Column
February 22, 2017

Oscar for President

Three months have passed since Bernie Sanders infamously remarked that, in order to win future elections, the Democratic Party would have to “move beyond identity politics.” In a response to a young woman who had asked for his advice regarding her goal to become the second Latina senator in U.S. history, Sanders began by emphasizing the importance of “the fight to end all forms of discrimination [and] to bring more and more women into the political process,” along with more Latinos, African-Americans, and Native Americans.
“But,” he added, “it’s not good enough for somebody to say, ‘Hey, I’m a Latina. Vote for me!’ I have to know if that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country and take on big-money interests.”
Acting in obvious bad faith, the neoliberal, technocratic end of the Democratic Party pounced on this moment to proclaim that Sanders doesn’t care about racism; his real interest is in the well being of the white working class.
In fact, Sanders had recognized that the catastrophe of the 2016 election had crystallized an ideological split within the ranks of the Democrats, between those who believe in the possibility of a coherent party identity that, while centered on diversity, tolerance, and racial justice, does not include a commitment to wealth redistribution or economic justice; and those who believe that the battle against inequality must primarily take the form of an effort to improve the material conditions of ordinary Americans’ lives, and that liberal social attitudes, uncoupled from such an effort, don’t constitute a sufficient progressivism.
With this in mind, which movie do you think should win Best Picture at the Oscars on Sunday night, Feb. 26? The two best are “Manchester by the Sea” and “Moonlight,” but by a heavy margin the favorite is “La La Land.”
It’s possible, at least if you’ve inhabited a politically tinged delirium for the past year, to reimagine all nine Best Picture nominees as candidates from last year’s election. Here’s the breakdown for the six mostly unimportant movies: “Hell or High Water” is Marco Rubio; “Fences” is Jeb Bush; “Arrival” is Jill Stein; “Hidden Figures” is John Kasich; “Lion” is Carly Fiorina; “Hacksaw Ridge” is Ted Cruz. I don’t have space here to clarify all the parallels.
Meanwhile, “Manchester by the Sea”—a morose New England drama set in a white, male, blue-collar milieu—is obviously tailor-made for depressed Bernie Bros. I’ve sung its praises in this column, but I should note, too, that “Moonlight” possesses a legitimate claim for the title of 2016’s most important movie: its lush, sensual filmmaking is powerful enough, perhaps, to transport even the Hollywood elite into the shoes of an abused, fatherless, gay boy growing up in an all-black public housing project in Florida. It makes for an enormously moving experience, in large part due to the audience’s unavoidable awareness that the terrain inhabited by the movie has been completely ignored (with our complicity) for literally the entire history of film: this is one of the stories we’ve always chosen not to hear, and our neglect, we realize as we watch, is one of the essential forces comprising the chokehold that the world has placed on the throat of the boy in question (named Chiron).
If the movie has a significant flaw, it’s that its protagonist is described nearly fully by my own cursory description of him: Chiron is, above all, a victim of the suffering yielded by his lot in life, an embodiment of the pain of being poor, black, and gay in America—possessing, in his verbal paralysis and emotional terror, no sign of a personality that might transcend his circumstances. This may simply reflect the horrible truth of a childhood dominated by trauma—that it doesn’t allow for the growth of a personality. Chiron’s struggle to define himself within a hostile universe is one of the story’s primary themes. Still, if to some degree the character falls short of filling the space at the movie’s center, it may reflect a conception of human character that is born of “identity politics”: the essential facts of Chiron’s life, in the mind of his creator, are his sexuality, his race, and his socioeconomic status.
In this way, “Moonlight” is the opposite of “Manchester by the Sea,” which, in depicting a similar quantity of misery, hinges on individual character and on an incident of misfortune that, despite the movie’s strong regional color, isn’t particularly tied to race, class, or cultural identity. I’m not sure that this should logically render the latter movie more “universal”—I would guess that the experience of messing up your own life is actually less common than the experience of being treated unfairly to begin with on account of not being a heterosexual white male—yet insofar as we generally conceive of ourselves nevertheless as individual humans bearing unique stories and personalities rather than personified consequences of social problems such as homophobia or racism, “Manchester by the Sea” is the more expansive, inclusive, and intimate movie. For all the representational virtue and directorial craft of “Moonlight,” “Manchester,” with its weightier and more intricate script, feels substantial and nourishing in a way that its competitor doesn’t.
So, in the end, “Moonlight” has to be Hillary, even though the popular conflation of identity politics and the Clinton campaign (which wasn’t powerfully devoted to advancing the interests of any oppressed subgroup) is one of the weirder post-election phenomena. But it’s probably true that the fragmented inadequacy of liberal identity politics—especially its hostility toward Sanders notion that black, Hispanic, feminist, and LGBTQ communities might, within the problem of economic inequality, find unifying commonalities with white workers—contributed to her rise.
“La La Land,” with its flashy, gilded sheen, its thirst for attention, and its empty celebration of show-biz glamor, is Trump, of course. It’s all very “elegant,” very “classy,” just like one of his casinos. It’ll probably beat “Moonlight” in a close race, and well-meaning liberal-minded people will wonder how voters could be so callous.

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