Note: This guest column was submitted by Michael A. McRobbie, president, Indiana University. It appeared in The Huffington Post on February 17, 2017.
The very best cinema creates community, bringing together people from varied backgrounds to explore other worlds and visit other times, and creating a shared history that somehow transcends culture.
Great films can also serve as a reflection of the times in which we live, focusing on our innermost hopes, desires, dreams and fears.
History will ultimately be the judge, but this year’s Academy Award nominees may one day be remembered for how accurately they mirrored the American mindset and tapped into internal debates about who we are, what we believe and what we aspire to be as Americans.
Viewed through the lens of our contemporary politics and the clamor of our recent presidential election, the novelty and nostalgia of “La La Land,” a tribute to the golden age of Tinseltown, has been described as “escapist cinema.” Many critics say the film, which earned a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations, suggests a longing for a bygone — or one might say mythical — American era.
The riveting, emotionally intense sci-fi epic “Arrival,” which earned eight total nominations, explores the timely themes of communication and cooperation, acceptance and overcoming cultural differences.
This year, the Academy recognized a record six black actors with Oscar nominations, and included the diverse films “Fences,” “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight” among those under consideration for best picture.
As racial tensions rise nationwide, these films, in their own unique and interesting ways, explore, among other important issues, past and present race relations, the forgotten and ignored areas of our society, and how Americans see and understand each other.
Additionally, three of the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature, “O.J.: Made in America,” “13th” and “I Am Not Your Negro”, focus on racism and African-American society. The latter has been setting box office records for cinemas since opening wide this year. (Here at Indiana University, tickets for several screenings at our acclaimed IU Cinema rapidly sold out.)
This is far from the first time, of course, that Hollywood’s most celebrated films have served to spotlight a divided nation’s debates about civil and societal norms.
Fifty years ago, in 1967, our nation found itself in the throes of Cold War tensions with Russia, rioting in several large cities that prompted calls for greater “law and order,” and protests over the escalating war in Vietnam.
Around the nation many young Americans were revolting against the conservative norms of the era, challenging traditional codes of behavior regarding sexuality and sexual freedoms, demanding more rights for women and minorities, and questioning authority.
The Oscar-nominated films that year focused on many of these themes in piercing and provocative fashion.
In “A Man for All Seasons,” which won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor, the film’s tragic hero, Sir Thomas More, played by Paul Scofield, is a man of such staunch moral and ethical conscience that he refuses to bow or bend his principles — even in the face of death — for those in authority seeking even greater power. “I think that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos,” says More, who, it has been written, served as inspiration for Eugene McCarthy when he decided to run against his party’s incumbent and embattled president, Lyndon Johnson, in 1968.
The saintly More would have nothing in common with “Alfie,” the title character in a story of a young, selfish and self-absorbed womanizer who cheats on and disrespects numerous women until his carefree life begins to unravel. As Alfie, the brilliant Michael Caine often breaks the “fourth wall,” revealing his innermost thoughts and desires through words that rarely justify his sinful actions.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” a black comedy-drama starring Elizabeth Taylor and directed by Mike Nichols, was considered controversial and groundbreaking at the time for its level of profanity and adult themes. Based on a Tony-winning play by acclaimed American playwright Edward Albee, it did more than shock audiences with its coarse dialogue and sexuality. The film locks its characters inside a world where distinguishing between illusion and reality is never easy and raises critical questions about Americans’ patriotic assumptions, societal expectations, the roles of men and women, and our traditional values of love, beauty, family and commitment.
That year, widely considered one of the most groundbreaking years in American film, would also include the premieres of such monumental cinematic classics as “The Graduate,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “In the Heat of the Night,” and “Bonnie and Clyde.”
These movies would dominate the next year’s Academy Awards. More importantly, they would usher in the New American Cinema, in which the most mainstream movies would be imbued with meaning and moments for serious reflection on the state of our country, highlighting the power that the cinema harnesses every time the lights dim and the curtain rises.
Michael A. McRobbie is president of Indiana University. As president, he initiated the establishment of the IU Cinema, one of approximately 10 THX certified university cinemas in the U.S. and dedicated to the scholarly study and highest standards of exhibition of film in both its traditional and modern form.