Wednesday, January 27, 2016

On Racing Extinction and why the Oscars matter

Director Louie Psihoyos' documentary Racing Extinction is a powerful call to action for anyone concerned about our planet's future.

I love the Academy Awards. That love is among the main reasons I devote so much time and energy to this site. I do not claim the Academy is infallible. Hell, I do not agree with even a majority of the winners most years, though I would argue they are more in the ballpark than many critics would have you believe. For me, it is not necessarily about the winners. It is about what an Academy Award stands for – if not for an objective best, then for the quest for transcendence through art.

It is a lofty goal that maybe the Academy does not always live up to, but even its existence is good for art, artists, and fans. The diversity scandal in which the Academy is embroiled saddens me because it undermines the soul of the institution, which is as much about pointing a way forward for the film industry as cherishing and preserving its past. Diversity is more than the future, though. It is the now, and the Academy is distressingly behind.

Activist Shawn Heinrichs surrounded by shark fins in Racing Extinction.
President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the governors board are to be commended for their quick work in making adjustments to the membership and voting guidelines to address concerns of racial and gender diversity within the Academy. Change has been a long time coming, and it is arriving late, but progress is progress, and I hope the Academy will not be satisfied by a few new rules and instead press on to become an all-inclusive organization that represents and reflects the whole film community.

In the wake of this current, though sadly not new, controversy, some have called for a boycott of the Oscars ceremony, Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Michael Moore among them. I would not fault anyone for making an ethical decision or abiding a personal moral code, but I cannot help but feel a blanket boycott is a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This feeling became more acute after viewing the masterful documentary Racing Extinction.

Every year, when the nominations are announced, I begin the frantic process of tracking down and watching the more obscure nominees that I failed to see in theaters – a list which this year includes the fantastical Swedish oddity The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared and the gorgeously animated When Marnie Was There. Last night, I caught up with Kirby Dick’s campus sexual assault documentary The Hunting Ground and Louie Psihoyos’ Racing Extinction.

Psihoyos won an Academy Award six years ago for his dolphin slaughter exposé The Cove, and while his second feature unfortunately has not been nominated for Best Documentary, it will be included in the broadcast as a Best Original Song nominee for J. Ralph and Antony Hegarty’s “Manta Ray.” We will talk about the song’s chances next month in our Countdown to the Oscars feature, but right now, I want to address the greater importance of this film.

Racing Extinction concerns the human-caused mass die-offs of an alarming array of the planet’s species – from some of the earth’s smallest creatures, the phytoplankton that provide the oxygen we all breathe, to its largest, the blue whale. While it is not as singularly focused as The Cove nor as accomplished from a filmmaking standpoint, it makes up for these minor shortcomings with the strength of its convictions and the power of its message.

This is not a global warming movie, though that topic is addressed, too. Racing Extinction is about the myriad ways human interference has forever altered the global ecosystem, overfishing sharks and manta rays to near extinction, wiping out frog and bird species left and right through sheer carelessness, and yes, raising the temperature of the earth to dangerous levels. Every single one of us is in part responsible for the state of things, but the beauty of Psihoyos’ approach is that he tasks each of us also with taking responsibility for being part of the solution.

A blue whale dives ever deeper in Racing Extinction.
Too many films of this type present a doomsday scenario and leave it at that. Well, anyone who is paying attention – which is to say, anyone who would watch a documentary like this – is well aware of the mountain we have to climb. We just need a guide. The reality presented in Racing Extinction is dire, but it is paired with hope for a brighter future and faith that humanity has the will to work toward that future. Nihilism has never been useful, and Psihoyos knows this. Instead, he fosters urgency with optimism, which makes Racing Extinction a must-see film.

I was familiar with Psihoyos from The Cove and his photography and conservation work. I am an admirer, but I would have been unlikely to seek out Racing Extinction had it not been nominated for an Academy Award. Frankly, there are just too many movies to see everything, and the Oscar nod was just the motivation I needed to discover this wonderful documentary. Others hopefully have sought out the film as well for similar reasons. I do not know if the original song nominees will be performed on the Oscars telecast this year, but if they are, it will provide a great showcase for this film’s necessary message, and one hopes even more people will be drawn to it.

That is the power of the Academy Awards and the mission of an organization such as the Academy. Issues of diversity absolutely should be raised, and that conversation should continue in the film industry far beyond the Academy. Maybe the Academy Awards are silly and inherently problematic, but they also provide a forum for awareness and consideration of the world and our place in it. I hope that at least is a mission we can all support.

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