The American Dream and This Year’s Oscar Hopefuls

Langston Hughes wrote, “What happens to a dream deferred / Does it dry up / Like a raisin in the sun / Or fester like a sore — / And then run?” The American dream came under fire last year by those who felt theirs had been deferred for too long. Hollywood was born on being the “dream factory” by itself manipulating reality, depicting the fantasies of millions. The dream and the aspiration for that dream was a prescient theme of 2016 and is being carried over into the new year. We see this in the cultural and political spheres, as well as in many of this year’s Oscar nominees, including Fences, La La Land, Hidden Figures, Arrival, and Nocturnal Animals. (Spoilers for those movies follow.)

Adapted from the 1983 August Wilson play, Fences chronicles the life of an African-American family in the 1950s. On top of directing, Denzel Washington plays the lead, Troy Maxson, the family’s gregarious patriarch. Troy deals in dreams sabotaged after decades of deferment due to institutional racism and societal restraints. He believes he was born “too early,” overlooked in favor of Jackie Robinson as the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues. After this initial disappointment, he aims for a goal more reasonable: to drive a garbage truck. This is at odds with his children — Lyons, who fancies himself a musician, and Cory, who plays football and wants to pursue a college scholarship. Troy’s love for his sons is never in doubt, but when Cory gets an opportunity to achieve his dream, Troy is resistant and ends up paradoxically sabotaging him. The hardest thing for him to realize is that his refusal to act for 18 years has been because of fear — fear of failure, disappointment and maybe that he’s never been as good as he’s claimed.

Troy’s motivation in this is he wants to protect his sons from the disappointment he and many others suffered. Though times are changing, they’re still a black family living in pre-Civil Rights America. But it’s hard not to feel that jealousy permeates his decision, jealousy that his own son will succeed where he didn’t. His son’s goals are lofty, but steps toward success have been laid: scouts want to meet with Troy about Cory’s future in football, and Lyons performs at local clubs. Troy’s sons are ambitious, typical of the dreams of youth uninterested in money beyond the basic means of living, but are executable with hard work and perseverance. Neither one’s dreams pan out as they hope, but Lyons lacks Troy’s bitterness while Cory ultimately discovers his father’s love, no matter how misplaced it’s presented.

Fences also illustrates how much and how little has changed for African-Americans in America since the mid-20th century. In fact, it’s nearly impossible not to feel depressed and disheartened at how realistic Troy’s dreams are in comparison to those of Mia and Seb in La La Land. The movie’s “white savior” implications aside, it’s important to look at how La La Land’s pie-in-the-sky dreams contrast with Fences. Mia and Seb’s goals are equally common and more likely unachievable: she wants to be an actress while he dreams of opening a jazz club. Mia’s gone on a multitude of auditions while Seb gets fired for refusing to conform to a boss’s demands of what music to play. For each of them, they return to the ’90s fear of “selling out” commonly seen in films like Reality Bites. According to La La Land, since they’re rebels and raconteurs they are entitled to not just get what they want professionally, but also receive a “happily ever after” together.

But how much does their whiteness play into their goals and the audience’s response to them? Troy and his family have simple aims for the time period, but there’s an added awareness that to aim higher is impossible while reasonable aims are merely improbable. Troy’s friend Bono mentions that only white people drive the garbage trucks, so Troy’s promotion is a big deal, no matter how small it sounds.

The audience may question the reality of Mia and Seb’s L.A. way of life, but much of the criticism is waved away by its fantasy elements. It’s a fairy tale, so how Mia and Seb navigate day-to-day concerns is irrelevant. Both live in nice apartments with no overt fears of where money will come from. Mia and Seb spout passion for their chosen goals, yet are more than willing to defer those dreams (a privilege not afforded to Troy, Lyons, or Cory, whereas Viola Davis’s character’s dreams aren’t given a second thought until she demands to be heard after 20 years of marriage and betrayal).

Mia’s dream is accomplished after a period of self-doubt, but only after Seb’s chronic insistence about how good she is. No one tells Troy how good he is, yet Mia demands constant validation (and so does Seb). For Rose it is only through her husband’s doubting that she finds her inner strength on her own. Rose’s dreams are as realistic as her husband’s — happiness and contentment — but unlike Mia there’s more genuine desire to achieve something good rather than a perfect “happily ever after.” Mia and Seb end up with what they want (money, fame, success), with their greatest sadness being the loss of their romance — a far cry from Troy literally dying for his sons to realize the power of family in Fences.

La La Land places more emphasis on Mia and Seb’s individual choices and how it led them on a path toward their goals. In a “what if” sequence, the audience sees how Mia and Seb’s life together would have been had they done the “right” things in their relationship. Had Seb kissed Mia at the club, attended her one-woman show, etc., they would live happily ever after. In Fences, it isn’t destiny that puts people in their place, but the sad state of institutional racism.

Racism (and sexism) also limits the dreams of three NASA mathematicians in Hidden Figures. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary are some of the smartest women in America, hidden away in a basement because of their race and gender. Unlike Fences, where Troy feels America rigs the game and perpetuates the cycle of sabotage, Hidden Figures’ women demand their opportunities, sick of the marginalization that comes from being a minority in a minority. Where Troy’s blind desire to protect his children from disappointment — while fostering his own jealousy at them — prevents him from having a fulfilling home life, Katherine succeeds in her career while having a thriving family and a loving fiancé. Hidden Figures is a fantasy similar to La La Land, though where La La Land’s characters sing an ode to “the fools who dream,” Hidden Figures is a plaintive wish for equality and a return to America’s own world of dreamers brave enough to take us to the stars.

Space exploration and a life more omnipotent than ours factors into the narrative of Arrival, where the large-scale dream of communicating with extraterrestrials is utilized as a foundation for the omnipresent story of how dreams shape reality, and vice versa. Scientist Louise reminisces about the life of her deceased daughter only to realize her interactions with the “heptapods” have given her the gift of foresight. The daughter, who the audience believes has lived and died, is yet to be born, but Louise is aware that the child’s existence will be brief. As with Troy in Fences, Louise shapes her daughter’s destiny, literally controlling her very existence. This could be similar to the pre-charted “destiny” course similar to La La Land’s finale, but it allows Louise to simultaneously dream and mourn her child. But like Troy, does Louise’s knowledge of her daughter’s life and death sabotage the child from conception? Is this destiny or choice? Is Louise selfish? Is God selfish? These are all deliberate questions. The point is that America’s dream of exploring the reaches of our universe inevitably returns us back to what makes us human: the desire for love and family. Louise may “sabotage” her daughter by bringing her into a life of pain and suffering, but like Troy it stems from a human desire to love and be loved.

Love becomes an equally destructive decision in another Amy Adams feature, Nocturnal Animals. The nature of wish fulfillment versus reality plays in the story-within-the-story that Jake Gyllenhaal’s Edward writes, inspired by his ex-wife Susan. Their relationship is initially fed on the dream of true love. Susan finds Edward’s sensitivity to be romantic before realizing it’s a cover for his fragility and touchiness. Edward sees Susan’s fear and cynicism as what dooms them, though Susan sees it as pragmatism. Edward’s tome, entitled Nocturnal Animals, conjures up a story wherein he becomes the men Susan wished him to be. The dark, violent tale allows Edward to purge his demons while simultaneously leading Susan to believe in a second chance for them. Unfortunately Edward becomes the saboteur. Though the two once saw themselves as destined, ripped apart by a cynical world that stamps out romance, they’re ultimately left to wallow in their bitterness, with only a whiff of a dream (and a novel of anger) to show for it.

These movies all chart America’s own fear and uncertainty of the future. We hope for a more peaceful world, where we can reach for the stars and love our families. But the world and the human beings in it are proven time and again to be wired differently. Hollywood is a medium of hopes and wishes, and asks us to get out of our own way and let destiny unfold.

Kristen Lopez lives and dreams in Sacramento.

Originally published at on January 25, 2017.

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