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What this year’s Oscar nominees show us about America


None of the nominees directly address the Donald Trump era. But the American film industry is clearly grappling with societal fault lines that the ex-President widened during his time in power. The movies take on race, violence, a corrupt and discriminatory justice system, democracy under attack, immigration, Great Recession economic dislocation, workers’ struggles in low-wage jobs, and the nature of political resistance. Sound familiar?

Oscar nominations 2021: See the full list of nominees

Take this line in “Mank,” a biopic of the alcoholic screenwriter of “Citizen Kane”: “If you keep telling people something untrue loud and long enough, they’re apt to believe it.” It’s impossible not to think of the alternative reality that Trump imposed on America for four years — and in which his millions of supporters still live.

Uproar over race, policing and the US criminal justice system is mirrored in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” about the FBI’s infiltration of the radical Black Panther movement. It’s also a subplot in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which portrays democracy under siege in 1968 from malignant leaders.

Two of the movies are classic meditations on the seductive promise, myth and ambivalent reality of the American dream. Economic deprivation and the loss of identity it brings animate “Nomadland,” a film about an itinerant worker who journeys between temporary jobs across a haunting American West landscape while living out of her van. In “Minari,” a South Korean immigrant couple struggle to put down roots, literal and metaphorical, for their young family in the tough soil of Arkansas.

This year’s picks underscore a recent movement in the academy to feature greater racial and social diversity. In a reflection of America’s broader polarization, conservatives argue Hollywood is hostage to politically correct liberal propaganda. But these nominees don’t ring with tokenism. They are serious and patient, and most are subtle.

Each in a way is like a single act of a grand political tragedy unfolding in America from the 1930s to the recent past.

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