Oscar Best Picture Films Have a History Highlighting Social Issues

Rexa Vella

Oscar Best Picture Films Have a History Highlighting Social Issues

Since the beginning of the Academy Awards in the late 1920s, Hollywood filmmakers have been making socially conscious films. Many of the best of those have scored the film town’s top honor — Oscar best picture.

This year, that winner could be “Oppenheimer,” a film that boldly and starkly dramatizes the creation of man’s most dangerous invention: atomic weapons.

It could be “Killers of the Flower Moon,” a film that brought a lost and dreadful piece of American history into the sunlight of the Cannes Film Festival and ultimately the spotlights of awards season.

It could be either “Barbie” or “Poor Things,” two of the wildest, most colorful and inventive investigations of feminist and/or post-feminist womanhood to ever hit the big screen.

It could be “American Fiction,” a wry and witty look at Black American middle-class identity and family relations under preposterous, dispiriting cultural pressures.

But will the film with the strongest social impact be the one that registers most positively with the voters?

History shows that the best picture contender that really hits the hot button issue of the moment, and perhaps even stirs filmgoers into activism and engagement with the issues presented, isn’t always the best picture winner.

James Bridges’ “The China Syndrome” (1979) stirred a national debate about nuclear power, but in the Oscar sweepstakes, its four losing nominations didn’t even include one for best picture. That same year, Martin Ritt’s “Norma Rae” celebrated the importance of unions and was nominated for best picture (losing to Robert Benton’s “Kramer vs Kramer,” a gripping portrait of the emotional cost of divorce). Did “Norma Rae” liberalize America or stall the anti-union workplace tide brought on by the election of uber-conservative President Ronald Reagan? There’s not much evidence of the film generating major impact for the rapidly waning fortunes of liberalism in the ’80s.

Nonetheless, the best picture category has produced important films that have raised awareness on important issues or fomented some form of social activism because of their wide media impact and box office popularity.

Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” (2020) tackled the growing phenomenon of American homelessness while taking a fairly unorthodox approach, presenting the travels of a woman whose rootlessness felt like it was half societal callousness and half chosen lifestyle. But it put the issue front and center and took a moment in the COVID-19 lockdown’s darkest moment to shine a light on the way tech giants are turning workers into 21st-century sharecroppers.

Sian Heder’s “CODA” (2021) stands alongside William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) as the two most important films to put the lives of Americans with disabilities front and center in their dramas. “Lives” could also be celebrated for its sensitive depiction of the World War II veterans whose wounds weren’t visible, but today would be deemed as PTSD and more openly discussed and treated than in the 1940s.

Notable best picture nominees that have also raised awareness of living with disabilities and the myriad challenges facing this community include Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home” (1978) and Randa Haines’ “Children of a Lesser God” (1986). It should be noted that both films garnered acting trophies for the thesps portraying the films’ inspiring protagonists. And again, post-war trauma, this time from the Vietnam conflict, made its way into the national dialogue thanks to “Coming Home.”

The year 1967 was one of the most important years of the ’60s American Civil Rights era and Norman Jewison’s best picture winner “In the Heat of the Night” tapped into both the hopefulness and the dread of that crucial time in our history. The film’s victory and the powerful charisma of the film’s star Sidney Poitier, empowered to dramatically assert Black dignity and outrage, helped provide the momentum of a movement whose time was clearly overdue.

That same year, Poitier starred in another best picture nominee, Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” with a completely different approach. From gripping violent realism to light comedy, Poitier played an immeasurably powerful role in the advancement of Black rights in America.

While “Norma Rae” might not have restored the American union movement’s forward momentum, in 1954, Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” did take a big screen swing at the corruption that had corroded labor’s gains for American workers. The picture remains controversial as it celebrates those who inform on those who betray.

Since antisemitism is sadly enough, once again a dangerous, damaging blight on the social landscape, it’s important to credit Kazan’s 1947 film “Gentleman’s Agreement” with its unflinching depiction of the insidious ways that anti-Jewish prejudice poisons the societal well.

Decades before the widespread awareness and treatment of addictions was an open subject of talk shows and self-help books, Billy Wilder’s 1945 best picture winner “The Lost Weekend” provided a frank, personal study of a “normal” citizen who becomes powerless to fight against the alcoholism destroying his world.

There are many notable anti-war best pictures, which range from Lewis Milestone’s 1930 masterpiece adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” to Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” in 1986. Harrowing, timeless, and endlessly effective, these films have good company in Francis Coppola’s 1979 best picture nominee, “Apocalypse Now.”

Does Donald Trump represent the populist alternative to a calcified political system or is he a fascist dictator in disguise? The presidential election of 2024 is dominated by questions about a potential American dictatorship rising and Hollywood grappled with this scenario back in 1949, when Robert Rossen’s best picture winner, “All the King’s Men,” powerfully brought Robert Penn Warren’s prescient five-alarm fire warning novel to the screen.

The word “woke” hadn’t been invoked yet, but “All the King’s Men,” like most of the films from Hollywood that have sought to make a better world, could be either congratulated for their engagement with important issues or derided for their political ambitions. Luckily for filmmakers of earlier times, there was no social media hell to reward their good intentions.

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