Mya Jeanette Taylor in Tangerine
Much has been made about the “whitewashing” at the Oscars, which have overlooked many talented black directors and stars. We are happy to present an antidote in the ninth annual Progie Awards, which annually recognize films and filmmakers who stand up for civil rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights, peace, and the environment. The Progies recognize nonwhite films and artists, as well as pro-LGBT, pro-worker and pro-women talent through categories honoring films that deal with these subjects in a progressive way.
Although artistic excellence is the stated standard for the Motion Picture Academy’s coveted golden statuettes, commercial considerations and studio politicking often come into play, with Oscar campaigns that can cost millions of dollars (more than the budgets of most indies). For the Progies, progressive films are chosen through a democratic process every year by the James Agee Cinema Circle, an international group of left-leaning film critics, historians and scholars.
Drum roll please!
The Trumbo for Best Progressive Film
This top Progie goes to Experimenter. Based on real-life research that used humans as lab rats to explore the limits of conformity and more, Experimenter, failed to receive a single Oscar nomination. Written and directed by Michael Almereyda, Experimenter depicts the 1961 Yale University psychology tests designed by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, in which people willingly used electric shocks to control others. Experimenter co-stars Winona Ryder, John Lequizamo, and Dennis Haysbert, with Peter Sarsgaard as Milgram.
The Paul Newman Best Progressive Actor Award.
Two winners here. Sarsgaard tied with Bryan Cranston, who portrayed the title character in the film Trumbo. Trumbo depicts the heroic struggle of Spartacus screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and other lefty Tinseltown talents to break the Hollywood Blacklist. Trumbo and other “Hollywood Ten” artists were sentenced and fined for contempt of Congress after they refused to tell the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1947 about their participation in the Communist Party. Trumbo forthrightly shows that Dalton had indeed been a dues paying, card-carrying Communist Pary member. The well-acted movie is notable for its sympathetic treatment of Reds, who were intensely persecuted in “the land of the free” during the McCarthy witch-hunts.
The Robeson Award for Intersectionality
Sean Baker’s Tangerine, starring and about transgender African Americans, won The Robeson, after singer, actor, activist Paul Robeson. Innovatively shot with iPhones, Tangerine was, like many other films featuring African Americans, completely neglected by the Academy. Starring Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, this romp of a movie is a warm, non-judgemental portrayal of a Los Angeles sub-culture many consider too taboo to dwell on in film.
The Marianne and Juliane Progie Award for Best Pro-Feminist Film
Another movie totally snubbed by the Academy, Suffragette, took this award (named after Margarethe von Trotta’s 1982 German film about sisters). Suffragette offers a fact-based, stirring saga of Britain’s turn-of-the-century, militant movement for women’s right to vote. Carey Mulligan portrays a rank-and-file proletarian who joins the cause, along with Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep, in a cameo as the feisty, fiery Emmeline Pankhurst.
The Dziga for Best Progressive Documentary
Kirby Dick’s hard-hitting, anti-rape documentary The Hunting Ground, about the scourge of sexual abuse on America’s college campuses, edged out Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next to win this award, named after Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov. The Hunting Ground did receive some Oscar recognition: it’s composition by Lady Gaga was nominated.
Our Daily Bread Progie for Most Positive and Inspiring Working Class Screen Image.
Director Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall, about Irish working-class resistance to British rule, took this Progie, which is named after a 1934 film produced by Charlie Chaplin about an American commune during the Great Depression.
The Gillo Progie for Best Progressive Foreign Film
Roy Andersson’s Swedish comedy A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence was another Oscar oversight, and well deserving of this award. The category is named for Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo, who directed 1966’s The Battle of Algiers.
To be sure, there were some overlaps between this year’s Academy Awards and Progies.
The Renoir Progie for Best Pro-Peace Film
Tobias Lindholm’s Danish feature A War (Krigen), about alleged war crimes committed by Danes in Afghanistan and the subsequent trial took this Progie. (A War was Oscar-nominated in the Best Foreign Language category). The Renoir is named after French director Jean Renoir, who made the 1937 antiwar masterpiece La Grande Illusion.
The Karen Morley for Best Actress
The great Cate Blanchett snagged this Progie for her role in the movie Carol. The Todd Haynes picture based on a Patricia Highsmith novel is up for six Oscars, including Blanchett and her co-star Rooney Mara for Best Actress. (This Progie Award is named for Karen Morley, co-star of 1932’s Scarface and 1934’s Our Daily Bread. Morley was driven out of Hollywood in the 1930s for her leftist views, but maintained her militant political activism for the rest of her life, running for New York’s Lieutenant Governor on the American Labor Party ticket in 1954. She passed away in 2003, unrepentant to the end, at the age of 93.)
The Conformist Progie for Best Anti-Fascist Film
This award went to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence - which deals with the genocidal slaughter of hundreds of thousands of suspected Communists by the U.S.-backed General Suharto coup in 1965 Indonesia. The Look of Silence is a sort of sequel to Oppenheimer’s 2012 The Act of Killing - both Silence and Killing received Oscar nominations in the Best Documentary division.
The Bunuel for Best Slyly Subversive Film
Adam McKay’s witty anti-Wall Street The Big Short, about those banks too big to fail—or jail, took this one home. This Progie category is named after the Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel, co-director with Salvador Dali of 1929’s The Andalusian Dog, 1967’s Belle de Jour and many other classics.
The Sergei, the Lifetime Progressive Achievement Progie
It is with some sadness that we remember the recently-deceased Haskell Wexler with this award. Wexler, long a lefty stalwart in Hollywood, won two Best Cinematography Oscars. One for Mike Nichols’ directorial debut, 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and the 1976 Woody Guthrie film, Bound for Glory. Haskell also brought his cinematographer talents to: Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1971); The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (1972); the Vietnam War 1974 documentary Introduction to the Enemy, starring Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden; Underground, a 1976 film about the Weatherman; and Bus Riders Union, from 2000. Wexler, who died at age 93, may be best known for directing 1969’s landmark Medium Cool, which combined documentary footage of the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago with fiction footage.
L.A.-based film historian and critic Ed Rampell is The Progressive’s “Man in Hollywood.” His Progressive interview with America’s former Poet Laureate is in the new book Conversations with W.S. Merwin.