How could the Emmys axe Small Axe? Can we just blame WandaVision?
Steve McQueen's boldly unclassifiable five-part investigation into Black history couldn't compete with superheroes.
No awards show snub in history has cracked the world more than the lack of a Best Picture nomination for The Dark Knight. The year was 2009, and under the shadow of an expanding recession, people took to the internet to complain that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was being mean to Batman. Good movies have been ignored by Oscar voters as long as there have been Oscars, and Christopher Nolan's second Gotham movie even walked away with a couple prizes (including a posthumous Supporting Actor win for Heath Ledger) to match its below-the-line nominations.
But what people noticed was a Best Picture lineup heavy on films nobody noticed. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Reader, Frost/Nixon, Milk, and eventual winner Slumdog Millionaire. That's three flavors of glossy meaningful crud, a solid biopic from a relatively un-loathsome Sean Penn era, and whatever you think of Slumdog now. "The Reader!" sang Oscar host Hugh Jackman, "I haven't seen The Reader!" The perception of elitism stung the voting body. Oscars cosmologist Mark Harris directly connected the Dark Knight furor to the later expansion of the Best Picture lineup. A god's-eye view makes the incident seem more like a duel between two different elitisms. Social Prestige vs. Ludicrous Financial Success: Will the country club let the brash young millionaire wear his shorts in the dining room? People kept making superhero movies. Then, one day, television started making superhero movies.
Which brings us to now. A different Hollywood academy, the television one, has unveiled its 2021 lineup of nominations, and nothing stings more than the affairs in the Limited Series category. It's a packed race, no question, in a year with popular hits like The Queen's Gambit and Mare of Easttown. I May Destroy You was already a cultural supernova before the Golden Globes' disregard turned it into a Twitter cause. This is a throw-together corner of Emmys land, with a very long novel adaptation like The Underground Railroad awkwardly competing against anthologies, TV movies, and the Hamilton stage film. One seeks silver linings in lightning clouds, so this I'm stoked that Paapa Essiedu got a Supporting Actor nomination for his sensitive turn in I May Destroy You.
But the elephant in the Limited Series room is WandaVision, the flagship Marvel show on Disney+. And the elephant outside the room is Small Axe, Steve McQueen's collection of historical films investigating West Indian life in London. WandaVision mopped up nominations for cast and crew alike. Small Axe got a single nod, for cinematography, and not even for the part with the best cinematography. There was no love for John Boyega, whose lead role in "Red, White and Blue" is the actor's finest work yet. I guess I can understand the lack of a directing nod for McQueen; packed year, I get it, and clearly the TV Academy still loves Hamilton. But Small Axe got zero writing nominations, and WandaVision got three. Look, I liked the WandaVision pilot, a delightful sitcom riff that deserved its writing nod. But if you think "All-New Halloween Spooktacular!" a.k.a. The One Where the Obviously Evil Boring S.W.O.R.D. Guy Gets More Evil, is better than the hourlong Small Axe musical "Lovers Rock"… well, everything is subjective, and you are wrong.
There could be a simple Amazon problem here. The company, which is known for having half the money in the world, seems uniquely bad at converting expensive talent into eyeballs. Both Small Axe and Underground Railroad are endeavors that would have seemed insane only a few years ago: massive period pieces, not easily definable narratively or tonally, directed by daring Black filmmakers whose film work has been acclaimed but not always blockbuster-ishly lucrative. (Though McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is the kind of mature global hit we can dream of as pandemic-battered theaters struggle against the void). Railroad's lack of acting nominations suggests that love for that Limited Series nominee only runs so deep. Small Axe was probably not much helped by its weirdly unclassifiable description; I just called it a "collection of films" instead of an anthology series because I don't want Amazon to yell at me again.
The deeper problem here, though, is the attention economy, and the secret monoculture rising slowly from the Peak TV swamp. In the Limited Series corner of television, that monoculture is heavy on HBO's luxurious mysteries about sad white people, various Disney+ investigations into what superheroes and spacemen are really like, and the newest shiny Netflix bauble. All these things can be good in their own way, but there can also be better things out there, and the pileup of attention is starting to look suspicious. Even the great Don Cheadle can't believe his nomination for a cameo in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Elsewhere on the same platform, Hamilton benefited from years of stage praise and high familiarity with its soundtrack from people who can't afford Broadway prices; its slew of nominations still feel like yesterday's news. (It's notable, I think, that Amazon earned more buzzy noms for The Boys, a superhero show with superheroes-bashing-stuff appeal whatever its nominally satiric aims.)
No one has a more defensive antenna than superhero fans, except maybe Disney fans. Which is hilarious, since Disney superheroes keep swallowing the world. (I shall protect you, o Godzilla!) I liked a lot of WandaVision, even if the S.W.O.R.D. parts are the end of history. A historical biopic isn't fundamentally better than a comic book series just because it's about nominally real things. This is not a "Superheroes Are Destroying Television" rant; it's a "What Happens When People Only Have Time to Watch Fantasies About Power?" rant. An insane solution would be to segment superheroes into their own category, which is obviously unfair. Yet one non-insane possibility is that a future Emmys will only feature superheroes and British royalty, which is not a better solution.
What I wonder, really, is just how many Emmy voters — how many viewers, period — even got around to "Lovers Rock," the second Small Axe film. Notably, the cinematography nod was for the first film, "Mangrove." It's the most obviously topical entry, re-enacting a protest against racist policing and digging deep into how systemic oppression swirled around and through the titular restaurant. "Mangrove" also isn't perfect, with a didactic second half that finds McQueen struggling against courtroom clichés in the service of the terrifying essential facts of the case.
"Lovers Rock" is something else entirely. It's a film about a party and it is a party, set one long, lovely evening at an apartment full of reggae. Love, lust, tension, and joy permeate the festivities, as we follow a gathering of young people on and off the dance floor. It's a marvelous televisual feat, with a central sing-and-dance-along to Janet Kay's "Silly Games" that deserves comparison to the great musical sequences of cinema. This is McQueen at his finest, his most artistic and his most entertaining, teaching lived history and film school and just good solid rhythm. And "Lovers Rock" walked away with less nominations than freaking S.W.O.R.D.???? A dark night, indeed.