Graham: Oscar race is bigger than the films themselves

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

At the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the enchanting movie musical “La La Land” was the belle of the ball. It played to packed screenings and stole moviegoers’ hearts, and walked away with the festival’s biggest prize, the audience award for best feature film.

“Hidden Figures” came into the fest with a much lower profile. The film about the contributions of African-American women to the space program in the 1960s wasn’t finished, yet it had a special presentation at the fest, where a handful of scenes were screened for the first time anywhere. Star Taraji P. Henson welled up at the footage, exclaiming “I’m so glad I did this!” as she wiped tears from her eyes, and soon she and her castmates were outdoors at a street concert where Pharrell Williams performed songs from the film’s soundtrack.

No one knew the fate of “Hidden Figures” at the time, although “La La Land” was already fast-tracking toward Oscar victory. Now the two films are going head-to-head in the Best Picture race, and with a week to go, it’s more of a race than anybody could have predicted.

“La La Land” is the favorite, just as it has been for the entirety of awards season, having been recognized by the Producers Guild, Directors Guild, Broadcast Film Critics, BAFTA, the Golden Globes and your next door neighbor’s aunt’s Facebook roundup of the year’s must-see films. It racked up a total of 14 Oscar nominations, tying the all-time record with “Titanic” and “All About Eve,” and needs 12 wins to become the most decorated film in Academy Awards history. (It can win 13 awards maximum; two of its nominations are in the same category.)

But the backlash against the film, spurred by gripes over its lack of diversity and its treatment of jazz music, is cresting just as final ballots are being cast (voting opened up Feb. 13 and closes Tuesday).

Meanwhile, “Hidden Figures” keeps picking up steam. It won the ensemble award at the recent Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Guild’s biggest prize, and it’s winning with audiences: It has grossed more than $132 million at the North American box office, surpassing “La La Land,” which has earned $126 million and counting.

“La La Land’s” whiteness, for lack of a better word, was always going to be its handicap, especially coming off a year where diversity at the Oscars was such a talking point. Its chief competition was supposed to be “Moonlight,” although that film’s buzz dulled as it struggled to connect with crowds, and has earned just $20 million to date. (The other Best Picture nominees — “Arrival,” “Fences,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Hell or High Water,” “Lion” and “Manchester by the Sea” — are considered also-rans).

Furthermore, in today’s heated political environment, where race is at the forefront of the national conversation, what would it say about us if a relatively happy-go-lucky musical — OK, it turns bittersweet at the end — about two attractive white people won Best Picture?

“Hidden Figures,” meanwhile, is an audience-pleaser about overlooked, racially oppressed working class people who helped put American men in space. It’s nostalgic, it’s enlightening, it’s empowering, and in one scene Kevin Costner literally takes a crowbar to racism. Although it takes place in the ’60s, it speaks to many of today’s pressing issues.

Meanwhile, it’s a rare film that celebrates smarts and stars African-American women.

“I’m a girl from the hood,” Henson said at the Toronto screening. “I didn’t grow up with much, all I had were dreams. If I could have known about these women growing up, maybe I would have aspired to be a rocket scientist.”

Best Picture upsets aren’t entirely uncommon. “Spotlight” edged out “The Revenant” last year, in what could be seen as a victory for print journalism at a time when the industry continues to slash jobs. Ten years earlier, “Crash” was a surprise winner over “Brokeback Mountain”; many derided the ensemble drama about racism in Los Angeles as a hackwork, but it was seen as more palatable to older viewers than a love story between two cowboys. “Shakespeare in Love’s” win over “Saving Private Ryan” at the 1999 ceremony was seen as a tribute to the persuasive power of Harvey Weinstein more than a reflection of the film’s merit.

But at this point in the Oscar race, it becomes bigger than the films themselves. It’s about politics, what the films represent and what they say about us as a people.

And after Adele beat Beyoncé at the Grammys, the nation’s winner’s circle is looking awfully white these days. A “Hidden Figures” win won’t take a crowbar to racism, but it would be equally symbolic.

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Academy Awards

8:30 p.m. Feb. 26

ABC (Channel 7)