This is the first film year in a long while that’s made me want to applaud Harvey Weinstein. The mega-producer has suddenly become a powerful force in the dissemination of popular, feather-ruffling, discussion-prompting black cinema. The Weinstein Company gave us Fruitvale Station and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and still to come is Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom with Idris Elba. These are just three titles in a year that’s uncommonly packed with major black-themed movies, and thanks to Weinstein’s backing, they’re that much more likely to be seen. That said, Weinstein is still the hungriest and savviest awards monger in the biz, and part of his motive for pushing these movies is, without doubt, their clear Oscar potential. At the risk of suggesting that Weinstein is an outright, opportunistic monster, it was admittedly hard—as a film-obsessed person, at least—to think of anyone else who was more pleased with George Zimmerman’s acquittal (apart from Zimmerman himself, that is). Having already serendipitously clinched priceless topicality with Fruitvale’s Trayvon Martin parallels, Weinstein suddenly had skyrocketing cultural rage in his corner, rage that a little film about the similarly, tragically slain Oscar Grant might alleviate. The modest Sundance sensation Weinstein acquired was now inextricably linked to one of the year’s biggest stories, a story that won’t be forgotten come Oscar-nomination time.
If you noticed the repetition of the name “Oscar” there, rest assured that The Weinstein Company has too. Assuming everything goes Weinstein’s way, the headlines concerning this highly profitable indie will write themselves: “Will There Be an ’Oscar’ for Oscar?” “Will ’Oscar’ Honor Oscar’s Memory?” Regardless of how I feel about whether or not Fruitvale Station is award-worthy (more on that shortly), this particular narrative happens to call to mind Weinstein’s dubious baiting history. Weinstein can’t wield control over how the media covers his movies, and I certainly don’t think he picked up Fruitvale Station because of its ill-fated, real-life hero’s convenient name, but the Hollywood heavyweight sure has a way of deftly employing his manipulative influence, be it via a re-cut, “family-friendly” version of The King’s Speech, a national campaign to change the rating of the reprehensible Bully, or a certain over-publicized title scuffle with Warner and the MPAA. So you can bet the “Oscar/Oscar” angle will at least be exploited. Weinstein always has the endgame in mind, and, more often than not, his tactics bring him to his goal.
At this point, after performing extraordinarily well with critics and at the box office, Fruitvale Station has a better chance than any of its low-budget, festival-discovery peers to reach the finish line as Oscar’s pet indie. The aforementioned narratives will prove as irresistible to voters as they will to journalists, and perhaps fill their unspoken black quota in a way that the rest of the year’s contenders with people of color may not (potentially too gonzo and hard-hitting, respectively, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and 12 Years A Slave might find themselves bound to the acting categories). In short, Fruitvale Station has, at present, the best shot of all of these films at landing in the Best Picture race, which, for me, is a bit of a shame. Whereas Lee Daniels’ The Butler transcends its Forrest Gump-y conceit so spectacularly, becoming an essential, unflinching chronicle of black history in America, Fruitvale is a nuance-deprived missed opportunity, failing to hit its target of humanizing a tragic figure. In its ceaseless, overwrought efforts to make you admire Oscar (dear lord, that pitbull scene), the movie counterintuitively reduces him to a statistic, the kind whom countless loved ones praise on nightly news as “the nicest guy you could ever meet.”
Which isn’t to say that Michael B. Jordan is not deserving of his very possible Best Actor nod. The gifted young talent does great and fervent things with what he’s given, and none of the film’s failings have anything to do with what he delivers. The movie has already made the guy a star, and his career looks like it will soar with or without the Academy’s endorsement. But if a nomination can help to seal the deal, then terrific. The more diverse our rising- and leading-star lineup, the better. Octavia Spencer, on the other hand, whom voters will gravitate toward simply because they have short-term amnesia (as evidenced by last year’s insane second win for Christoph Waltz), won’t be so worthy of her potential second nod. While perfectly serviceable, and occasionally heartrending, as an in-for-a-world-of-hurt mom, the talented Supporting Actress hopeful doesn’t impress in a way that screams “shortlist.” It’s the role that’s baity here, not the actual acting. And then there’s Ryan Coogler, who’s somehow been celebrated as a pioneering grassroots filmmaker (who grew up in Oscar’s neighborhood, no less), and, thanks to unlikely nominees like Benh Zeitlin, can hold out real hope for recognition. In all honesty, last year’s awards threw me for a serious loop in a lot of races, so I won’t pretend to know that Coogler’s Best Director chances are nil. But, right now, the thought of him landing in the Original Screenplay category seems much more realistic.
Surest bets: Best Picture; Best Actor, Michael B. Jordan; Best Supporting Actress, Octavia Spencer; Best Original Screenplay.
Possibilities: Best Director, Ryan Coogler.
Shouldn’t be Overlooked: None.