But that mark of 38 percent has not remained constant over time. Through the 90 years of Oscar history, the data show a modest upward trend in the percentage of best picture nominees tackling issues each year. In the first 30 years of the Oscars, 34 percent of nominees were political; in the most recent 30 years, that figure has jumped to 41 percent.
Not only do the 2018 nominees share a political theme, but two of them also go so far as to specifically put President Trump’s face onscreen. In “Vice,” his image briefly flashes by during a montage of the 1980s, though it surely was meant to convey a larger point about the tie-ins between Dick Cheney’s politics and Donald Trump’s. In “BlacKkKlansman,” the film concludes with a flash-forward to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. During that final sequence, the president delivers his infamous “many sides” comment, as Spike Lee suggests that the evil he filmed in the 1970s is still alive today.
Going through the 554 best-picture nominees, to the best of my research abilities I found only one other year in which a sitting president appears onscreen twice: 1976, when Gerald R. Ford could see himself on the silver screen a couple of times. In the opening scene of “All the President’s Men,” which dealt with The Washington Post’s Watergate investigation, Ford stands and applauds as Richard M. Nixon, still the president, enters Congress to deliver the State of the Union address. In “Network,” an ahead-of-its-time cautionary tale about the corrupting power of television, Ford can be briefly seen on a TV in the control room before the screen flickers over to the eccentric newsman Howard Beale. By the time the Oscars rolled around, in March 1977, Ford had already lost the office to Jimmy Carter, and the Philadelphia boxing classic “Rocky” beat both films for best picture.
“Rocky,” incidentally, was the only best-picture nominee that could be considered apolitical that year. In addition to “All the President’s Men” and “Network,” that crop of contenders included an alienated man contemplating a presidential assassination in “Taxi Driver,” as well as Woody Guthrie strumming a pro-union tune in “Bound for Glory.” That makes “Rocky” one of only two apolitical films to beat a field composed entirely of political films, along with the 1984 biopic “Amadeus,” the tale of rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri.
Those years are a bit outside the norm because historically, political films have a small leg up. Apolitical films have won on 15 percent of their nominations, but political films have won on 19 percent of theirs. Perhaps that’s a good sign for “BlacKkKlansman,” “Black Panther,” “Green Book,” “The Favourite,” “Roma” or “Vice.” Because the Oscars are still very political, and they show no signs of dropping the campaign.