Seeking the Kingdom at the 2018 Oscars

Abby Olcese

During his Best Director acceptance speech for The Shape of Water at this year’s Academy Awards, Guillermo del Toro praised the rich diversity of a filmmaking community brought together by a love of art and movie magic. He also noted the importance of art that unifies in the face of deep social division:

In the last 25 years, I’ve been living in a country all of our own. Part of it is here, part of it is in Europe, part of it is everywhere. Because I think that the greatest thing our art does, and our industry does, is to erase the lines in the sand. We should continue doing that, when the world tells us to make them deeper.

As he spoke, the floors of the Dolby Theatre were still littered with marigold petals from a performance of the song “Remember Me,” from Best Animated Feature winner Coco, a movie that similarly emphasized the multiculturalism of the movies. In a way, this was nothing new, as the Oscars often emphasize the equalizing power of cinema—that no matter our age, gender, race, or income level, we’re all the same in the dark of the theater. Yet this year’s ceremony felt a bit different. Given the tumultuous nature of 2017—both in politics at large and in Hollywood—notions such as diversity and inclusion had to be more than buzzwords. At the 2018 Oscars, you not only heard those words, but you saw them embodied on stage.

In fact, in films like The Shape of Water, Coco, and Get Out—plus the acknowledgement of past sexual misconduct in show business and the on-camera presence of the Time’s Up movement—this year’s awards reminded me of the way N.T. Wright describes art in Simply Christian:

It is central to Christian living that we should celebrate the goodness of creation, ponder its present brokenness, and, insofar as we can, celebrate in advance the healing of the world, the new creation itself. Art, music, literature, dance, theater, and many other expressions of human delight and wisdom, can all be explored in new ways.”

The Oscars often emphasize the equalizing power of cinema, yet this year’s ceremony felt a bit different.

Both The Shape of Water, which won Best Picture, and Coco celebrate the goodness of creation, the healing of the world. Get Out, a racially provocative horror film which won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Jordan Peele, reminds us how far our culture still has to go. In his acceptance speech, Peele described his struggle to even finish the script, doubting it would ever see production:

I stopped writing this movie about 20 times because I thought it was impossible. I thought it wasn’t gonna work. I thought nobody was gonna make this movie. But I kept coming back to it because I knew if someone let me make this movie, that people would hear it and people would see it.

Peele wasn’t the only filmmaker to discuss the challenge of creating art in a system dominated by white men. In a video montage highlighting representation in Hollywood, The Big Sick star and co-writer Kumail Nanjiani talked about getting a chance at a starring role after a lifetime of only seeing white men onscreen. Mudbound director Dee Rees spoke about using art to call out hypocrisy, while actress Mira Sorvino expressed hope for a change in the status quo. Seeing women and creators of color getting to speak openly about the need for systemic changes in Hollywood brought to mind the prophetic words of Isaiah 58:10, with a chorus of voices bringing attention to the pain of the past, the needs of the present, and the hope of the future.

There was a truth and beauty to many of these moments on Oscar night, both of which should be familiar to Christians. The Academy Awards celebrated the joy of creativity, while still acknowledging the “present brokenness” described by N.T. Wright. This is the place we find ourselves in: a world redeemed by Christ’s death and resurrection, but not yet fully restored until he comes again. We live, and make art, with both the knowledge of grace and the reality of sin.

In Hebrews 13:14, we are reminded that part of the Christian experience is to recognize the failings of this world, even as we look ahead to the new one to come. If this year’s Academy Awards showed us anything, it captured the simultaneous existence of unifying joy and generations of cultural pain. Even as we work to address the abuse and barriers that have caused that pain, we can find hope in the promise of a community of diverse people joined by art and storytelling.

Topics: Movies