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'Oscar bait:' How filmmakers court those coveted gold men

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"Oscar bait" films, as their moniker suggests, are films that are supposedly created for the purpose of winning Academy Awards, rather than solely cashing in on box office returns. Films gather Oscar buzz throughout the year and cater to critics and cinema-goers alike by applying a combination of clever marketing tactics and cinematic tropes and narratives. 

The Winner Takes It All

One can observe a pattern among new films, featuring and created by past Oscar winners and talented nominees, making it to coveted categories like Best Picture. Meryl Streep, over the course of her legendary career, has accumulated a record of 21 Oscar nods for acting and shows no signs of stopping.

Eccentric filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, who has won Oscars for Best Original Screenplay twice in the past for “Pulp Fiction” and “Django Unchained,” is receiving attention and acclaim for his recent movie “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.” 

"Harriet," a biopic about abolitionist Harriet Tubman, stars 2016 Tony Award winners for Best Leading Actress and Actor in a Musical, Cynthia Erivo of “The Color Purple” and Leslie Odom Jr. of “Hamilton.” The film, directed by Kasi Lemmons, screened at one of the most important cinematic events of the year: the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Bring on the Biopics

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour,” Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” ... the list goes on and on. Stories based on real-life historical events resonate with audiences and evoke a deep sense of nostalgia and curiosity.

Many biopics and period dramas are crafted beautifully and carefully in order to do justice to the lives and achievements of the people or events they portray and honor. Great actors are often cast to portray famous figures in human history, which only adds to the excellent execution of the movie and Oscar buzz surrounding most biopics.

Musical Magic

Another motif we can observe among Oscar bait films is that of musicals and music-related movies. “The Sound of Music,” “West Side Story,” "My Fair Lady,” “A Star Is Born” and “La La Land” are just some of the many Academy Award-nominated and winning musical movies in modern and contemporary history. 

Musicals are compelling because they engage with a multitude of artistic elements and create instantly timeless soundtracks. The catchy ballad “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born,” which took home the Oscar for Best Original Song last February, spent a record 45 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 list. 

Contentious Cinema

Unfortunately, the final element in many Oscar bait films is the application of an incredibly controversial cinematic trope known as the white savior narrative in films about racial tensions throughout America’s history. The latest Best Picture winner, “Green Book,” and past nominees like “Hidden Figures” and “The Help” have all been accused of subtly employing the white savior narrative and were also all directed by white men. 

Often accompanied by the white savior narrative is the insensitive and questionable trope of the insightful “Magical Negro” who guides the white protagonist to glory. The term itself was popularized by Black filmmaker Spike Lee in the early 2000s. 

Many cinema buffs claim that certain characteristics about John Legend’s character Keith in “La La Land” and Mahershala Ali’s depiction of classical jazz artist Don Shirley in “Green Book” understatedly undermine Black culture in the manner of an archetypal “Magical Negro.”

More blatantly racist white savior movies include 2017 vague homage to Indian Bollywood cinema, “Basmati Blues,” starring Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson. The cringe-worthy trailer for the comedy-musical film plays into insulting and ignorant stereotypes of South Asians. Luckily, the naive and cliché concepts surrounding the film didn’t give it a chance to receive any critical or financial success, let alone an Oscar nomination.

We’ll just have to wait and see what Oscar bait films make the cut for Academy Award nominations in 2020.

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