Lights, Camera, Racism

For all the folks who are outraged and depressed by how thoroughly black people were ignored in this year’s Oscar nominations, there is at least one useful piece of data to keep in mind:

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has always ignored black people among Oscar nominees.  So, to this season’s snubbed:  Don’t worry, it’s not you.  It’s the Academy.

Yes, the near-total absence of color across the 24 categories in next month’s Academy Awards is lame, weird, troubling and shameful (really, no Samuel L. Jackson?)  However, as we take a measure of the AMPAS’s diversity problem here in 2016, we should view it in the context of the entire history of the Oscars, which—sad to say—has been utterly consistent in not recognizing great work by filmmakers who are not white.

Care for some numbers?  Of course you would.

Not counting this year, there have been 87 Oscar ceremonies to date, amounting to roughly 435 total nominations in each of the two dozen categories.  In that time, black male actors in leading roles have been nominated on a grand total of 20 occasions.  Meanwhile, leading black women have been nominated 10 times.  Among supporting performances by black men and women, the numbers are 17 and 19, respectively.  Crunching all of that together, we find that African-Americans have accounted for 3.8 percent of all acting nominations in history.  This despite the fact that black people comprise 13.2 percent of the U.S. population as a whole.

(In case you were wondering, the proportion of African-American winners in the acting categories is 4.3 percent—slightly better, but not by much.  As for black representation in Oscar’s remaining 20 categories:  You don’t want to know.)

Since it’s insane to argue that black people are any less talented at acting than white people, the explanation for this discrepancy is that either a) black actors have not gotten the same opportunities as white actors, or b) Academy voters—who, themselves, are overwhelmingly white—simply don’t value performances by black actors as highly as they do those by white ones.  (That is, if they even bother to see them.)

Common sense indicates that the answer is a combination of both factors.  And if common sense isn’t sufficient, the documented history of Hollywood racism should keep you busy for quite some time.

While one might be tempted to dismiss the above as ancient history—and therefore irrelevant to the present crisis—now would be as good a time as any to summon the old Faulkner line, “The past isn’t dead.  It isn’t even past.”

In fact, understanding racism in Hollywood is no different from understanding racism anywhere else.  It’s the sin that keeps on giving.  (Or taking, as it were.)

As with racism in sports, in government, in housing and on the streets, the biases in the film industry were already deeply ingrained when the art form began—possibly as a byproduct of two and a half centuries in which one race was the legal property of the other—and if there’s one thing we know for sure about institutional biases, it’s that they are a royal bitch to get rid of.

It’s the nature of large organizations to change at a glacial pace, if at all.  Once people get it into their heads that some outfit or other “looks” a certain way (read:  disproportionately white, male, heterosexual, rich, etc.), the impression becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, at which point the whole culture conspires to maintain the status quo—including those who stand to benefit from a sudden evolution in thoughts and practices.

Consider the words of Michelle Wu, the 31-year-old Taiwanese American who was just elected president of the Boston City Council.  “When I was growing up, I never imagined running for office,” said Wu in a recent interview, “And I think a big part of that was not seeing anyone who looked like me in government.  I was told all the time to consider figure skating, because Michelle Kwan was such a popular and nationally-known figure and Asian-American woman.”

There you have it:  If you think a certain organization or profession is off-limits to someone with your background or genetic makeup, you will be far less likely to ever associate with it, regardless of your actual abilities.  As a consequence, stereotypes will be reinforced and segregation will continue to rule the day.

This is not to remove one iota of blame from those who instituted white supremacy in the first place.  Rather, it is to observe how white supremacy was designed to be self-perpetuating—how the system of black disenfranchisement not only hindered the advancement of an entire class of American citizens in the present, but also created the conditions whereby racial discrimination could persist across all subsequent generations as well—even after passing laws intended to prevent such a thing from happening.

So when we ask, “Why isn’t there a single black face among the 20 Oscar nominees for acting?” we must begin with the fact that Hollywood was established as a discriminatory industry—creating the most stereotypical of black characters and hiring white actors in blackface to play them—followed by decades of studio-backed films whose black characters were either non-existent, subservient or (again) utterly and crudely one-dimensional.  Logically, this would have led to a great many promising black actors to direct their gifts elsewhere (or nowhere), further discouraging writers and directors from anticipating such talent in the first place.

For the most part, filmmakers have since forged past all of that, and black characters today—like gay characters today—are not marginalized or pigeonholed into specific types of roles (except when they are).

And yet—as both critics and actors have attested in recent days—black actors have hardly achieved equity when it comes to achieving the Hollywood dream.  If I had to settle on one culprit above all, it would be the implicit assumption among far too many members of the Academy that, deep down, they just don’t deserve it.  On the basis of the Academy’s newly-proposed remedies for its racial gap—including tougher voting standards for its older members—it would appear there is some credence to this view.  Someday maybe we’ll know for sure.

In the meantime—if we could end on a slightly optimistic note—I have one more data point to convey.

At the moment, the smart money is on Alejandro G. Iñárritu to snag the Oscar for Best Director for his arresting work on The Revenant, which would make him the first back-to-back winner in that category since 1950 (he won last year for Birdman).  As you may know, Iñárritu was born in Mexico, as was the most recent previous winner of the director prize, Alfonso Cuarón (for Gravity).  Before that, Best Director went to Ang Lee for Life of Pi, Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist and Tom Hooper for The King’s Speech—respectively, men born in Taiwan, France and the United Kingdom.

That’s right:  For five (and possibly six) years running, the Academy has given its award for directing—arguably the most prestigious trophy bestowed upon an individual—to someone who isn’t even from the United States.  This pompous Hollywood gang—so “pure” and old-school that it can only see white—has nonetheless summoned the imagination to repeatedly honor work helmed by foreigners—people Donald Trump would be perfectly happy to deport.  (Ang Lee is a naturalized U.S. citizen, so he would be safe.)

Is this open-mindedness toward non-Americans a portent of an open-mindedness toward non-whites?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Maybe it just means the Academy is so racist that it will scour the entire planet to avoid honoring a person of color.

In any case, it indicates that the Academy is cognizant enough to recognize that the world does not end at the corner of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, that its values represent America’s values (or so it would like to think) and that it might as well enter the 21st century at one point or another.  Sooner or later, people are going to talk.

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A World Without Oscar

What do I think of this year’s Oscar nominees, you ask?

Well, my favorite movie of 2013 received a whopping one Academy Award nomination.  My second favorite garnered none at all, as did three other entries on my personal top 10.

That’s what I think of this year’s Oscar nominees.

Actually, I think this year’s lineup is just fine.  The year 2013 produced many excellent films with many exceptional performances, and a commendable number of both turned up among the Academy’s honorees at the annual nominations announcement on January 16.  Some of the esteemed film society’s selections caused many analysts to scratch their heads, but plenty of others were well-deserved and, dare I say, inevitable.

You know.  Just like every other year.

In truth, in the movie world throughout January and February, the only thing more fashionable than the Oscars is complaining about the Oscars.

These critiques take a dizzying number of forms, each one more predictable than the next.  Some folks gripe about the media’s intensive focus on fashion and the red carpet, while others bitch about the ceremony’s boring hosts and self-indulgently long running time (the last telecast to run less than three hours occurred in 1973).

The more pointed dissents, however, cut directly to the institution’s original primary objective, which is to bestow the title of “best” onto a given year’s assortment of motion picture releases.

After all, when it comes to movies, what does “best” mean anyway?  Isn’t weighing one movie against another—movies with utterly disparate subject matter and purpose—the ultimate exercise in comparing apples to oranges?  Was Humphrey Bogart not onto something when he mused, “The only honest way to find the best actor would be to let everybody play Hamlet and let the best man win”?

Even more so than other awards shows—at least the Grammys divides its categories by genre—the Academy Awards is a patently absurd attempt at applying some sort of objective standard to an inherently subjective art form.

This year, then, let us take this curmudgeonly thought a step further and pose the following query:  What if we got rid of the Oscars once and for all?  What if there wasn’t this annual gathering of Hollywood’s best and brightest congratulating themselves on a job well done, with the rest of us following along for the ride?  How would the movie industry change, and would such a scenario produce a preferable environment to the one that currently exists?

The upsides are certainly tempting to ponder.

For starters, the abolition of a movie awards season might engender a more evenly-distributed release schedule (qualitatively speaking) compared to the lopsided, bottom-heavy one we have now.

With no Academy voters with whom to curry favor, studios would not be tripping over each other to release all their high-quality “prestige pictures” in the final weeks of December while spending the year’s remaining eleven and a half months churning out utter cinematic dreck.  There would be little reason not to unload Important Films by Important Directors about Important Subjects at any old time of the year.

Studio executives would still care about nothing except profit, of course, and would still employ careful strategery regarding when (or if) a particular project might see the light of day.  (Don’t expect future installments of Star Wars and Star Trek to ever open on the same weekend.)

But these considerations would no longer be tethered to some gold-plated grand payoff that so often comes at the expense of the very consumers whose dollars these executives seek in the first place.

Per contra, minus Oscar’s sinister allure, the relationship between producers and consumers would become considerably more direct, and a bit more honest as well.  For the film industry, the only real point of the Oscars is to sell more tickets and DVDs.  In its absence, moviemakers would no longer be able to rely on a political, drawn-out, behind-the-scenes marketing campaign to reel in unsuspecting viewers.

Instead, any such scheme would need to be directed squarely at those viewers themselves.  The message would shift from, “Watch this movie because it won a bunch of shiny trophies,” to, “Watch this movie because you just might enjoy it.”

And that directs us to the real question in all of this:  Is it useful to turn the experience of watching movies into some sort of competition?  Does it finally do more harm than good to reduce a medium that many still regard as a form of art into a horse race?

So long as great movies can be seen and cherished for their own sake, shouldn’t we stop pretending they require anything more?