Kareem Abdul-Jabbar critiques the Best Picture nominees

Tonight is the big night for films when the 2014 Academy Awards are given out. While I love films, I hate awards shows in general and find them incredibly boring and so will not watch. I have only seen Gravity from among the nine nominees for Best Picture and I reviewed it here. I thought it was good but not great.

But in the category of Best Documentary I have seen two nominees: Dirty Wars (review) and 20 Feet From Stardom (review). I liked both but I really hope the former wins because what it says about America’s involvement in the world should be better known.

Although not a basketball fan, I knew of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as an overpowering player who set all kinds of records during his long career. The first inkling I had that he had a strong interest in films was when he appeared in the hilarious Airplane! (1980) playing the co-pilot. Then I saw him appear in 2011 on The Colbert Report to plug a documentary that he had produced and it was clear that he was a film enthusiast.

He now has an interesting article where he reviews all the nine candidates for Best Picture. In the process, he makes some pretty insightful points about films and acting, criticizing the Academy for playing it safe, by rewarding historical dramas even when they are weak.

I don’t mean to sound cynical, but when I look at the films nominated for Best Picture, I can’t help but feel disappointed that such a glittery, bloated event, which costs roughly $38 million to produce, doesn’t have more substance to justify its self-congratulatory pride.

This is not an attack on the Oscars or the many fine artists who deserve recognition and praise. We should reward their remarkable and memorable achievements in acting, writing, directing, and all the other categories. This is a questioning of only one category: Best Picture. And why the Academy continues to play it safe in this category, like the young first-timer in prison who tries to be the best buddy to everyone and to not offend anyone.

For me, the Best Picture should display excellence in acting, directing, and all the other elements that go into making a film. But it should also be greater than the sum of those parts. The Best Picture should have emotional impact, yes, but not only emotional impact, or that would be melodrama. The emotional wallop it produces should illuminate some fresh insight into human relationships: personal, social, and political. We should come out of such a film somehow changed by it because we can now see the world and our role in it more clearly — and make that world and our lives better because of it.

Hollywood consistently makes amazing movies that are visual delights, suspenseful as a ticking bomb, and able to evoke a wide spectrum of emotions. Keep it up, Hollywood. You deserve all the credit you get for it. But Best Picture should be us at our artistic height, not just technically, but also intellectually, holding up the lamp of truth so that we may glimpse ourselves as we are and then do something about it.

You must read the update at the very end where he gives his own pick and why. His choice was already on my must-see list.

I also totally agreed with his take on Gravity.

Gravity is an old-fashioned woman-in-jeopardy film dressed up in stunning technology to distract us from the weak story. It strains to give thematic depth: Woman who is untethered from humanity and God because her daughter died eventually embraces life after a chat with a subconscious angelic messenger and is rewarded by her return to an Eden-like state of grace. Redemption story template #23.

He may be expecting too much from an industry that is entertainment and profit-driven but he is clearly a lover of films.

Here’s his 2011 appearance with Stephen Colbert.

The Colbert Report
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(This clip aired on May 19, 2011. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)


  1. Matt G says

    Speaking of connections to movies, he was also in Bruce Lee’s last movie. Lee died during filming and only appears in the later scenes (which were filmed first).

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Oscar was never about art. It’s about business. There is, now and then, a little overlap.

  3. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    I watched Gravity the other night and was distinctly unimpressed with the plot and the terrible science.

    Visually stunning but, way too much conveniencitis and poor characterisation.

    Destroying Space Shuttle’s which we don’t fly these days was bad enough without making up an entirely imaginary one. (Explorer -- no that’s not one of the orbiters we’ve ever built! First US satellite launched and one of the an eponymous series yes, Shuttle, no.)

    Destroying the Hubble Sapce Observatory was sacrilege! -To then be jumping across straight to the handy space stations International and Chinese … Arrrrgh!

    I found myself very quickly in “nope, just don’t buy that” mode. Pity because i’d been looking forward to seeing it for ages, quite a let down.

    Best space disaster and survival story movie remains Apollo 13 by Astronomcial Units in my view.

    Also I haven’t yet seen ‘Twelve Days A Slave’ so I can’t really say much, but from what I’ve heard and read I do think it was a good choice for Best Picture oscar winner.

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    I watched the Colbert clip. Did you notice that they are wearing similar neckties?

  5. Mano Singham says

    Yes, I did. It must be a coincidence. Men tend to favor blue and red ties on TV.

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