Now that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has moved swiftly to make changes helping to create a more diverse membership, my thoughts on this year’s hashtag – #Oscarsowhite – are beside the point. But my thoughts on why the movie Concussion lost out in this race are relevant in that I want to encourage people to see the film, though it will fast be gone from movie theatres thanks to its pathetic publicity campaign (as I understand it the production company did not even send out screeners to voters, thereby tanking chances for nominations in any categories).
I saw Concussion when it was screening at the Palm Springs International Film Festival a couple of weeks ago — because who can turn down a film starring Will Smith — and because I sensed it had the social justice angle I enjoyed in Erin Brokovitch and Norma Rae. Those films received nominations – and won Oscars – so after seeing it – and after the Oscar nominations were announced – I wondered why didn’t Concussion earn anything? The themes of the film are well worth delving into — so are many other aspects of Concussion including how it speaks to women and people of color and what it teaches writers about honing a story and polishing dialogue.
Concussion deals with how a huge corporation – the NFL – disregarded – and continues to disregard – the life and health of its most visible employees – the team players. Concussion deals with how the NFL’s need to make mega-bucks made them bury the truth of CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – the disease Dr. Bennett Omalu discovered while peforming autopsies on retired players, beginning with Mike Webster, a legendary player for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That meant that the mothers, sisters, wives and daughters of such players were denied the chance to understand and to help the beloved men in their lives all for the sake of a game. It is a film writers should see — and should have nominated – because of the nuance of the dialogue. The most telling line in the film is when a representative of the NFL says “If 10-percent of mothers in America decide football is too dangerous for their sons to play, that’s it. It is the end of football.” Of course, the representative utters that line as if the end of football is the end of the world – but I guess it would be the end of HIS world and that’s, sadly, the only world he cares about. Writer Peter Landesman keeps the focus on what matters when he has the doctor respond, “Deny my work, the world will deny it. But men will continue to die. And families will go on being destroyed.”
In his portrayal of Dr. Omalu, Will Smith, who is normally such a powerful presence, earned an Oscar nomination for the way he tranformed into the much more nuanced, humble character of the Nigerian immigrant doctor with medical degrees from more international universities than I could count. Playing a character like that it would be easy to ‘get cocky’ but Smith kept the low key, reality up front in his performance. Now that the Oscar nominations have been made, I feel that Will Smith was robbed. Smith embodied the gentle, spiritual qualities of the real man so deeply, he deserved at least a nomination. Any actor with 2 nominations to his name already (for Pursuit of Happiness and for Ali) would have easily received a nomination for this deeply mature drama.
I know this because after the screening the film festival sponsored a panel with Smith, Landesman and a surprise guest – Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor who discovered that American football practices where destroying the brains of the men who played. During the interplay between Smith and Dr. Omalu, Smith kept going in and out of the accent and persona he had studied and captured while sitting right beside that real life inspiration. That was a lesson in acting all by itself.
The line Landesman said was invented for the film – was one he happily shared credit with actor and writer Albert Brooks, who played Dr. Omalu’s supervisor and supporter. In a nice look at how well film collaboration works when everyone wants what is best for the story (and not merely what’s best for themselves) there is a line Brooks added to what Landesman began with on the page. In trying to demonstrate the importance of American football to the Nigerian immigrant who had never seen a game, Landesman had Brooks’ character say “The NFL owns a day of the week!” That is a great line. But Landesman originally followed it up with the weaker “They’re very big!” While working on the scene, Brooks improvised a better follow up line: “The same day the church used to own.” THAT’s a line that says something specific – much stronger than “They’re very big.” Nice writing lesson I’d say. That’s why the script deserved an Oscar nomination as well. And that’s why even without nominatinos everyone should see this movie.
I have friends who saw Concussion back to back with Spotlight – which tells the story of the reporters who broke the priest abuse scandal. What my friends’ came away with was shock that the NFL was more powerful than the Catholic church. Imgine. Both films are structurally the same – a small set of characters discover important information that a profitable corporation wants to hide – and in each film the characters are discredited. For Concussion it’s important for audiences to see how much more easily an immigrant of color could be discredited – Dr. Omalu is called a voodoo doctor by some and anti-American by others – even though by publishing his findings he is trying to save the lives of Americans — and not just rich, football players who one could say accepted the risk in exchange for money but the hoards of little boys who want to play tackle football as preteens.
Usually films about true American heroes – ones who fight against great odds to save others – are not only nominated for Oscars, but they win them handily. Remember Erin Brokovitch and Norma Rae. For Brokovitch, Julia Roberts won the Academy Award and the film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. For Norma Rae, Sally Field won the Academy Awards for Best Actress and the film won for Best Original Song while also being nominated for Best Picture and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. The film was also nominated to the Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.
Those facts started me wondering… why all these plaudits for women bucking big business and none for the man of color who did so? I’m bemused, bothered and bewildered. And just plain mad.
When my son played Little League the coaches referred to baseball as either the Gentleman’s sport or the thinking man’s sport – even comparing baseball to chess in the way players needed to always know where the other players were and what moves were possible. I understood that idea. I’ve never understood anyone’s fascination with American football — though the film Concussion did a good job of offering both sides by showing the many, many fans – males and females alike –
who consider the moves the players make to be balletic. Frankly, I prefer to pay to see Misty Copeland do actual ballet. And if all those folks who call American football ‘balletic’ paid to see an ACTUAL ballet every now and then the arts in America wouldn’t be in such financial difficulties.
So the final question is how to respond to the lack of Oscars for this very worthy film – and to the NFL for not responding fast enough to this deep danger to their players. Since both Hollywood and the NFL are major corporations I suggest our money is the best weapon to wield. So far the film has made less than any other Will Smith film – can we change that? I hope so. Frankly, I think anyone who watches the Superbowl owes it to their gridiron heroes to watch Concussion – THAT would make it financially successful even if it’s too late for it to be critically acclaimed.