With the news that that the latest disaster in Donald Trump’s Lizard Brain Jamboree will bar Oscar nominee Asghar Farhadi from attending the Academy Awards (and Farhadi’s later decision to skip them whether he is allowed to come or not), the film community has been scrambling to find an effective response. While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences offered a statement calling the development “extremely troubling,” some critics think they should go further still. Here’s a sampling (including a tweet from The Slate Group editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg)*:
Asghar Farhadi is the best dramatist in the world. The Oscars should not be held without him in attendance.— Scott Tobias (@scott_tobias) January 28, 2017
Calling off the Oscars would be a lot more effective than a bunch of self-righteous speeches https://t.co/6XgJE3YOx0— Jacob Weisberg (@jacobwe) January 29, 2017
we shouldn't hold an Academy Awards if farhadi can't be there but mel gibson is— Alan Scherstuhl (@studiesincrap) January 28, 2017
It’s easy to see why canceling the ceremony entirely is an appealing option; it’s principled, it sends a clear message, and it’s a drastic action in response to a drastic threat. Plus, nobody feels much like throwing a party these days. But although it’s essential that Hollywood, like the rest of the country, respond to Trump and the Republicans’ sustained attack on American values, canceling the Oscars surely isn’t the best way.
The glib reason the show must go on is that canceling it would violate the Br’er Rabbit Principle: You can’t hurt a rabbit by throwing him into the briar patch where he was born and raised, and you can’t hurt Trump’s most vocal supporters by cancelling a cultural event, no matter how gauche. (To quote one representative tweet, “CANCEL THE OSCARS YOU IDIOTS, PLEASE! #weALLwin #HollywoodSucks #TrumpTrain #NoBreaks.”) Of course, Trump got plenty of support from middle-class suburban whites, many of whom presumably enjoy movies. Maybe a complete unwillingness on the part of Hollywood to behave normally would get through to some slightly-less-crazy Trump voters just how much work we all have to do now to clean up their mess. The question to ask, though, is who else would be hurt?
The answer turns out to be a lot more people than just Trump voters and the cast and crew of La La Land. First, there’s the money. As the president of the academy explains every year in the part of the Oscars everyone tunes out, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is more than just an awards show. It has a world-class film archive, an extraordinary library with extensive special collections, a wide array of film preservation projects (prints of which screen all over the world), and is in the process of building an enormous museum. It’s essential, time-sensitive work, and it gets paid for by the Oscars, which netted nearly $70 million in 2016, according to the academy’s financial report. Abandoning it to make a political point (to a man whose fondest wish is for some films in particular not to be preserved) would be counterproductive.
And canceling the Oscars wouldn’t just leave money on the table while abandoning important work. It would also involve walking away from an enormous global platform to protest what Donald Trump and the Republicans are doing to the country and the world. The worldwide size of the show’s audience is tough to be precise about, but it’s enormous, and it’s larger still when you consider the news coverage the next day. (It seems likely that it will include a certain celebrity-impressed president.) A lot of people in Hollywood clearly have very strong feelings about where the country is going, and the chance to express that to millions is not something to scoff at.
The tricky question is what form these messages should take in order to be most effective. it’s not like that large audience is dying to hear what Hollywood luminaries think about politics. People shut down, they don’t listen, they tell actors to stay in their lanes, and nothing gets accomplished. And although it’s true that occasionally an actor can make a political argument in a personal, not-sanctimonious way—see Juila Louis-Dreyfus’ speech at the Screen Actors Guild Awards this weekend for an example—more often, it’s a mess. (See the cast of Orange is the New Black the same night, if you can stand it.) Asking an actor to make a coherent, effective political statement, moments after they’ve won one of the highest honors in their career, is asking for trouble.
What’s more, if you ask an artist what’s most important in a time of disaster, their answer will almost always be “more art.” This is the Don Draper rule: What people most want to hear is that whatever they’re doing right now is okay. You can see this in the Stranger Things acceptance speech from the SAG awards; the best way the cast can fight injustice is, apparently, by making a second season of Stranger Things. They’re not entirely wrong about art, but patting themselves on the back for their great humanitarian achievements in the world of streaming television is not very convincing.
And then there’s this:
Marlon Brando’s decision to send Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to accept his Academy Award for The Godfather is often held up as an example of self-absorbed Hollywood straying where it didn’t belong, but watch it again. The academy prohibited Littlefeather from reading her full statement, and then she got booed by the audience (perhaps apocryphally, the booing allegedly started with John Wayne), but the arguments against her speech—it’s not what the night was about, it was rude, no one understood the message—are pretty different from the traditional right-wing spiel about arrogant liberal Hollywood presuming to tell Americans what to do. Brando wasn’t using the spotlight to self-aggrandize or claim that his contribution to the cause of Native Americans was The Godfather. Instead, he gave his platform to someone else entirely and went to Wounded Knee. Littlefeather might not have moved the needle any more than Michael Moore did—though in retrospect, her full statement seems dead right—but the one thing you can’t accuse Brando of is making the night about himself.
You might be able to make the case that Native American stereotypes in Hollywood were a more directly relevant cause to address at a film industry event than the war in Iraq (Michael Moore, 2003) or the Trump administration, except for the fact that Farhadi, a brilliant filmmaker and an Oscar nominee this year, won’t be attending his own awards ceremony because of Trump’s reckless and immoral actions. There’s no way the night won’t be about Farhadi and the immigrant ban, at least in part. One of my colleagues suggested leaving an empty front-row seat for the absent filmmaker, and that strikes me as a good thing to do (though the efficacy of empty-chair rhetoric is, let’s say, questionable), but it’s not sufficient.
What I’d suggest in addition is pretty simple: Awards nominees could send ex-refugees in their place to accept their awards. (This would require a rule change from the academy, since it prohibited proxies after Littlefeather, but desperate times, desperate measures.) The nominees’ proxies should use the time between getting to the microphone and being played off by the orchestra not to rail against Trump or condemn those who voted for hi, but to introduce themselves to the world, say who they are, where they came from, what they fled, what kind of life they built in the United States, and how the immigrant ban would have affected them. The model here is Sen. Martin in The Silence of the Lambs, pleading for the life of her kidnapped child: Put human faces on a single Trump policy that has directly attacked the film community by blocking Farhadi. (Trump, in this analogy—as in virtually every Trump analogy—is serial killer Buffalo Bill.) Nominees could pick a single person as their designated recipient for the entire category, or each person could choose their own.
This approach has several advantages over the scattershot political speechifying we saw at the SAG Awards. It would illustrate a direct and easily understandable straight line between a specific Trump policy and its consequences, rather than a wide-ranging assault on the right wing (or, say, mixed martial arts). Unlike an actor discussing politics, no one can tell ex-refugees that they’re out of their lane for telling their own life stories. Winners wouldn’t have to be serious at the exact moment when they’re jubilant about their new Oscar. The other parts of the ceremony—the In Memoriam reel, the academy president’s song and dance, presenters trying to explain, once again, the difference between Sound Mixing and Sound Editing—could go on as usual. It would generate more coverage than a cancellation, and that coverage would probably include follow-up stories on the proxies who accepted awards, instead of, say, caterers who didn’t get to sell their canapés. Hollywood would still get to throw itself a party and the winners would still get their gold statues.
It wouldn’t be sacrifice-free: We’d all have to give up the fun of watching America’s best-looking people try to remember their high school drama teacher’s name. Would it change people's minds? Maybe not! Would Hollywood actually do this? Surely not! But if we make it to Oscar night, we should do something, and this is something. What’s more, it’s something that might make more of an impact than canceling the show altogether.
*Correction, Jan. 31, 2017: This post originally misidentified Jacob Weisberg as the editor in chief of Slate. He is the chairman and editor in chief of The Slate Group.