Zeitgeist Pics Add Urgency to Awards Race

Film-driven issues this year include transgender acceptance and the war on drugs.

The zeitgeist is always something to keep an eye on in the run-up to the Oscars, particularly with seasoned campaigners savvy at insinuating their players into the sociopolitical conversations of the day. And indeed, when “The Danish Girl” and “Suffragette” bowed at the Venice and Telluride festivals, respectively, they opened the doors on a season rife with movies that play to current events.

Tom Hooper’s Lili Elbe biopic, starring Eddie Redmayne, comes at a time when Caitlyn Jenner is changing public perception of transgender people, and television’s “Orange Is the New Black” and “Transparent” are scooping up Emmy nominations. The march to trans acceptance has begun, and Focus Features’ Oscar contender presents an opportunity for Academy voters to shine an even brighter light on the issue.

But sometimes imposing a sense of obligation can backfire. And Focus ought to know: Ang Lee’s homosexual romance “Brokeback Mountain” seemed preordained to win best picture in the run-up to the 2006 Oscars, only to lose to another social commentary — Paul Haggis’ racial drama “Crash,” resulting in what many feel was a lost opportunity to recognize same-sex themes.

Sarah Gavron’s “Suffragette,” meanwhile, recounts the British women’s rights movement of a century ago. The drama couldn’t be more timely, given that gender equality still remains a global concern. Last year, in accepting the supporting actress Oscar for “Boyhood,” Patricia Arquette called for wage equality and equal rights for women. Now comes a film where that message is front and center, with a Global Leaders’ Meeting on gender equality scheduled for Sept. 27 at the U.N. But “Suffragette” makes its point as much behind the camera as in front of it: It is written, produced and directed by women — a combination all too uncommon in today’s industry.

Speaking of equality and acceptance, both Todd Haynes’ “Carol” and Peter Sollett’s “Freeheld” deal in homosexual themes. The latter, in particular, packs a punch given today’s headlines. Spinning out of the Oscar-winning 2007 docu short of the same name, it tells the true story of police officer Laurel Hester’s fight to transfer pension benefits to her domestic partner after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. It’s a narrative that keeps the nuance of marriage equality at the fore, with the right for homosexuals to wed finally having passed in the Supreme Court, yet Rowan County, Ky., clerk Kim Davis claiming religion allows her to deny marriage licenses to same-sex applicants.

Race relations in America, meanwhile, remain depressingly stagnant, so much so that F. Gary Gray’s early-’90s-set “Straight Outta Compton” feels as urgent as ever. Its depictions of police brutality toward black youth seem like they could have been plucked from today’s TV news reports out of Ferguson and McKinney.

Then there is the disastrous war on drugs. Fifteen years after Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” put the spotlight on America’s failed policy, filmmaker Denis Villeneuve walks in his footsteps with “Sicario.” The movie, which debuted in Cannes, focuses on systemic concerns in the U.S.’ handling of Mexican drug cartels, carving a path through the war’s dark underbelly that builds to an appropriately bleak and despairing conclusion. (It would also make an apt double feature with Matthew Heineman’s documentary “Cartel Land.”)

Before the season ends, there will be other film-driven issues that make their way to the fore, from the NFL’s perceived medical malfeasance depicted in Sony’s upcoming release “Concussion” starring Will Smith, to the effects of a West African civil war in Netflix’s “Beasts of No Nation.” As political rhetoric ramps up in anticipation of next year’s election, films that speak to the here and now could be particularly formidable for Oscar voters.

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