The Academy Awards celebrate many dimensions of filmmaking, including acting, directing, writing, costumes, makeup, special effects, and sound editing. But one of the key components of movies that does not receive recognition is the film’s setting. In this piece, I explore where recent Oscar-nominated movies take place, and the correlation between location type and the films’ central themes. In particular, movies set in distinctly urban locations are more likely to address issues of racial and economic inequality than their non-urban counterparts.
We’ll always have Paris (and New York and Wakanda)
Location (and time period) plays a central role in the underlying story and character relationships for most movies. Location creates the framework for many of the films’ components: costumes, the characters’ speech patterns and accents, music used in the soundtrack. Over the past five years, roughly three-quarters of movies nominated for best picture or screenplay have been place-centered. Place-centered nominees in 2019 include “If Beale Street Could Talk” (New York City in the 1970s), “The Favourite” (18th century England), and “Black Panther” (the meticulously created fictional country of Wakanda). In non-place-centered movies, the location is incidental to plot and character. For instance, “A Star is Born” follows its characters around on tour, but the many locations are not essential to the film’s plot or themes.
Almost half of the place-centered Oscar nominees over the past five years have been set primarily in urban locations. Among the 2019 nominees, primarily urban movies are “BlacKkKlansman” (Colorado Springs, Colo.), “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and “Roma” (Mexico City). Non-urban movies include the “Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (American West), “The Favourite,” and “First Reformed” (small town in upstate New York). For this analysis, movies that are split between urban and non-urban locations (“Black Panther” and “Green Book”) are grouped with non-urban movies.
All the world’s a potential movie set
Oscar-nominated movies have been set all over the world—and sometimes out of this world altogether (“Gravity,” “The Martian”). This year’s selection offers a sample of the diverse locations chosen by recent nominees (Figure 2).
Similar to many television series, the entertainment capitals of New York City and Los Angeles occupy plenty of movie real estate. Over the past five years, more movies have been set in these cities than any other single location. But smaller urban areas across the U.S. have also received screen time, from Colorado Springs, Colo. (“BlacKkKlansman”) to Sacramento, Calif. (“Lady Bird”), Selma, Ala. (“Selma”) to Pittsburgh (“Fences”). Non-U.S. settings across multiple continents are represented, including Mexico City (“Roma”), London (“Darkest Hour,” “Imitation Game”), Dunkirk, France (“Dunkirk”), Calcutta, India and Melbourne, Australia (both in “Lion”). Small towns and rural areas shown in movies are also quite diverse: notable recent films highlight rural Mississippi (“Mudbound”), a small town in Missouri (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri”), and the American West (“Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “The Revenant”).
More “City of God” than “Sex and the City”
Over the past 20 years, racial segregation in U.S. metropolitan areas has declined. Central cities have grown whiter and more affluent, while suburbs and non-metropolitan areas have become racially more diverse and poorer. But Hollywood still most commonly uses cities as the backdrop to stories that grapple with racial and economic inequality. Over the past five years, 45 percent of Oscar-nominated movies set primarily, or partially, in cities dealt with racial and economic inequality as core themes. About 12 percent of non-urban movies had similar themes.
The most recent year of nominees clearly shows this pattern. “BlacKkKlansman,” “Green Book,” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” tackle racial discrimination, vividly illustrating the barriers created by whites to prevent African Americans from equal access to jobs, homes, restaurants, and hotels. They also show the violence that enforced such segregation, both within the criminal justice system and from vigilante citizens. “Roma,” set in Mexico City in the early 1970s, centers around an indigenous young woman working as a live-in maid for an affluent white family. Although the critique of economic and racial inequality in “Roma” is largely implicit, the movie also references social and political unrest taking place in Mexico City during this time. “Black Panther”—the first superhero movie with a mostly black cast—also approaches segregation indirectly, in part by bracketing the movie’s opening and closing in Oakland.
This year’s non-urban and non-place-centered nominees offer a stark contrast in themes from the urban movies. For instance, both “Vice” and “The Favourite” center on political power, but focus mostly on power struggles between antagonists of equivalent social status at high levels of government. “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star is Born” feature the personal and career struggles of professional singers.
There are notable exceptions to the location-social justice correlation. In 2018, “Get Out” and “Mudbound” addressed racial and economic issues in the context of small towns and rural areas. Urban movies that do not focus on social justice fall into a few other categories. For example, “The Post” used Washington, D.C. as the setting for the political and journalistic drama of the Pentagon Papers, while New York City and Los Angeles are often featured in movies about the entertainment industry (“Birdman,” “La La Land”).
The Oscar goes to…Beale Street
In this critic’s opinion, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is the clear 2019 winner of “Best Picture in an Urban Setting.” The movie demonstrates meticulous attention to the physical environment it displays: classic brownstones along Lenox Avenue in the heart of Harlem, a bathtub-in-the-kitchen Greenwich Village basement apartment. It tackles core urban issues that still resonate today, such as racial discrimination in housing and the criminal justice system. Interspersed with dark content, the movie also captures many of the small joys of urban life—strolling through Washington Square Park on a date, a neighborhood grocery store where the proprietor knows her regular customers. The grit and grace of real life cities beats Hollywood glitz every time.