‘THERE’S NO FINAL goodbye. We just say I’ll see you down the road,’ says a character in Nomadland, a deeply humane look at solitude, marginalisation and falling off the map. In a year when the world experienced so much loss, it will be no surprise if the film bags both Best Picture and Best Director at the 93rd Academy Award ceremony. Chloé Zhao’s film with Frances McDormand’s affecting performance as Fern, a widow who loses her house to the economic recession, and takes to the road in her van, speaks to us at a time when we’re all grappling with grief for a way of life that may never return.
In the year of George Floyd’s trial and a Black Asian vice president, it will also be no surprise if the four main acting Oscar awards go to people of colour. The late Chadwick Boseman, the ever gorgeous Viola Davis, the always brilliant Daniel Kaluuya and the witty Youn Yuh-jung are shoo-ins for the awards. From #OscarsSoWhite of 2015, we are now at a point in American history where people of colour, different genders, sexualities, ethnicities are finally finding representation.
Women’s voices, so long muted in mainstream cinema, are being heard loud and clear, whether it is Zhao’s ode to the great American tradition of pioneers in Nomadland or Emerald Fennell’s extraordinary revenge drama, Promising Young Woman, which captures the rage of #MeToo.
It’s not a moment too soon. With theatres shutting down, streaming services taking over, people’s worlds shrinking, the opening up of minds and hearts through such striking cinema is exactly what is needed. Whether it is the long history of dissent embodied in Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant, fast-talking and fast-moving The Trial of Chicago 7 or the humiliations heaped on generations of Black men and women in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Oscar’s choices seem of the moment, for the moment. For a shattered America, and indeed the world, Nomadland’s vast expanses and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s blues offer a balm, a soothing calm at a time of great upheaval.
And that is the purpose of great art. Whether it is Bobby Seale (played by a leonine Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) telling the judge in The Trial of Chicago 7 that ‘it’s impossible for me to care any less what you’re tired of’ or Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya in fine form as usual) shouting ‘I am a revolutionary’ in Judas and the Black Messiah or even Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adair) declaring ‘We’re fighting for our lives’ in One Night in Miami... , there is an intersection of history and its icons. These are movies which are allowing America to reflect on the bitterness between races. They are enabling American men, Black and white, to understand what being a man is. They are ensuring that the world understands how much of Black culture has been appropriated or erased by the white man. And they are permitting hidden figures in history, especially women, to finally be seen.
Oscars may have a socially distanced red carpet and an abbreviated audience, but the 2021 ceremony is a memo to the world that the heart of cinema is beating still, that its blood can still boil at injustice, that its nerves can still jangle at being forgotten, and the eyes of its corpses can still stare, open and all-seeing.
Oscars 2021 is a love letter to the power of cinema. It is a letter that Indian cinema, with its ridiculous dance performances and its off-colour jokes at film awards ceremonies, needs to read. It is a letter that every filmmaker in India needs to take to heart. When real life is unfair and unequal, people turn to an alternative reality to be inspired. It’s time for Indian cinema to step up to the mic and sing its most authentic song. Poetry, not propaganda. That’s what being a soft power is about.
As the chorus in The Trial of Chicago 7 says, the world is watching. When will the Indian white tiger awaken?