Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is apparently America’s hottest new cultural commentator, so he’s followed up his out-of-nowhere Huffington Postreview of Girls with an Esquire post explaining why Django Unchained “shouldn’t be up for Best Picture.” Not because he disliked the movie, or was troubled by its racial politics or revisionist history — to the contrary, he “liked Django Unchained and has been recommending it to everyone.” He heartily applauds the acting nomination for Christoph Waltz, and finds Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washignton, and “Jamie Fox” equally commendable. No, the trouble with Django Unchained, writes Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, is that it’s not reputable and respectable enough for the refined Best Picture category.
“Basically, Django Unchained is a B movie,” he writes, not incorrectly. “A damn fine B movie, but still a B movie.” And in Abdul-Jabbar’s view, that distinction disqualifies it from consideration as a proper Best Picture, since “the Academy members have a responsibility to promote films that demonstrate the highest quality on both a technical and literary level.” The emphasis is his, and it’s a peculiar point to push, as the flourish-filled dialogue of Waltz’s King Schultz and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie is, above all else, literary. But we understand what he’s getting at: Django Unchained is a blood-soaked revenge fantasy that deals in types and iconography, and as such, it’s not the kind of serious “A movie” that Oscar should recognize. We get what he’s saying. We just disagree.
Let’s look at the B movie — beyond its casually negative connotation, and at what the phrase actually means. It goes back to the era of the double feature, when studios owned their own theater chains and usually supplied them with their own product. The high-profile prestige movies that were the headline attractions were the “A movies”; the bottom half of the double bill was filled by “B movies,” either supplied by smaller outfits or by the studio’s own talent, working with fewer resources and lower budgets. These “programmers” tended to be genre films — gangster movies, noir mysteries, Westerns.
So you see how the argument falls apart: yes, we’d never want the Best Picture nominees and winners to include noir mysteries (like Chinatown) or gangster movies (like The Godfather or GoodFellas) or Westerns (like Unforgiven). To his credit, Abdul-Jabbar admits that “a film can be disguised as a B film but actually is an A film, such as The Third Man. But that was written by the literary genius Graham Greene and its insights into the self-justification of evil deeds are as relevant today (think Wall Street and the one percent) as it was in 1949.” For what it’s worth, The Third Man wasn’t a Best Picture nominee, but we agree with the notion! And we’d further note that Greene wasn’t the only writer capable of inserting a little sly, subtle subtext into his potboiler: look beyond the bloodshed and Western tropes of Django Unchained and you may well find a pointed satire of American capitalism. (If you want to seek it out.)
But are such intellectual exercises necessary in the first place? Say Abdul-Jabbar is right, that what you see here is what you get. “Being fun and entertaining and emotionally engaging shouldn’t be enough,” he asserts. To which we reply, why not? Why are only the dry, intellectual, “serious movies” award-worthy?
It’s this kind of snobbishness that has, for decades now, made award season borderline insufferable — and has led the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to consistently read “Best Picture” as “Most Respectable Picture.” It’s how Chariots of Fire beat Raiders of the Lost Ark, how Gandhi beat E.T., how Out of Africa beat Prizzi’s Honor, how The Last Emperor beat Broadcast News and Moonstruck, how Dances with Wolves beat GoodFellas, how Forrest Gump beat Pulp Fiction, how The English Patient beat Fargo.
It wasn’t always so: the Best Picture winners of the 1970s included a cop movie (The French Connection), two gangster flicks (the aforementioned Godfathers), a buddy caper (The Sting), a boxing picture (Rocky), and a romantic comedy (Annie Hall). The makers of those films weren’t afraid of their genres — they just did them so well that no one could argue with their excellence.
“Movies are probably the most powerful and popular art medium in the world,” Abdul-Jabbar writes, accurately. “Yet many people don’t take them seriously as an art form.” That may be true — but the answer is not to pummel and flatten what makes movies great in order to get people to take them “seriously.” Since the form’s conception, it has been populated by men and women of ill repute, con artists and sideshow barkers who offered us the chance to see something exciting and visceral and maybe a little titillating in the dark. The fact that movies are not, at their heart, “serious” is part of why we go to them, and truly memorable movies often aren’t afraid of genre, or cheap thrills, or engaging an audience emotionally as well as intellectually. Great movies can do it all, and that’s nothing for us (or the Oscars) to turn away from.