It’s no coincidence that the winner of 2014’s Best Documentary Oscar portrays Hollywood as the hero.
When 20 Feet from Stardom was announced as the winner for Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars, my initial thought was, “Damn, that must be a great documentary.” I knew the film was about back-up singers and, while the subject matter didn’t interest me, sometimes the way a documentary is made can draw one in and make one interested thereafter. (Conversely, an interesting subject can be conveyed poorly – Zoo springs to mind.)
The winners of the Best Documentary Oscar haven’t been too challenging in recent years, in both style and content
Prior to 20 Feet from Stardom’s UK release, I had seen all other 2014 Best Documentary nominees. Before the Oscars, I was certain The Act of Killing was going to win; it was interestingly shot, it had an important subject matter and, with an acclaimed producer in Wernor Herzog at the helm, it had a winning formula. And yet, after seeing 20 Feet from Stardom, I could see why the Academy saw this, and not The Act of Killing, as a winner.
In recent years, the winners of Best Documentary haven’t been too challenging, in both style and content; last year’s winner was Searching for Sugar Man, the folk-rock exaggerated version of thrash metal documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil (which wasn’t even nominated at the 2009 Oscars). Searching for Sugar Man, while undoubtedly an interesting story of a faded artist, somehow won over important documentaries like How to Survive a Plague, a film that uses archival footage and interviews to retell the raising of awareness of AIDS in the 1980s, and The Invisible War, a film that uses interviews and propaganda material to tell the horrifying acceptance of female rape within the US military. These two documentaries challenged their audiences to engage them with uncomfortable material. The losing nominees did the same this year.
2014 Best Documentary nominees The Act of Killing, Dirty Wars and The Square were all politically and socially, as well as aesthetically, challenging. The Act of Killing had the perpetrators of the anti-communist Indonesian killings of 1965-66 re-enact their killings through the medium of classical Hollywood movie genres, which made for both compelling and uncomfortable viewing. The audience hears the graphic stories of these men torturing and killing, and the pleasure they derived from this, juxtaposed against the re-enactments in a Hollywood style set piece or musical number – it’s shocking but poignant. This style does something that the Academy hasn’t been comfortable with in recent years, and that’s making Hollywood look potentially bad. Hollywood must be the good guy.
In 20 Feet from Stardom, Hollywood can, and has, made these back-up singers’ dreams come true
In 20 Feet from Stardom, a major story point in the back-up singers’ career post-back-up singing comes when certain ladies get their record deals at Warner Bros. It’s conveyed with the clichéd sweeping shot of the Hollywood sign for emphasis of power and awe, signifying this is the best place for the back-up singers to be. Hollywood can, and has, made their dreams come true. And this notion of Hollywood as the hero isn’t just in 20 Feet from Stardom, but can be seen in other recent questionable Oscar winners.
Argo won Best Picture last year, despite casting controversy and the fact that it was about as historically accurate as Pain & Gain. Ben Affleck’s third movie as director presented itself as an earnest retelling of the events of the US hostage situation in Iran from 1979-1981, but the reality was a Hollywood thriller altering the facts so Hollywood/America got to be the heroes. Argo’s story of a fake film crew scouting exotic locations in Iran to help the US hostages was only a bit-part in the grand scheme.
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There were other key contributors to the hostages’ escape – then-president of the US Jimmy Carter said Canada did the majority of the work, and that the key player was Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. New Zealand and the UK also cooperated with Canada after the consulate deemed their location to be unsafe for the US hostages. So, why the historical inaccuracies? Why did Argo win Best Picture? Because Argo portrayed Hollywood as the hero – it wanted to dissipate Hollywood’s cynical, corporate greed image and make the writers, directors and producers into selfless heroes. Hollywood rescued hostages from a hostile environment.
20 Feet from Stardom is a blatant example of Hollywood wanting to congratulate itself and emphasise its own significance
And the year prior, what were the big winners/nominees? Hugo and The Artist, both celebrating and glorifying the origin of cinema, an art form Hollywood came to utterly dominate. Both of these films had Hollywood congratulating itself. That same year, the Best Documentary wasn’t the socially challenging If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, which was about eco-terrorists, and what defines a terrorist. It was instead the safe, uplifting film Undefeated, about a high school football team attempting to win despite seasons of losses – it never challenged its audience by exploring too deeply the socio-economic plight surrounding the school.
20 Feet from Stardom, despite being a well-meaning and interesting documentary, is more akin to an episode of VH1: Behind the Music. It isn’t too challenging on its subjects, nor does it attempt to be. It’s also a blatant example of Hollywood wanting to further congratulate itself and emphasise its own significance. For the many who have seen The Act of Killing, there will surely be agreement on how rewarding 20 Feet From Stardom for Best Documentary was a misfire. But, from the Academy’s perspective, it allows Hollywood to further congratulate itself as a collective of artistic, selfless pioneers.
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Featured image: RADiUS-TWC
Inset images: Dogwoof Pictures; Warner Bros