Increased race representation welcomed with caution after marginalised artists sidelined by all-white casts for years.
It was a night of contrasts. Coming a month into the Trump administration, the 89th Academy Awards provided a powerful liberal counterpart to the spectacles that have recently headlined presidential politics.
Messages of inclusion, diversity, and art on the Dolby Theater’s stage repudiated the reckless policies and angry, impulsive rhetoric that have emanated from the White House over the past six weeks.
Yet, for all these differences, a similarity exists between the two: each demonstrates the powerful place of entertainment in American political life.
Since the first ceremony in 1929, the Academy Awards have reflected Hollywood’s power to influence American political culture. A window into the historical debate about the role of entertainment in politics, the Oscars have highlighted the historical struggle between those who look to movies to escape and those who see films as an opportunity to educate and inform.
The Academy Awards began as an opportunity to highlight the artistic achievements of a controversial new leisure industry. Run by Jewish immigrants, Hollywood incurred the wrath, condemnation, and frequent censorship of the white, Christian, male establishment.
The motion picture industry celebrated values of youth, sexuality, and consumption. Its celebrities embodied a new version of the American dream, in which heroes achieved fame and fortune overnight rather than through years of hard work, education, and thrift.
Moreover, with nickel admission tickets, movies were accessible to all, unlike the “highbrow” culture of symphonies and the opera. The awards thus began as an opportunity to ingratiate the new entertainment medium into the upper-class world of art by stressing the creative and professional process involved in the production of movies.
‘Representing the American civilisation’
By 1941, the awards night experienced its first political debate when President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the participants via radio and celebrated its rise as a “national and international phenomenon of our generation”.
Movies, Roosevelt contended, represented “our civilisation throughout the rest of the world and the aspirations and ideas of a free people and of freedom”.
Roosevelt turned to motion pictures as a “weapon of war” and close collaboration with industry leaders resulted in films that also reinforced his interventionist outlook on the silver screen before, during, and after World War II.
Not everyone agreed with this newly politicised role of film, however.
At the same time that Roosevelt celebrated the Academy’s achievements, critics in the Senate, notably North Dakota Republican Gerald Nye, intensified an investigation into the “warmongering” of the industry.
He declared that motion pictures should adhere to their role as pure entertainment, and that any attempt to “influence the public mind” on the silver screen was reprehensible.
A potent political tool
Although Hollywood assumed a prominent role in World War II mobilisation, the criticism of “message films” endured in the post-war period.
It infamously motivated the controversial House Un-American Activities Committee of the McCarthy-era investigation into the motion picture industry during the Cold War. The result: those who spoke out against racism and anti-Semitism faced blacklisting for violating this perceived distinction between politics and entertainment.
Nevertheless, Hollywood remained a potent political tool in domestic and international politics on both the right during the Cold War and on the left with the civil rights movement and the anti-war mobilisation. And the industry’s most highly publicised awards evening has continued to capture this debate over the proper place of entertainment in politics.
Notably, however, the debate shifted from whether entertainment should be political to how the awards ceremony could be used politically.
While Trump may have won the election, Sunday's Oscars revealed the ways in which Hollywood has moved forward with its efforts to combat its diversity shortcomings and embrace inclusion in meaningful ways.
In 1973, Marlon Brando used his award for Best Actor in The Godfather to speak out in support of Native American rights and Bert Schneider accepted his documentary award two years later by promoting the anti-Vietnam war cause.
While Frank Sinatra and Paddy Chayefsky both criticised their colleagues’ use of the stage as a platform for personal politics in response, the trend continued.
Since the 1970s, the awards evening has continued to offer actors an opportunity to spotlight issues, from civil rights to Aids to US foreign policy.
Increasingly, those political goals have become embedded in the films themselves – and this year’s films were rewarded for their ability to educate and inform.
From Moonlight to the documentary short The White Helmets, the moviemakers used the medium to address serious issues such as race, homosexuality, and the war in Syria.
More significantly, with its selection of nominees this year, the Academy celebrated the diversity of the acting profession. Sunday night’s ceremony notably had the first Muslim American, Mahershala Ali, winning an award for best supporting actor.
And from the speeches to the attire, participants took their political statements to a new level with blue ribbons to support the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to The Salesman’s director Asghar Farhadi boycotting the evening in response to the Trump administration’s travel ban on Iran and six other Muslim-majority nations.
This outward-facing politics marked a real shift from last year’s awards, something host Jimmy Kimmel noted in his opening monologue.
He thanked Trump, saying: “I mean, remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?” Last year’s awards featured the powerful boycott of #Oscarssowhite, as Al Sharpton and Spike Lee sparked a debate about the industry’s record on civil rights.
Last year, with Chris Rock as the host, the evening confronted “the reality of racism in an industry known for its liberal politics”. One message permeated the controversial evening: “Change the culture.”
As the entertainer-in-chief, reality star-turned-president Donald Trump knows well the power of entertainment to change the culture.
But while Trump may have won the election, Sunday’s Oscars revealed the ways in which Hollywood has moved forward with its efforts to combat its diversity shortcomings and embrace inclusion in meaningful ways.
Changing the culture of Trump’s America, however, will require that this effort does not happen once a year, but continues to materialise on and off the screen regularly.
Kathryn Cramer Brownell is an assistant professor of history at Purdue University in West Lafayette, where she teaches courses in 20th-century American history, and is the author of Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.