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Persall: It would be a mistake for 'La La Land' to win big at the Oscars

Janelle Monae, left, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer star in Hidden Figures, whose three nominations include Spencer for best supporting actress.
Janelle Monae, left, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer star in Hidden Figures, whose three nominations include Spencer for best supporting actress.
Published Feb. 26, 2017

The likeliest best picture winner at tonight's Academy Awards is the worst mistake voters could make.

After six months of film festivals, campaigning and awards shows, every shred of conventional wisdom says La La Land will claim the 89th best picture award.

After two years of #OscarsSoWhite, in our current political climate, handing Hollywood's top prize to an expertly crafted yet lightweight musical starring attractive white people in — you guessed it, Hollywood — is bad optics at best.

La La Land isn't who we are or where we are as a culture today. There's something to be said for bubbly escapism in difficult times, but it isn't "and the Oscar goes to ..."

No, the Oscars aren't so white this year, with seven acting nominees of color and four best picture finalists telling stories of nonwhite cultures.

The academy is fortunate to have a diverse slate of quality films to make amends after most recently shortchanging Selma, Idris Elba and Straight Outta Compton.

Barry Jenkins' Moonlight appears to have the best shot at tripping La La Land, with eight nominations including all the categories in which best pictures typically compete. Fences has half as many nominations, none in categories like director, cinematography and film editing that matter. Lion is roughly in the same situation with six nominations.

But do you know what the culturally savvy choice for best picture this year would be?

Hidden Figures.

It likely won't happen, but considering why it should ties together the academy's, and therefore, Hollywood's lingering issues: diversity and sexism. The Oscars haven't just been so white. They're also so male, not counting categories still using the gender-descriptive "actress."

Hidden Figures tells the true and incredibly obscure until now story of African-American women doing the math for NASA at the dawn of space exploration. It's a solid film, a crowd-pleasing box office success earning three nominations including adapted screenplay and supporting actress Octavia Spencer.

Hidden Figures is also the only best picture nominee that can be considered a result of the #OscarsSoWhite uproar. Preproduction began in early 2016 and rushed to qualify for awards season. Moonlight, Fences and Lion started gestating years before that.

Here's a chance for the academy to say "we listened." The Oscars can invite as many diverse new members as it wishes, but until a movie about people of color not involving slavery or inner city hardship wins best picture, nothing really changes.

Plus, while women are marching worldwide for gender equality, Hidden Figures is right in step. Hollywood doesn't shy away from addressing political issues. Here's an inarguable bipartisan statement that entertains.

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And unlike Moonlight, Fences and the first hour of Lion, Hidden Figures features white people, which is a comfort to, well, white people, still the academy's majority. I can imagine that without name stars and conventional storytelling, Moonlight went unseen by some voters.

Instead, the academy seems ready to dance with La La Land, a movie with nagging race issues of its own. Besides Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone's center stage whiteness, Gosling's character, Sebastian, is a musician driven to play jazz classically, the way it evolved through African-Americans in New Orleans and Harlem.

Meanwhile, Sebastian's friend Keith, played by John Legend, has given up on jazz, opting for an R&B pop sound.

Author and NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called out that plot point in a recent Hollywood Reporter essay.

"The white guy wants to preserve the black roots of jazz while the black guy is the sellout?" Abdul-Jabbar wrote. "This could be a deliberate ironic twist but if it is, it's a distasteful one for African-Americans."

Those issues considered, it just doesn't seem proper for a splashy showbiz fantasy to claim Hollywood's highest honor. Not when black lives shout to matter, brown lives are challenged and worthy movies exist depicting them.

And not when Hidden Figures offers the academy a chance to positively depict black women and head off a pair of unflattering hashtags before they start trending again.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.