Prior to the 2018 Academy Awards ceremony, UMF hosted a roundtable discussion on Jordan Peele’s debut film Get Out and the discourse the film would bring to the Oscars.
Get Out was nominated for “Best Picture,” “Best Original Screenplay,” “Best Actor,” and “Best Director.” The film ended up winning the “Best Original Screenplay” category, but the main focus of controversy was for its nomination as a comedy film for “Best Picture.”
Hosted by professors Michael Johnson, Ann Kennedy, Dawn Nye, and Sarah Maline, the panel immediately jumped into the controversy surrounding the Oscars and their treatment of Get Out. The comedy nomination sparked outrage among Twitter users, though this is not uncommon. Horror has been an overlooked genre in the Academy, with other horror films being entered in the drama category in years past. Although horror films have been nominated for “Best Picture” throughout the years, Silence of the Lambs was the last horror film to win this specific category in 1991.
Although the panel was met with a small crowd, every member of the audience had something to contribute to the discussion.
“Are you young people still watching the Oscars? Are you watching closely?” Nye asked the audience. Every person offered a response along the lines of “no,” with many opting to follow along on social media, namely Twitter.
“Who decides what is the ‘best picture?’ How do they decide? If my opinion doesn’t matter, why should I watch?” one student inquired when thinking about why younger audiences do not tune in.
Get Out is not the first film to generate this kind of discourse about what constitutes the “best picture;” foreign films have also inspired similar conversations.
“People try too hard to make blockbusters,” Maline said. “They often think to themselves, ‘what will the U.S. find charming about our culture?”
All of these elements lead us to the question at the center of this controversy: what do our Oscar nominations say about the U.S. as a society?
“I think it’s interesting that Hollywood is trying to remain neutral on industry politics,” Kennedy said. “Actors and actresses are chastised for standing up and making things political, but are they really speaking?”
Kennedy referenced the #metoo movement in this regard, noting that “the men stayed silent so women could have a chance to speak. The problem is, they lose nothing by staying silent.”
Johnson showcased a clip from the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony, in which a young woman named Sacheen Littlefeather took the stage in place of Marlon Brando after winning the award for “Best Actor” in The Godfather, to decline the award and instead give a speech on the unfair treatment of Indigenous people in the entertainment industry and in the United States in general as an example, calling it “one of the first instances of politicizing.”
Bringing the presentation back to Get Out, the panel and the audience analyzed various elements of the film that also contribute to this discourse and reflect the tumultuous political air surrounding the ceremony.
“White audiences don’t understand how uncomfortable the humor is,” an audience member said.
The overall consensus of the group’s analysis was that protagonist Chris Washington was an African-American man entering a white man’s world, and that world involved a sense of invasiveness, down to the way his girlfriend Rose’s family commented on his physical appearance and artistic abilities.
“Just the fact that Chris is a photographer, the white characters sort of look at that and assume art is a physical talent and not intellectual,” Johnson said while commenting on uncomfortable (and sometimes unconscious) attitudes the film forces viewers to confront.
“When this [controversy] started, Jordan Peele took to Twitter too,” Johnson said. “He tweeted, ‘Get Out is a documentary.’”
“Film is always political, whether it ignores it or embraces it, both are political statements,” Nye said at the end of the presentation.