The Best Picture race this year was burdened with capital M “Meaning,” more so than in other years in recent memory. The majority of the nominees dovetailed serendipitously with the major cultural debates taking place in in the real world: #MeToo, race, queer representation, the current administration’s war with the press, and so on. And this was the second year since the academy altered its membership rules in response to #OscarsSoWhite, bringing in a flood of new voters who skew younger and more diverse than they have traditionally been in the past, with a quarter of the new members having joined within the past four years. Regardless of who wound up taking home the top prize, it seemed that the choice would feel like a referendum on how much the academy has or hasn’t shifted in its 90 years leading up to Sunday night. Would fresh blood really make for more outside-of-the-box winners, like with Moonlight last year?
The answer, it seems, is yes and no. At the conclusion of a typically long and mostly predictable ceremony, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, the Cold War–era fantasy about a mute woman (Sally Hawkins) whose love for a fishman disrupts the lives of her gay best friend and black co-worker, was crowned Best Picture. On the one hand, the win broke the mold: For the first time in Oscar’s 90-year history, a science-fiction film won in this category. Yet the movie’s triumph feels like a cold, scaly disappointment. It’s liked well enough by critics and audiences (this writer included), but in such a politically charged year, even the fish-monster sex movie feels boringly safe.
Unlike the majority of the other films in the category, The Shape of Water reflects the type of understanding of intersectionality that liberal thinkers strive for. It’s not focused “only” on race, as Get Out is, or only on queer love, as is Call Me by Your Name, or only about a woman’s life-changing self-discovery, as seen in Lady Bird and The Post, respectively. Nope, instead, The Shape of Water encompasses all of those hot-button issues through its three protagonists: the mute custodian (whose presence also brings in the issue of disability), the closeted Giles (Richard Jenkins), and the hard-working black woman Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Each of them broadly represents, quite obviously, a different marginalized group for audiences to identify with, and the arguable fourth protagonist, the monster, ties it all together, representing every kind of “other” that has been demonized both in the movies and in real life. Meanwhile, Del Toro deliberately set the film in the early 1960s, before “the end of Camelot,” because he had correctly identified that as the time that many Americans think of when they speak of wanting to “Make America Great Again”—despite the fact that that time was perhaps only truly great if you were a straight, white, able-bodied man.
This connection to our current president, however, lurks deep in the subtext, and it’s this historical lens, as well as the fairy-tale setting around it (del Toro deliberately bookends the film with a storybook intro and outro) that made Shape a more palatable pick than a more contemporary and challenging film such as Get Out. By placing the story in the past and gussying it up with nostalgic allusions to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, he distances the audience from the issues, adding much more than a spoonful of sugar, even though at their core, they remain maddeningly relevant today. The threat of a male boss wielding his power over the women who work for him, as embodied by the staunch, sadistic U.S. Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon), is #MeToo in a nutshell—but the character is written as an almost comic-book villain who speaks in such overtly sexist, racist terms that he seems wholly a product of his time, as antiquated as his Cadillac Coupe de Ville.
Get Out, on the other hand, may have been single-minded in its overarching subject—race—but it hit viewers where it hurt. While both films rely heavily on allegorical elements and the subversion of genre conventions to tell their stories, Jordan Peele lets his allegory play out in the here and now, forcing even contemporary, liberal white audiences to confront their own prejudices. Had it won, it would’ve been only the second Best Picture after In the Heat of the Night, 50 years ago, to show racism from a contemporary black perspective. (Moonlight was only indirectly “about” race, and past winners such as Driving Miss Daisy and 12 Years a Slave all pointed their lens backward in time.) And even more so than In the Heat of the Night, Get Out is an indictment of white America that provides no “good” white characters or saviors.
The only other Best Picture–nominated film to feel so ripped from the headlines of 2017 was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and thankfully that film proved polarizing enough to keep the academy from embarrassing itself with a repeat of 2006, when it gave its top award to another film in which a racist cop finds something akin to redemption by coming to the aid of a sexual assault victim. But while The Shape of Water might be no Crash, it’s not easy to get excited about its place in the academy’s history books, either. Instead, 2018 seems to have found its King’s Speech or The Artist, the kind of likable winner that elicits little more than a shrug when—or if—you ever think back on it.