Op-Ed: The Oscars Got it Right

by David Wang, Columnist

Amidst the controversies regarding diversity and #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented its annual awards on Feb. 28, 2016. With six wins and a virtual sweep of the technical awards, Mad Max: Fury Road took home the most little gold men, but Spotlight won the big prize of Best Picture. For this writer, Mad Max was the best film of the year, while Spotlight was the most consequential.

Set in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse, Mad Max stars Tom Hardy as the titular protagonist, a role first popularized by Mel Gibson 30 years ago. Max eventually finds himself in a high-octane car chase through the desert, joining forces with the indomitable Imperator Furiosa (portrayed by Charlize Theron) to free the imprisoned wives of the evil dictator Immortan Joe. With fast-paced scenes and nonstop graphic spectacles, Mad Max is the visual embodiment of an adrenaline rush.

While it is easy to dismiss Mad Max as a run-of-the-mill action movie, director George Miller elevates his film, creating dazzling and beautiful scenes while telling a heroic story about redemption and autonomy that empowers female characters. In fact, most of the film centers on Furiosa’s fierce determination to defy Immortan Joe’s tyrannical patriarchy. As Joe’s wives tell him before they escape, “We are not things.”

Towards the climax of the film, our heroes are joined by a matriarchal motorcycle tribe, a group of older women soldiers who join in the fight against Joe. Mad Max creates a world where women stand up for themselves and take control of their own destinies against oppression. Furiosa is not just a foil or backup to Max—she is the leader of the pack.

As Mad Max swept the technical categories on Oscar night, what was particularly striking was that the film was a story about women made by women; out of Mad Max’s six Oscars, four were won by women (Best Film Editing; Best Costume Design; Best Makeup and Hairstyling; Best Production Design). As Charlize Theron herself said, “George [Miller] has this innate understanding that women are just as complex and interesting as men, and he was really interested in discovering all of that.”

With the build up to the big award of the evening (and some memorable moments along the way, such as a guest appearance by Vice President Joe Biden and Leonardo DiCaprio’s long overdue win for Best Actor), actor Morgan Freeman presented the Best Picture Oscar to Spotlight, a true story of how a team of Boston Globe reporters exposed a massive child sex abuse scandal and cover-up in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. The film is the very definition of ensemble acting, with each character masterfully coordinated with another to bring this story to light.

I named Spotlight the most consequential film of the year because it is a story about the great power and responsibility of storytellers across the world: speaking for those who are so often silenced and overlooked by society. The film depicts the bureaucratic red tape that covered up survivors’ stories and their brave efforts to come forward with the truth.

Director Tom McCarthy left no stone unturned and also documented the role that, unfortunately, lawyers played in the scandal, profiting by contributing to the cover-up. Spotlight forces us to confront difficult ethical quandaries that challenge the legal profession. Those hard truths form the very theme of Spotlight, making it the most important film of 2015. The film’s tagline reminds us of just that: “Break the story. Break the silence.”

Mad Max: Fury Road and Spotlight could not be more different in style and substance. However, both films share remarkably powerful social messages about the power and significance of good storytelling. In a year when the Academy has made several questionable and controversial decisions, it has at least brought attention to films that are important and relevant.