered competitive.

That said, it did make news with lots of star-studded attention grabbing premieres and some media write-ups, especially, after Mandela died while a Royal screening was underway in England.

The movie itself got less attention that its stars and connection with a well-known leader. Some say that’s because of the movie format, as in this review by Wamuwi Mbao in South Africa,

 “The biopic genre further restricts the possible creative directions the narrative can take, and the result is a movie that tries to do a lot but ultimately does not succeed in rising above the textbook facts to give us the story of this larger-than-life man. At every point, the discerning audience member feels dissatisfied, goaded by annoying inaccuracies, and manhandled by soaring strings doing their frenetic best to convince us that this is the story as it should be told. It isn’t.”

Most of the South African reviews were positive but this reviewer found the film not South African enough, unhappy that it was made for a global audience.

Other critics were even less enamored, putting it down as too conventional. Writes reviewer John Beifuss,

“a no-show in best-of-2013 year-end critics’ polls, “Mandela” is not vivid, daring or passionate enough to exploit, for better or worse, the unexpected current-events context of its arrival. It is not an adequate tribute to South Africa’s first black president nor is it a disgrace to his memory. It is a rather conventional and pious movie biography that misses the opportunity to be more — to use art and imagination to bring insight to a life history that otherwise might be better served with a straight documentary.”

That was a comment that raised my eyebrows because I made six documentaries about Mandela, and had been documenting the making and meaning of the movie.  Dramas and documentaries can rarely be fused. Terms like “might be better served” are vague and often pretentious.

What these critics rarely do is to get specific and say what they wanted to see, or how they felt the story could have been handled differently. Perhaps that’s not their job but vague prescriptions are often a cop-out. There is often no substance in their calls for more substance.

Also, the Academy voters are hardly hostile or naive.

Mandela was a big hit when he visited Los Angeles on his national trip in 1990.  A reception drew every major black star in town including Muhammad Ali, along with many pols and liberal luminaries. He received the key to the city and a rally packed the old LA Coliseum. The Artists for a Free South Africa has been based there and kept some public attention focused on the “beloved country’s’ artists and needs.

Years ago, one of my Mandela documentaries was passed over for Oscar consideration, but the Academy, out of interest I am sure, hosted a screening in LA under their auspices. I was pleased to be there and got lots of positive comments from the audience. That was the closest I got to the Oscar people.

So, yes, there is sympathy in Tinsel Town, but, perhaps, not much more because commerce, grosses and celebrities, not newsy issues, are always topic #1 in the industry city.

Movies about the great and the good have an uphill battle in challenging Hollywood product that, this year again, seems more mesmerized by big time crime dramas like American Hustle and the Wolf of Wall Street that make con men appear cool and groovy. Their only morality is amorality.

Those movies feature better-known stars and more made in the USA storylines, aided and abetted by even bigger and more recent advertising budgets. Mandela Long Walk To Freedom didn’t have the deep pockets to compete with the blitzgrieg of new ads when the film went into “wide release” on Christmas Day. By then, it was already considered old.

The Golden Globes did give Mandela three nominations—one to Idris Elba, the male lead, and two for music—one to the Irish band U2 for the hardly political up-beat end song. Getting the band to the awards ceremony will enhance that show’s appeal, but everyone knows the Globes reflect the picks of many self-styled foreign correspondents, not died in the wool movie industry Americanos.

The NAACP image awards also honored Elba as one of their own. In Britain, their film academy nominated Mandela for the best British film of the year, even though it was primarily made by Videovision, a South African company,  although the director, screenwriter and a producer hail from England.

I had a sense that the producers preferred to work with UK professionals that would be less arrogant and controlling than Hollywood heavies.

Curiously, the nationalism and racial identity embedded in those awards represented the very values that the real Mandela rejected.

12 Years a Slave is the “black” movie expected to win, if any does. In that drama, a white man played by superstar Brad Pitt freed the slave, not a people’s revolt. Its appeal may have had more to due with the lack of attention finally paid to slavery in the land of slavery–but by now a British director–and the guilt the movie plays to, as well as its pervasive violence. Recall black activist H. Rap Brown once observing ‘violence is as American as Cherry Pie.”

Americans are more familiar with the apolitical themes of subjugation and victimization as opposed to liberation.

Mandela Long Walk to Freedom features violence too—but oppressive state violence, more than individual bad guys that you can hate.

Apartheid may be a more recent crime than slavery but the latter is part of a U.S history that some Americans—not all, for sure—are ashamed of. We know more about it than what happened in far away Africa albeit with US support. (Apartheid was modelled partially on our brutal system of relocating Indians to reservations.)

Slavery as a subject is also presented only as American, while Mandela dramatizes a freedom struggle in Africa that has not been front and center much lately in a news system that routinely treats Africa as a backward continent of wars, massacres and coups.

Mandela was one of the few African leaders even reported here and the fact that his death occasioned considerable coverage may have reinforced the idea that his story has been over exposed. Why see a movie version when the real man was on TV etc.etc?

That’s a perception that certainly cut into the film’s ticket sales.

If Mandela Long Walk To Freedom is not on the Oscar list, it will be gone from theaters quickly, probably to return on TV movie channels and video. See it while you still can. You will be glad you did!

Danny Schechter made documentaries about the making and meaning of the movie Mandela Long Walk to Freedom. He also wrote the bookMadiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela (Madibabook.com). Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org

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  • http://generaldepravity.blogspot.com/ dragline

    I respect your opinion and enjoyed reading it.

    Admittedly, I’ll add I took issue with the line: “American Hustle and the Wolf of Wall Street that make con men appear cool and groovy. Their only morality is amorality.”

    Even if these movies were in service of amorality, as opposed to letting the viewer decide, I didn’t find their crimes as offensive as a man who signed off on bombing civilians in public spaces as a war strategy.

  • VaudeVillain

    Sounds like sour grapes to me.

    For better or for worse, the Oscar people just didn’t think the movie was one of the year’s best. From the reviews quoted, it sounds like many of the critics thought that it was good, but not great. It also sounds like some of them took exception to a perceived decision to “play it safe” and take few risks with the film: a decision that you specifically state the filmmakers consciously made. Perhaps they meant precisely what they said, maybe the sanitized portrayal of Mandela really didn’t do enough. You can wish that they were more specific all you like, but you would have ended up with the same film anyway.

    As to the assertion that Mandela was “snubbed” because it didn’t have the budget or the pull… just, no. It had Harvey “Money” Weinstein on board, it was about one of the most well-known and interesting people of the last century. Is that somehow not enough? The Oscars *love* low-budget art films with heavy political themes, that is their bag: if it were really just a matter of money, star power, ticket sales or pandering to American tendencies toward bland nationalism and racism denial Iron Man 3 would be a lock.

    Maybe, all politics aside, Mandela was a good movie, but not one of the best. There’s no shame in that.

  • Tchoutoye

    Come Oscar time there seem to be a lot of people who like to reduce movies to a simplistic, one dimensional, message, and who think a film deserves to win merely because that message in itself is important for them, regardless of the film’s quality. Mandela Long Walk to Freedom just isn’t made that well compared to 12 Years a Slave.

    • Rhoid Rager

      I watched 12 years a slave last week for the first time. That was one hell of a painful movie to watch. Traumatizing actually.

  • echar

    Wolf of Wall Street appeared to me to be more about the dangers of excess, and greed.

    I completely disagree about the Canadian abolitionists role in 12 Years a Slave. I dare not go into why, as not to spoil it for others.

    I haven’t watched Mandela, so no comment.

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