Setting aside which pictures made the most at the worldwide box office in 2015–Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, Furious 7, in that order–how does the American movie industry want to be perceived? That’s what the Academy Awards ceremony, a purely American product itself, is all about. In recent years Hollywood has reaped epic riches from fantasy-action films and comic-book movies, but this year’s eight Best Picture nominees–ostensibly a short list of the best showbiz has to offer–represent something beyond money. They’re about the export of a notion, a platonic salesmanship of that most American of products: the Hollywood prestige movie.
What image is the Academy peddling this year, and what does that say about us right now? It’s not surprising that if you include The Martian (and you should), three of this year’s Best Picture nominees are westerns, that most staunchly American mode of storytelling. In The Martian, Matt Damon plays an astronaut–an explorer of new frontiers that just happen to be in space–stranded in a desertlike wilderness after being left for dead by his comrades. In The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s beleaguered trapper guide is also left for dead, only here on Earth along the banks of the Missouri River in what is now South Dakota. Both Damon (alone with the stars) and DiCaprio (alone in the West) are solitary heroes right out of Dick Burnett’s folk ballad “Man of Constant Sorrow”–“For in this world I’m bound to ramble/I have no friends to help me now”–and their isolation kicks their American ingenuity into overdrive: Damon figures out how to grow potatoes on a waterless planet. DiCaprio scoops out the innards of a dead horse to fashion a sleeping cave. You can’t get much more ingenious than that.
Mad Max: Fury Road, the third western, isn’t purely American–even though it’s a product of Hollywood, it was made by an Australian, George Miller–but of the three, it’s most in step with shifting American values when it comes to gender parity. Miller’s most memorable character isn’t Tom Hardy’s Max but Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, a warrior rebel obsessed with leading a group of enslaved women to safety. Miller doesn’t have to oversell Furiosa’s fearlessness–it’s as much a part of her as her missing arm, a ghost limb whose presence is felt but not visible. Yet there’s also something modest about Furiosa. She accomplishes twice as much as any of the male characters do, without thinking twice–she’s a working-mom-style action hero. And even though watching her is pure pleasure, like John Wayne in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, she’s still more a get-it-done heroine than a look-at-me one. What kind of future is Furiosa pointing toward? It took America some 220 years to be ready for a black President; is it finally ready for a woman to lead the country?
The Academy, made up of many old people, many male people and, as we’ve become painfully aware, many white people, has great fondness for tradition–and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s balanced by an openness to new things. Bridge of Spies and Spotlight represent a kind of old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking, geared toward adults, that’s becoming increasingly scarce in a movie landscape thick with pictures based on superheroes. These movies generally don’t make tons of money. Oscar season is perhaps the chief reason they exist. These are the prestige choices, the ones that show the Academy has class. (Charmingly, the movie industry still seems to carry at least the ghost of a chip on its shoulder, left over from early days when Hollywood filmmakers were considered West Coast rubes, inferior to East Coast sophisticates.) The Academy honors filmmaking tradition in other ways too: Room and Brooklyn are two examples of the little American indie that could, pictures made on a relative shoestring that strike a chord with audiences. And Spotlight and The Big Short riff on the great American muckraking tradition. Hollywood, so often maligned by the right for its liberalism, sometimes doesn’t seem liberal enough, but once in a while we’re reminded that it occasionally takes great pleasure in rattling the cages.
Which is part of the reason it has been so agonizing to watch Hollywood crawl halfheartedly in the direction of change, rather than rush toward it, when it comes to race. If the Academy were a cooler, hipper, smarter bunch–and let’s not even say a more diversified one, because being white is no excuse for having bad taste–Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s timely, raucous reimagining of Lysistrata, might have been among the Best Picture nominees. But even the Academy we have now should have sparked to the of-the-minute exuberance of Ryan Coogler’s Rocky-franchise reboot Creed.
Creed is beautifully made (by a smart, dynamic young African-American filmmaker) and wonderfully acted (not just by Sylvester Stallone but also by its charismatic, perceptive lead actor, Michael B. Jordan). It also dazzled audiences–the story is a classic underdog saga, revitalized for modern moviegoers. Had Creed been a Best Picture nominee, it would have been the one to say the most about where our country is now, in terms of how American cities look–it’s set in an untouristy Philadelphia, vital but still rough around the edges–and of who actually lives in them. Creed also happened to be released in a year when–sadly, because it had to–#BlackLivesMatter became an even larger and more significant force.
And so the absence of a single movie from the Best Picture nomination list tells us more about the Academy’s view of America than the movies that are actually on it. Creed is the most American–in the true civic sense, not in any partisan flag-waving sense–of all American movies made this year. Coogler built a city of brotherly love big enough for all of us. It’s where we should all want to live.
This appears in the February 22, 2016 issue of TIME.
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