How Oscar’s Best Picture nominees rub viewers’ noses in America’s dark past

How Oscar’s Best Picture nominees rub viewers’ noses in America’s dark past

Last year, in the buildup to the 2012 Oscars, Tasha Robinson wrote this piece about how all nine Best Picture nominees attempted to soothe the jangled nerves of a rattled nation and a distraught world. We’d just come through a pretty terrible decade, but things had evened out a bit. All of us were finally going to be fine. And while there’s a little of that in some of this year’s Best Picture nominees, the majority of them—particularly the ones made in the U.S. by American directors—seem unusually focused on a new idea: Even if the future might be okay, this nice country we’ve got here is literally and metaphorically built on an old Indian burial ground that will rise up and swallow us whole if we don’t come to terms with it. The sins of the past don’t just inform the present, they create the present. And it doesn’t matter whether those sins are buried in our distant past or our relatively recent past. It’s all the same when it comes time for the accounting.

Sure, Life Of Pi is a beautifully made, very odd allegory about God and stuff. Yes, Silver Linings Playbook is an occasionally jubilant romantic comedy with some occasionally interesting things to say about the American mental-health-care system. And Les Misérables and Amour are about French people. But while discussing the other five nominees—Argo, Beasts Of The Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty—as well as a host of other American films from last year—with my film-blogger friend Alex Bean, I realized they’re all intensely, deeply focused on the wrongs the United States has perpetrated over the years. What’s more, most of them aim to fundamentally rub the audience’s nose in the evils perpetrated by a nation that loves Joseph Campbell hero myths so much, it fancies itself the star of one.

These five films look at America’s sins through varying degrees of remove. Beasts is only tangentially a story about the government’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina. Similarly, it’s a story about how little the country is doing to prepare for the ravaging effects of climate change—a reminder of the sins future generations may hold against the present. Argo sets up a scenario that seems like it will be a serious discussion of America’s role in creating the turmoil in the Middle East, then mostly sells it away to be as entertaining as possible. And while Lincoln definitely aims to bring the great man on so much of our currency down to Earth, it mostly goes along with the idea that he was, ultimately, a great man.

All these examples still fit the disquieting theme behind this year’s nominees. But the comparison really becomes striking in two films that inspired intensely divided reactions, particularly among the left-leaning sorts who call Hollywood home: Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained. In both films, America’s barbaric treatment of an easily scapegoated “other”—detained Arabs in the former, American slaves in the latter—becomes the filter through which everything else has to be processed. Setting aside the political controversies that have sprung up around both films—the idea that Zero Dark condones the use of torture in the hunt of Osama bin Laden, or that Quentin Tarantino used racial slurs irresponsibly in Django, among other debates, in both cases—it’s clear that neither film wants viewers to feel particularly triumphant when walking out of the theater. Sure, it’s easy for viewers to transpose their own feelings about bin Laden’s death on top of the final scene of Zero Dark, and Django ends with an action-movie climax. Yet the final frames of both films indicate nothing is settled, because these issues can’t be settled. Both films promise rousing climaxes—exclamation points—and choose instead to end on commas. (The following necessarily contains general spoilers.)

Zero Dark Thirty, in particular, has become the center of a firestorm of controversy. It’s easy to see why when watching it, as the film refuses to say one way or the other whether the graphically depicted torture scenes are meant to be seen as somehow heroic. The characters ultimately obtain information from detainees that leads to bin Laden, and that’s disconcerting, particularly when considering that the filmmakers seem to have gotten this particular fact wrong. But the ultimate point of these torture sequences seems to brutally depict a program most American media outlets chose to gloss over as it was going on, that most Americans aren’t well acquainted with. At the same time, it depicts almost a “torture culture,” a world that a relatively inexperienced operative like the film’s central character, Maya, is tossed into, at first to her disgust, and eventually to the point where she buys into the idea that it’s the best way to get answers. When Barack Obama is elected and says the U.S. will not torture anymore, he’s barely a footnote to Maya and her colleagues, who’ve been too far gone for a long time. By the end of the film, Maya has guided the military to bin Laden, but she’s a shell of who she was. The hunt has long since used her up and wrung her out.

Django Unchained, meanwhile, is a supremely fascinating film for just how suddenly and readily it removes the audience from the safe confines of a Quentin Tarantino film—where we think we know what to expect—and deposits it in a brutal depiction of the evils of slavery. Unlike with torture, there isn’t a lingering debate in the American political discourse about whether slavery should be reinstituted. But there’s also often an attempt to brush slavery under the rug, to make it a thing that happened for a while, then went away because Abraham Lincoln signed some papers. Django doesn’t offer the audience that safety from brutality. Though the film seems as if it will be another Tarantino attempt to use cinema to right history’s wrongs (and sort of is, for its first hour), by the time the film gets to the Candyland plantation, it’s dropped straight into a world where white people force black men to beat each other to death, then have their dogs tear apart black men who dared to run away. While Django is able to ride up on his horse as a free man, every other black person he meets is property, and the slave traders and owners aren’t shy about demonstrating that.

Tarantino is known for his cinematic hyper-violence, his attempts to call back to the exploitation films and genre pictures he loved when he was overdosing on film before becoming a screenwriter and director. And there’s plenty of that in Django. But Tarantino makes the deliberate choice to depict the horrors of slavery as realistically as possible, while also leaving just enough of them to the audience’s imaginations to make them even more horrifying. This is no longer some far-distant thing in our country’s past that can safely be ignored; this is a terrifying reality, a cornerstone the nation was built upon that can no longer be ignored. At the end of the film, Django blows up a plantation, but there’s little hope in this moment. It’s just one plantation in a system that supports thousands, that keeps millions suppressed and beaten. The system cannot be so easily defeated, even by a super-cool dude with a gun. Like the torture culture in Zero Dark Thirty, it becomes pernicious.

The question of both films is at once directly blunt and highly nuanced: “This was done in your name. How do you feel about that?” Now, granted, for people 150 years removed from the abolishment of slavery, it’s much easier to say it’s an evil that never should have existed in this country than it is to say there should be a full accounting for the U.S.’ torture program of the last decade. (I agree with the latter position, but it would be remarkably hard to carry out, given current political realities and the unlikelihood of the executive branch opening itself up to such a review.) But neither film offers easy triumph, even as they feature climaxes that seem like they should be triumphant. The raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound could have been yet another expensive government boondoggle—and in the film, it almost is—and it still leaves children wailing and women who posed no threat shot through the head. (The most telling moment here is when a SEAL accidentally pushes his boot through a downed helicopter. The American military-industrial complex looks impressive, but it’s as hollow as anything else in this movie.) Django gets to perform some fun tricks on his horse, and he gets to have his day, but he’s still going to be a wanted man—and wanted even more because he’s a black man trying to reverse a tide of evil.

It also isn’t hard to look out past both films and see the ways the worlds they depict continue to reflect in our world today. Tarantino’s stated objective in making Django was to offer a spaghetti-Western hero who might be as cool to a black kid as other Western heroes have been to white kids since time immemorial, and the whole idea that such a thing would be necessary already speaks to the institutionalized racism that’s ruled too much of the country since the Civil War’s end. It’s even easier to look around and see the lingering effects of the massive hunt for one man, all of the wars and death spread in the name of catching him and putting an end to his organization. The ends may ultimately be acceptable—it’s nice to live in a world where al-Qaeda is far less powerful, and I’m sure people in the 1850s liked having a cheap agricultural system—but the means are rarely justified. “This was all done for you. Some of this is still being done for you.” Both films intentionally provoke when other films might soothe, and they intentionally poke their thumbs into things that make both liberals and conservatives antsy, which might explain why they’re Oscar-nominated, but won’t get anywhere near the Best Picture prize.

The other three films dealing with the darkness buried in America’s past are less intentionally provocative, which may be why two of them stand a good chance at taking home the big prize. Yet they’re still interested in looking back at what was, at the world America built in its own flawed image. Lincoln, one of those two with a good shot at Best Picture, has earned plaudits for being not just another biopic, for digging into Abraham Lincoln as a man who used underhanded tactics and what we might decry as dirty politics to get the amendment banning slavery passed before negotiating an end to the Civil War. He lies, cheats, and pushes his way past Congress, and though he does it all in a folksy manner, with compromises here and there, he’s hell-bent on getting what he wants. Again, there’s a question (though a much smaller one) of ends and means, of whether Lincoln should have used all of these tactics, or gotten into bed with some of the people he did. (Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner obviously intend the answer to be, “Yes, he should have.”)

Beasts is slightly less pointed in this regard—it’s only dealing with Katrina’s aftermath obliquely, and mostly because of its setting in a flooded Louisiana community. It also has its eye turned toward future catastrophe. Yet it still offers up pointed moments when it questions the government’s effectuality in dealing with these sorts of traumas, and suggests the only way its characters can possibly get through life is to rely on each other. This is a world of people who’ve already been abandoned once by those who were meant to protect them, and they aren’t going to risk being abandoned again. Some liberal commentators have read it as a fetishization of poverty, or a celebration of anti-government values, but it seems more likely to me to be the ultimate post-Katrina parable, a story about people who’ve been fooled once and dare the government to fool them twice.

Argo is the film most likely to win Best Picture this year, likely because it deals with these issues without really digging into any of them, making it the perfect piece of pabulum to let the Hollywood community pat itself on the back for acknowledging “important issues” while still voting for something that holds viewers’ hands every step of the way. (Please understand: I like Argo and find it highly entertaining. It just isn’t a terribly deep film.) This film’s grappling with American history comes at the start, when it examines the various ways the United States contributed to the rise of the Iranian theocracy, in storyboard form. It’s meant to draw a neat parallel between that story and a later scene where characters invite Iranian guards to imagine themselves into the fake movie being used to cover an American rescue mission (a scene seemingly designed to flatter Hollywood and trick a million would-be moviemakers into farting around about the “magic of the movies”). But it also writes a check the movie can’t cash and doesn’t want to cash, because it’s more interested in a conventional thriller narrative. No matter: The illusion of depth is usually enough for the Academy.

It’s rarely all that useful to try to discern where Hollywood trends might come from. But the nomination of these five films, no matter how in-depth they are about the dirtier pockets of American history, as well as a number of other recent films that deal with similar issues—including everything from The Master to Cloud Atlas—suggest Hollywood is at least interested in looking back over the past and realizing that things haven’t always been okay. These films may hope to soothe us and convey that the future may be better, or they may hope to provoke us into looking at the foundations our country was built upon, but they all invite us to consider just what evils went into building a land we’re lucky to live in. We’re all haunted, every day, and some of the ghosts aren’t even dead.