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Culture Circuit: Thank You, Academy, For Saving ‘Roma’ From You

Walking through the airport of a major Mexican city as I did this weekend, you’d notice a peculiar phenomenon. “Roma” fever has gripped the country. You heard, perhaps, about the ‘Romafest’ that gripped the capital on Oscar Sunday. Free screenings, a festival in the eponymous neighborhood to broadcast the awards. And the excitement extended beyond Mexico City: celebrations extended from star Yalitza Aparicio’s hometown in Tlaxiaco, in the southern state of Oaxaca, and from coast to coast.

But if you took a moment to look at the magazine stands, the newspapers, and

Yalitza’s nomination caused shock waves

the billboards, you would realize that the cultural sensation extended beyond mere revelry. Alfonso Cuaron’s three-time Oscar-winning masterpiece sparked a grueling, national conversation in Mexico. And, in one fell swoop, it should forever change the way Latinos are perceived at home as well.

All of this could have been imperiled, one suspects, had “Roma” won Best Picture. Its three prizes—for Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Cinematography—are the pinpoint perfect outcome for everyone. The Academy will look smart, retrospectively, recognizing a movie outside its bailiwick with this many prizes. And ‘Roma’ will be permitted to live without the indelible stain that a Best Picture Oscar can sometimes bestow.

The Oscar Curse Strikes Again

The engraving tool was not dry on “Green Books” Best Picture Oscar when the cacophony of the Internet deafened cheers. “The Worst Best Picture Winner” in years, some immediately called it. Comparisons to the dreaded ‘Crash.’ And, of course, facile accusations of racism against the Academy and the film’s supporters.

As it happens, I thought “Green Book” was without question the least worthy of the top prize of the eight nominees. But one does question the depth of knee-jerk negative historical judgments. It is fair to wonder whether the tenor of the conversation has gotten so toxic that we cannot weather subjective disagreement over art without vilifying each other. Undoubtedly, a healthy, intractable debate over how we think about racial issues is important. “Green Book” does not get a free pass because it has purported good intentions. Nor, however, can one fairly paint each and every “Green Book” voter with the lazily broad strokes of prejudice or ignorance. Surely, human beings are more complex and multilayered than these reductive panaceas?

The point, of course, is that because history is no longer written by the victors, but by the louder among us, being anointed the ‘Best’ really is a hex in the age of the angry person with an iPhone. As awards season got into full swing, I wrote with trepidation about what a Best Picture win could do to my beloved ‘Roma.’ The trench warfare that has broken out over the actual winner since then has validated my fears.

Roma’s Oscar Tally Makes the Academy Look Good

Meanwhile, ‘Roma’ made history in several impressive ways. It became the first Foreign Language Film Oscar for Mexico. It is the first foreign film to win for Best Director. And, it is one of few movies with a distinctly not-White American perspective to do this well with Oscar.

Roma’s Oscars coverage in Mexico

Who knows what the ultimate verdict will be on the Academy’s top selection for the 2018 movie year. But it seems reasonably safe to assume that the Academy can boast sophistication and inclusivity with how it treated ‘Roma’ this year. Add to that historical wins for African Americans and women at the 91st Oscars. There will be much that Oscar historians will look at with admiration in the years to come.

And it really is remarkable. For a group that at times seems hopelessly stuck on one type of movie, a movie about only the things they identify with, ‘Roma’s’ three Oscar wins in major categories are almost unimaginable. A movie about Mexican society in the 1970s? About a live-in maid? In Spanish? Forget about it.

Latinx Culture—Forever Changed by ‘Roma’?

 Meanwhile, unburdened by a tougher-to-climb “Best” label, ‘Roma’ can continue to further the conversations it has already spiked. It is hard to overestimate the seismic cultural aftershocks rippling through Mexico because of this film.

The first layer is that of the tremendous pride it has engendered in the Mexican people. Jokingly, most will refer to themselves as perennial losers, failing to get past the knockout round in all World Cups they have not hosted, and losing a bevy of wars to their northern neighbors. But now they have five Best Director Oscars in six years, and the first statuette for the country. Mexicans can and do feel as if their culture is being lauded to greater-than-ever degrees.

Cuaron’s biographical film has also sparked difficult, at times gruesome conversations within the country. A small but vocal minority, undoubtedly filled with equal parts jealousy and hate, expressed nasty, classist, racist comments against Aparicio and her appearance. Rumors and memes swirled about supposed plots by other actresses to deny the first-time actress prize at local celebrations.

‘Green Book’ has sparked a furious discussion about America’s fits-and-starts dealing with race and inequality. ‘Roma’ has done more or less the same for Mexico. It extends beyond the fact that domestic workers are never the center of art or cultural attention. Their treatment, depicted with gripping honesty and without sensationalism, betrays the imbedded contradictions that characterize our southern neighbor. Namely: the kind, familial love for Cleo, contrasted with her always “otherness.” What will Mexicans do with the uncomfortable truth more openly spoken, that their society is tinged with injustice and racism as many others are? Only time will tell. But, if the outsized, overwhelmingly positive reactions to the film are any indication, my hopes are high for the future.

Cuaron profile in local magazine

Stateside, meanwhile, “Roma” has or should slowly change the way we think about Latinx cultures. In a nutshell, “Roma” exemplifies more than ever the truth Latinx people know about ourselves but that sometimes seems to escape even out most well-intentioned men: Latinos are not a monolith. Extrapolating from the different classes, ethnicities, and races you can witness in ‘Roma,’ the film provides valuable insight as to why Latinx immigrants into the United States can be of many different varieties. Contrary to the best efforts of politicians and the media to tell you otherwise, different values and priorities motivate various groups and factions. Cuaron himself, is racially white, even if he is, obviously, culturally Hispanic. Most importantly, white folk have no monopoly on pernicious race distinctions: they are alive and well in Hispanic countries (and, logically, by extension, Latino communities) as well.

That one can derive all this from such a quiet, unassuming film, is a testament to their lasting power. It is the reason we live and love movies. And that bestowing an honor as unparalleled as Best Picture could, paradoxically, threaten all of that, is confounding. But, in the case of Alfonso Cuaron’s film, it may very well be a bullet dodged in any case.

What do you think about Roma’s Oscars tally? Should it have won Best Picture? Let us known in the comments section below!


What do you think?

Written by J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam is a New York-based film critic and journalist. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online, the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and an inaugural member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.


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