Awards Season | Glitz, Guilt & Shame: What this year’s Oscar race says about America

Most of the hullabaloo over this year’s Oscars has so far focused on the Battle of the Exes; the tussle between ex-spouses James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow; between Avatar and The Hurt Locker. It’s a great story: the special-effects driven blockbuster that cost (an estimated) $500million versus the little indie movie that barely made back its $16million budget. Both films have nine nominations apiece. And both have walked off with gongs at pre-Oscars awards.

Will the Oscar voters choose the fantasy movie set on an imaginary planet or the grimly realistic film set in war-torn Iraq? If they plump for Avatar does it mean that 3D really is the future, as Cameron proclaims? If The Hurt Locker blows its rivals away, is it a sign that there is room in the multiplex for more thoughtful fare?

Whether Avatar or The Hurt Locker proves the winner on March 7 will tell us a lot about Hollywood, but there’s another contest in this year’s Oscar race that is even more revealing.

The Blind Side and Precious go head to head in two Oscar categories: Best Film and Best Actress. Both films deal with the rescuing of a downtrodden black teenager, but they couldn’t be more different.

The Blind Side, which stars Oscar nominee Sandra Bullock as a wealthy white Southerner who adopts a homeless African-American boy, is a movie that America’s conservative heartland has taken to its heart – grossing over $230million at the US box office.

Precious, which stars Oscar-nominated newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as an illiterate black teenage girl enduring unimaginable miseries in 1980s New York, has been scooping up awards since its debut at Sundance last year, but it’s also been generating considerable controversy.

“Not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious,” fulminated African-American critic Armond White. “Full of brazenly racist clichés… it is a sociological horror show.” Others have dismissed the film as “self-hatred paraded for the edification of liberal white folks”.

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The Blind Side also has its share of black misery on display, but here it is a rich white woman, a born-again Christian no less, who proffers the helping hand that redeems the black victim. And she does so as an individual, prompted by her conscience and enabled by her wealth, in contrast to the representatives of the state – teacher, social worker, nurse – who come to the aid of Precious.

Which movie will come out on top at the Oscars? The movie that makes conservatives feel good about themselves or the one that makes liberals feel guilty?

Precious is on general release. The Blind Side is released on 12th March.