Saturday, January 16, 2016

Oscars So White

I don't want to write this post, but I feel that I have an obligation to offer my perspective, as someone who has been an avid award show watcher for over two decades, and has been keeping an eye on diversity issues in Hollywood for nearly as long.  You may have heard about the brewing controversy over this year's Academy Award nominations.  For the second year in a row, all twenty of the acting nominations went to white actors.

Yes, this is a problem.  I'm going to tell you why.

Let's get a few things out of the way first, though.  Yes, there are plenty of non-white nominees in the other categories.  However, we're focusing on the acting nominations because those are the most visible, high profile races, and the ones that most viewers actually care about.  With all due respect to Alejandro G. Iñárritu and El Chivo, nobody pays much attention to Directing or Cinematography outside of the filmmaking community, because your average moviegoer has no idea who is standing behind the camera 99% of the time.  But Leonardo DiCaprio possibly getting an Oscar this year?  Suddenly, a lot of people care.

Second, it should be stressed that the beef isn't with the individual actors themselves, but what they represent.  We can argue all day about whether Bryan Cranston deserves to be up there on the Best Actor nomination list over Will Smith or Michael B. Jordan, but what's important is that Cranston was picked by an overwhelmingly older, white, insular Academy membership.  Also, the financiers and filmmakers involved with "Trumbo" decided to make a biopic about him where the only minority actor plays Trumbo's hostile prison bunkmate, and the distributors decided to push it as an awards contender.  This is absolutely a systemic problem, not the fault of any one person or studio.

Still, the lack of non-white contenders can be traced directly to a lack of support for films featuring non-white talent.  We had some potential contenders this year, including "Sicario," "Creed," "Beasts of No Nation," "Concussion," "Tangerine," and "Straight Out of Compton."  However, campaigning for awards takes a lot of effort and politicking, and none of these movies managed to gather the right combination of critical, popular, and industry support necessary to get ahead in the Oscar race.  There are plenty of theories as to why this happened - I know a lot of people cared and a lot of people tried - but what's undeniable are the results.  No black, Latino, Asian, Middle-Eastern, Native American, or otherwise non-white actor is in contention this year.  

This galls so much because we know the Academy can do better.  It's not like we haven't been through this whole controversy before.  The most diverse set of acting nominations I've ever seen were back in 2007, when the nods went to twelve white, five black, two Hispanic, and one Asian actor.  That was the year of "Babel," Dreamgirls," "The Pursuit of Happyness," and "The Last King of Scotland."  Notable contenders that year also included "Pan's Labyrinth," "Letters From Iwo Jima," and "Apocalypto."  Now how did we go from that to two Oscars in a row of all-white acting nominees?   You have to go back to 1997 to find the most recent all-white acting nominations before 2014.  For two in a row?  You have to go back to 1979 and 1980.

To the Academy's credit, they are trying.  They know that this is a problem.  Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the organization's first African-American leader elected in 2013, has expressed her disappointment with yesterday's results.  This year Chris Rock is hosting the ceremony and Spike Lee was honored at the Governors Awards a few months ago.  However, there's only so much that the Academy can do when non-white contenders are either not getting the support they need for nominations, or simply aren't there at all.

I've noticed that we're missing films that feature non-white actors in smaller roles, which is where their nominations in the past usually came from. Instead, "The Big Short" essentially wrote out the major female and minority characters that featured in their original source material.  "Spotlight," "Brooklyn," and "Bridge of Spies" have these big ensembles with no minority actors in sight.  In the Best Picture nominees where they do appear, like "The Martian," "Room," "The Revenant," and "Mad Max: Fury Road," the parts are tiny, perfunctory.

I have my own theories about why we're seeing such a sudden shift.  Most Oscar films are midrange, midsize films, and they're disappearing as the business changes.  Executives are worried about marketability, especially overseas, and their first instinct is to hide the black guy on the poster.  But whatever the reason, please let's recognize that this is a problem.  That's the only way we can even start to try and fix it.


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