‘Mank’ it stop: Dear academy, give us indies

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Underneath the doomsaying about theaters, some hubbub was in the air about this year’s Oscars celebrating independent cinema. “Promising Young Woman” and “The Father” were the six-time nominees that wouldn’t be so celebrated in an ordinary year. The commentary on the nominees turned these productions — which would’ve garnered some nominations anyway — into examples of the academy bending low to pick up independent cinema. 

And yet, in a year when indies were most of the options, the dirtiest the academy would get its hands with independent films were productions starring the likes of Frances McDormand, Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams and Mark Gattiss — all of these names from just two nominees. These are not the lowkey types the Oscars should be patting itself on the back for recognizing.

That’s not to say this year’s nominees were bad, but a nomination for an Academy Award is as much a process of earning one as buying a way in — like everything in the United States, it demands money and resources.

When the academy awarded “Mank” for best cinematography, it chose wrong. Overall, Sunday night was a mixed bag: The wins for “Nomadland” prove some change is afoot, at least in the bigger categories, but among the craft categories, the academy still has vestiges scratching an itch for technological work and expensive-looking sets, in spite of the history making in hair and makeup. 

It’s not that Erik Messerschmidt’s work in “Mank” wasn’t good. It’s that the academy, to no surprise, followed hype and flash over quality, heralding a movie that gave into an industry smitten by itself, rather than an understated, pomp-shy work such as “Nomadland.” For a big share of the run-up to the ceremony, there was a long-running argument that “Mank” is actually the antithesis of a picture that asks Hollywood to be self-congratulatory. Vox, in their review, wrote that “Mank” isn’t a feel-good Hollywood story because it recognizes the “real-world implications to the way the movie business runs.”

That’s some high-wire balancing act mumbo jumbo. “Mank” is exactly the opposite of this supposed sobriety. By its nature, “Mank” is congratulations to a Hollywood confronting its past — in this case, that past is the treatment of Hollywood’s laborers. Director David Fincher latched onto the momentum of the past decade-or-so’s racial reckoning, pivoting it and giving Hollywood’s age-old (white) talent a round of applause. It’s a movie voters could feel good about voting for because it makes them feel, by recognizing “Mank,” that the industry is turning the corner, atoning for old Hollywood’s ‘sins,’ which remain unending (just in hashtags: #MeToo, #OscarsSoWhite).

Bill Maher recently made a splash in that click-baity way of his by saying something similar. He called this year’s slate dismal and unentertaining, a bunch of movies that make us feel sad. His point might be better directed at the embarrassingly self-serving “Mank.” Nowhere in his laundry list of complaints, however, does Maher mention “Mank,” and for someone so proudly exasperated by boredom, the absence is glaring. 

If Hollywood has been making a shift to smaller stories, then “Mank” is exactly the wrong slice of life. Maher lets it off the hook because it … doesn’t ask us to be sad? In that case, “Mank” asks us to celebrate an industry on the mend — it’s as if Fincher’s film says, “Look how far we’ve come!” 

Whatever nonsensical logic Maher believed in, “Mank” is the most self-pitying movie of the year. Its win is what’s wrong with the Oscars: a celebration of a movie about the movies — how tired that phrase is. (See also the relatable-and-little-else “My Octopus Teacher.”)

On the back of flashy style, grandiose production and ice-cold drama of the past, “Mank” paints an academy that’s still susceptible to the loud, not the good. Well-rounded — a word not applicable to “Mank” — contenders such as “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and “Kajillionaire” were shut out entirely, while “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” was overlooked last year. 

It’s not at all hard to understand why indie darlings without star power didn’t find a home this year. Nothing much changed, and the would-be indie spring didn’t fully materialize. Hollywood cut back a level, letting some fresh faces out of the woodwork, but those faces had the help of heavyweights. When the Oscars roll around next year, don’t expect much to change. Those studio films will return in force, and the Academy will be seeking rehabilitation with a vengeance after all-time low, humiliating ratings. The 93rd Academy Awards were only a blip.

For people such as Maher, maybe it’s time to encourage the academy to dive deeper into independent cinema for movies you might enjoy — not complain about the worthwhile nominees. (Ripe with hypocrisy, Maher features “Schindler’s List” and “12 Years a Slave” in a slideshow of the happy-go-lucky films he fondly remembers.)

And as for the academy, the wins for “Mank” are a sign that the body still maintains a deep-seated aversion to change. Awarding “Mank” and its opulent show is the exact sort of ignorance that has and continues to shut independent and foreign films out of the biggest categories. Instead of turning away majestic but quieter works, give them space to shine, and maybe people will find something new to love.

Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].