Saturday, February 6, 2016

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Concussion" (2016)

Will Smith in Concussion
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Concussion (2015)
Directed By: Peter Landesman
Written By: Peter Landesman (Screenplay, Jeanne Marie Laskas (Article)
Starring: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks
Genre: Biography, Drama, Sport
Running Time: 123 minutes
Summary: In Pittsburgh, accomplished pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu uncovers the truth about brain damage in football players who suffer repeated concussions in the course of normal play.

The Movie

Among the biggest prestige movies of last Fall, everyone had pitted Will Smith in Concussion to be in the Oscar conversation for sure. For the most part, you could say that he was. The film that followed the Nigerian born pathologist Dr. Omalu focused on an event that was rather influential in the evolution of football. With an unflattering light on the National Football League (NFL), the film sought to highlight the lack of treatment being taken upon for those greatly injured upon receiving a concussion. The film sounded like a sure thing, potentially earning Smith his third Oscar nomination, and his first since The Pursuit of Happyness.

After all, sports movies were a guarantee to some respects. In 2011, Moneyball took the hybrid of sports and math and turned it into a Best Picture-nominated drama. It proved that even something so mundane as statistics could become riveting cinema. The same could be said for Concussion, which promised to use actual footage from actual games in order to highlight their points. With all of this said, The NFL are one of the biggest sports organizations currently in America, so anything bad about the film would be controversial. All of this is perfect fuel for what would become Concussion.

In the film's defense, it was an important subject told importantly. When producer Ridley Scott approached Smith with the script, the actor looked at Scott, baffled, and told him that he was a huge fan of football and didn't want to see it badmouthed publicly. However, he came around to it and now firmly believes that it's still a great sport with great risks, but that it's also one that needs to have some major treatment done to fix its many, many problems.

The Campaign

It starts with the basic gimmick: Will Smith vs. The NFL. There was no way around this. By the time that it finally premiered, there were already sports enthusiasts ready to boycott the movie. While the prognosticators were claiming that Smith was a shoe-in for The Oscars thanks to an amazing performance, there was still The NFL to get around. For starters, the film used footage of games without expressed written consent. This was before getting to the elephant in the room: The NFL wasn't game on supporting a film that decried the health practices by which they treated their injured. It didn't help that Concussion decided to run ads during actual games.

While they were not keen, activist groups sought out the film and thought that the film did excellent workv on capturing an unbiased viewpoint of Omalu's groundbreaking work. However, there was one conflict raised in regards to the portrayal of one person: Dave Duerson. A family member complained that his portrayal of being slow was wrong and inappropriate. What was Landesman's defense? It was that the film was "emotionally and spiritually accurate all the way through." Considering that Smith spent an extensive amount of time with Omalu (including doing autopsies), there's no denying some form of accuracy, though Landesman's comments are particularly vague and are more of a disservice. Of course, this doesn't explain Smith's Nigerian accent - which was maligned upon the first trailer's release on YouTube.

So, how do you fight The NFL? The answer is simple: free stuff. While The NFL hasn't changed their status on the film, the company decided to allow actual players see the film for free. All they had to do was show their NFLPA card and they would get admission. It's a tactic often used for war films and military members. The concept sort of worked, as many members who have played admitted that the film brought back haunting flashbacks and that it was accurate in a lot of ways (no word on it being emotionally or spiritually, though). Among those who loved the film were Darrelle Revis of The Jets. He was one of hundreds to enjoy it. 

If one thing good came out of the campaign, it was that the public conversation around concussion treatment has become public again. While many accept that it's a risk that comes with the game, many are still trying to make treatment for the potential injuries more accessible. Even if the film only vicariously inspired it, it helped to raise interest for sports fans who haven't been paying attention to this side of the sport. Even if Concussion doesn't have the backing of The NFL, it at least has the support of activist groups that want to seek change. It is too early to determine if anything will come of this.

Among the less important things, Smith was so passionate that he even attended and hosted many Academy Q&A events, including one where he revealed why he turned down Django Unchained. He remained vocal and present in all of them, which kind of worked. The hype was in place, but the Christmas Day release proved to be unfortunate, as it was going up against a lot of heavy contenders, including the expanded release of The Big Short and other potential heavyweight Joy (not to mention the limited releases of The Revenant and The Hateful Eight). The mixed reviews to follow and lack of marketing ended up hurting the film, and it premiered in 7th place at the box office. The film's presence would be tepid from there on.

The Payoff

The film earned Smith a Golden Globe nomination, but that was the end of the line for him. Considering that the film didn't maintain a momentum, the film slowly began to lose recognition in a crowded field. Considering that many think that the Best Actor field, of which Smith would be competing, was so open during the Oscar season, many became disappointed when Concussion failed to show up. In fact, it was one of many films starring black casts to not show up. It lead to a familiar cry, especially for those who remember what happened with Selma in 2014. 

There was a cry calling "Oscars So White," in which the acting fields were packed with nothing but white actors for the second year in a row. Among the candidates that have been singled out for being snubbed were Michael B. Jordan (Creed), the cast of Straight Outta Compton, and Smith himself. The truth is that Smith was probably more reasonable on the situation than one could expect. During interviews later on, he would claim the familiar cry that yes, we need diversity. However, he noted that he lost both of his Oscar nomination to black actors, and he feels humble by that. For the most part, Smith was a gracious loser.

It was his wife who threw a hissy fit. Jada Pinkett Smith took to Twitter shortly following the Oscar nominations and asked for a boycott of the ceremony. This was the charge that lead everyone to give their opinion no matter how familiar or asinine it ended up being. While Pinkett Smith makes no claims that her actions were based on her husband's Oscar snub, there's a strong aura that she is not going to the ceremony not because she didn't stand a chance at nominations, but because she was too proud of her husband to really let the loss just be that. 

Since this moment, Concussion has been back in the news, though not entirely for positive reasons. Most are wondering why Smith wasn't nominated while most have argued the logical response: he just wasn't that great. Whatever the reason, the film's legacy has shifted from being that film that challenged The NFL to being that snubbed black film. While the latter reputation is important for the immediate future, the loss of the former is itself a failure; taking away from something far more important than who wins awards. Should the Oscars be more diverse? Yes. However, to change a film's reputation (while also itself not being the biggest box office smash) just to fit that narrative is unfortunate.

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