Difficult Chapter, Tough Choices for Oscar Voters

Many of the year’s buzzy films are from talent with a checkered past. Can their work speak for itself?

Difficult Chapter, Tough Choices for Oscar
Courtesy of Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Another film awards season dawns. But before the early festivals in Venice, Telluride, and Toronto could even define the day, storm clouds had already gathered.

The controversy surrounding Fox Searchlight’s Sundance acquisition “The Birth of a Nation” — with director and star Nate Parker falling under heavy scrutiny in the wake of resurfaced rape allegations from a 1999 incident at Penn State University — has been a consistent point of discussion and deliberation for weeks. Everyone who covers this beat was immediately asked how the allegations might affect the film’s awards hopes. It’s a query at which one can only cringe.

A woman is dead. Who cares about a Hollywood bauble in the face of that?

But Oscar optics are noteworthy. Many outside the business view the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a monolith that makes singular decisions, not as a body whose nominations result from the views of a wide-ranging collective. That stamp of approval is significant, and it might leave voters who would otherwise have complex feelings about a complex situation with a relatively simple choice: Should the Academy be associated with this film?

In my travels on the circuit, I have not found much of that kind self-questioning just yet. “Are we saying there’s no redemption in life? I don’t believe that,” one voter told me. “When you’re voting, your job is to look at the work,” another said. Separating the art from the artist has been part of the Hollywood fabric since the last “Birth of a Nation” more than a century ago, when D.W. Griffith invented the very language of visual storytelling while painting a vile and racist portrait of antebellum America.

But this is dicey territory for the entertainment media to be traipsing through. It’s not really our job to put Parker on trial, and if somehow it is, then where is the line for watermarking court documents and relitigating in the movie press? Casey Affleck, Woody Allen, Michael Fassbender, Mel Gibson, Mark Wahlberg — they all have films that figure in the awards conversation this season, and they all have had dark chapters in their lives, previously publicized, that could keep the media furnace raging if similarly dissected.

Come what may, Parker’s “Birth of a Nation” is finally set for release on Oct. 7, and its awards hopes may fizzle if audiences reject it or boycotts become the story. In the meantime, Fox Searchlight has acquired two more films at the Toronto Film Festival, “Jackie” and “A United Kingdom,” the first time the studio has gone shopping there since the 2011 acquisition of Steve McQueen’s “Shame.” “Jackie” was immediately set for a December release date, relieving the distributor of its Parker headache by presenting it something else to work with this season.

And it could be a season eager to break away from this sort of doom and gloom anyway, particularly amid an election cycle that has no doubt been depressing for anyone paying attention. Escapist works like Damien Chazelle’s Venice and Toronto prize-winner “La La Land” could prove a respite. Uplifting dramas like Theodore Melfi’s “Hidden Figures” and Garth Davis’ “Lion” may stand out as feel-good options.

Trifles like Stephen Frears’ “Florence Foster Jenkins” could even go far, while lighter fare from earlier in the year might be enticing if voters can be bothered to extend their memories: Disney’s “Zootopia,” for example, which is notably substantive underneath the cartoon animal sheen, or Jon Favreau’s beloved take on “The Jungle Book,” which succeeded in filling some mighty big shoes. Incidentally, both are among the top global box office performers of 2016.

After a few years of the Academy having recognized a slavery drama (“12 Years a Slave”), self-loathing actors (“Birdman”), and an icky newspaper investigation (“Spotlight”), would it really be a shock to see voters lean upbeat this time around?