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Note to Critics: Oscar Winner 'Sugar Man' Is Indeed 'Political' | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

Note to Critics: Oscar Winner 'Sugar Man' Is Indeed 'Political'


Ben Affleck presents the Academy Award for best documentary to the director of  Searching for Sugar Man. (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni.)

There is criticism and outrage emanating from some quarters today over the allegedly soft Searching for Sugar Man’s topping four fine and very important “poltiical” films to capture the Oscar last night for best feature documentary. Indeed, the other four were equally great, and I had endorsed 5 Broken Cameras for the prize. Other films, such as The Queen of Versalles, deserved a nomination. 

But Sugar Man, in its own way, was richly political. Most may be familiar only with the detective story and pop culture aspects: filmmaker hunts for musician who disappeared decades earlier, somehow finds him, he makes a partial comeback. It sounds like nothing but an uplifting tale for Boomers.

But it’s much more than that. You have a working-class Mexican-American artist (son of immigrants) struggling to help his daughters survive. He gets screwed out of royalties and continues to labor at hard jobs in inner-city Detroit. By all accounts, he is a fine man and generous and eager to assist those less fortunate—even after he gains some money when the movie comes out and his old recordings start selling again he gives much of it away and continues to live in humble surroundings with his “people.”

None of this should be surprising if you knew his music. Many of his early, long-forgotten songs, with titles like “Inner City Blues,” had a polticial edge (see another example below, with the title “RIch Folks Hoax”). As the film reveals, he even ran for city council as a left candidate.

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Also highlighted in the film: During the years when he was rumored to be dead, several of his songs became anthems for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, where he was most popular. Even iconic hero Steve Biko was said to be a Rodriquez fan. Political enough for you?

Yes, I was rooting for the two films critical of Israel’s occupation and settlement policies, or the films that took on the AIDs crisis and violence against women in the military. But Sugar Man very much promises and delivers its own lessons rewards. It’s out on DVD now.

In the run-up to the Oscars, the media was arguing over Zero Dark Thirty as usual, Greg Mitchell writes.

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