Yes, You Should Be Mad About The Oscars
For the second year in a row the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated lily-white acting slates, leading to last year's #OscarsSoWhite trending again on Twitter. It's disheartening to see that, two years in a row, the Academy couldn't find even one black actor or actress to highlight this year. The lack of diversity is so extreme that the only Oscar nomination for Straight Outta Compton came for the white writers. Creed, black in front of and behind the camera, got one nomination - Sylvester Stallone.
There are a lot of factors at play here. One of the main ones is that the studios didn't push these movies correctly. Warner Bros, for instance, didn't know they had an awards contender in Creed. I don't think they even knew they would have a hit with the movie. It's the same thing that happened with Mad Max: Fury Road, but that movie had months and months to build consensus before exploding in the critical awards and finally ending up with ten nominations. Creed was a late release, and I can tell you that as a Los Angeles Film Critics Association voter that if WB sent out screeners they did it after our voting deadline. I suspect that there were critics in the room at the LAFCA voting who had not seen the film.
Another factor is the institutional racism that bubbles under the surface of the Hollywood studios. Black actors and filmmakers simply don't get the same chances as their white counterparts, and it's not always because of obvious, in-your-face racism. Many of the people making these decision probably consider themselves quite progressive, and they probably support excellent charities and groups that fight for equality and for the underclass. I applaud them for that. But at the same time they are themselves the victims of an ingrained system that teaches them that blacks and women don't earn money at the box office, especially overseas. They find their progressive white bones are tickled by black stories of anguish, not triumph or even every day living. They mean well, but they are stuck in a racial rut that they probably don't even see.
And then there's the Academy; it's a mostly white voting body that skews older and more conservative as a result, and it's a body that responds to what they're told to respond to. They go for the movies that are sold to them as Important, which when it comes to roles played by black actors tends to mean slave, servant or martyr. They're playing out their own version of institutional racism. It's not the sort of stuff you see at a Donald Trump rally, but that doesn't make it any less toxic.
Those are explanations, not excuses. And it's okay to be mad about this. In fact, I believe being mad about this might be the only way to change it. The Oscars are a lot of things - stupid, fun, rarely indicative of actual cinematic quality - but they are for sure one of the pinnacles of American cinematic culture. They're a big deal. People watch them. People pay attention to them. They help drive the conversation about movies all year long. And who is nominated for them is important.
This is where you have to separate the silliness of awards season from the importance of high level cultural visibility. Yes, if Mad Max loses to The Revenant (as I fear it will) this doesn't tell us anything about the actual quality of the films. It doesn't change which movie is really better. But the Oscars are more than an awards show, they're a cultural event. And who gets invited to that cultural event is important. Who is deemed a piece of this culture is important. Who shows up on TV matters. How they show up on TV matters. These images inform our culture, they inform our attitudes, and most importantly they inform our youth. They show our young people an image of the world as we want it, and we should want it made up of all kinds of people.
There are a lot of people to be mad at, but the Oscars is a great place to start because it's a highly publicized event that happens once a year. Lack of diversity in film is harder to point out because you're dealing with a big sweep of movies. It's vague, and easily dismissable by anecdote - hey, a black guy is the lead in Star Wars! We fixed it! The all-white nominated crowd at this year's Oscars is harder to dismiss. They'll be sitting there in the Dolby Theater all night long, a parade of well-dressed white folks, occasionally broken up by a black presenter or host Chris Rock.
The Oscars make a good target of your ire because they represent Hollywood's prestige moment. The award was born when studio heads wanted to pat themselves on the back, and it continues as such today. I'm okay with that - I love this industry and think it's important! - but this makes the Oscars a great target tactically. This is the moment when Hollywood is trotting out its best and brightest, when it's telling us how great it is... and there are almost no black people nominated. This is the time to draw attention to how embarrassing the studio's lack of diversity is, as they're all congratulating themselves for being great artists.
Of course being mad and tweeting about it isn't the only thing you should do. You're hopefully supporting diversity in film with your dollars, and not just at Star Wars. You're hopefully not part of the internet rabble that complains when a non-white person is cast in an assumed white role. You're hopefully positive about the times Hollywood gets it right. But in the meantime, it's okay to be mad. It's okay to ridicule the Academy and Hollywood and to do it at a time when it will hurt them the most, personally. And by the way: Hollywood filmmaking is a business, but it's also a bizarre and often childish business where ego can matter as much as money. That's part of the reason why the Oscars exist at all.
It's worth noting that this year did have a number of non-white performances and filmmaking feats that deserved Oscars. Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington for Creed. Michael B. Jordan for that movie for sure. Samuel L. Jackson for The Hateful Eight. Mya Taylor for Tangerine. Teyonnah Paris for Chi-raq. Oscar Isaac for Ex-Machina. F. Gary Gray for Straight Outta Compton. Hell, Will Smith's performance in Concussion felt more human and convincing than DiCaprio in The Revenant. I'm not saying all of these are the best performances or works of filmmaking, but I believe they all meet the standard for Oscar nomination, especially in a year where The Danish Girl is competing.
This is the hard part: the Oscar nominations aren't decided in some nefarious back room, where a group of racists deny non-white people the chance for exposure. It's the result of a lot of people voting on their own, which means it's part of the larger problem of institutional racism. It's the larger problem of white people not even recognizing what they're doing. The only way to change this, the only way to inform a state of mind, is to draw attention to that state of mind.
Some people might say that change is coming anyway. Maybe. But I don't think change can find the door without our help, and sometimes you have to shout to get its attention.