The lily-white Oscars

The Oscar nominations just came out, and as usual, were greeted with cries of outrage from everyone whose favorite movie got dissed. Or (I live in Provo), outrage because Spotlight, Room and Brooklyn haven’t come to town. (They have come to Salt Lake, forty miles away, but I’m old, sick, and the weather’s been lousy). But also because of how few people of color received nominations.

Which complaints seem to me completely justified. Let’s grant, first, that determining the ‘best’ actor’s performance of the year is entirely subjective. Eight films were nominated for Best Picture, but for all of us that list had some real head-scratchers. I liked Mad Max: Fury Road a lot, and was thrilled to see it get an Oscar nomination, but my wife thought that was a ludicrous selection. Comedies and action movies are routinely ignored by Oscar, despite the fact that they are essentially the movies that keep the film industry alive financially. One big complaint about the Oscars is that they honor films no one has heard of or seen. Like Spotlight, Room and Brooklyn. Film is both an industry and an art form, and profitability and respect don’t always walk hand-in-hand.

Complaints about color-blind Oscars do seem justified this year. If there were movies about the African-American experience, by African-American filmmakers, that were exceptionally well-done, and that were ignored by the Academy, then African-Americans in the industry could legitimately feel ill done by. And if those same films had some nominal white participation which was, actually, honored by the Academy, then the exclusion of Black filmmakers can seem particularly egregious.

And that happened. Straight Oughta Compton was an outstanding film about N.W.A., well-reviewed, a terrific film about an exceptionally crucial group in the history of rap, crucial chroniclers of the African-American experience. It was directed by F. Gary Gray, an important African-American director, and the cast was essentially all Black. Its two principal screenwriters were both white, Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff. And Herman and Berloff were the only two Oscar nominees from that film. Creed was another excellent film, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, another fine young Black director. It starred Michael B. Jordan, a wonderful young actor who gave a career-launching performance, after doing equally outstanding work in such films as Fruitvale Station and Red Tails. Again, it received one Oscar nomination; for Sylvester Stallone, for Best Supporting Actor.

Sorry, but that just seems like a deliberate snub, an intentional insult. Which, of course, it wasn’t. The Academy members who vote on these things are pretty much all Hollywood liberals, exactly the people who would be appalled and offended to be accused of racism. But they’re also, most of them, white. A recent study by the Los Angeles Times showed that of the 5, 765 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 94% were white, and 77% were male. Only 2% are Black, and fewer than that were Hispanic. And they’re old; average age 62.

I know people who get the mailers. They take the whole thing very seriously. But their votes are heavily influenced by sentiment and prejudice. The Creed vote makes sense. Creed was a Rocky movie; the final chapter, one presumes, in that endless saga. It’s about the boxing career of Apollo Creed’s kid. Rocky movies don’t win Oscars, not since the first Rocky did. But Sylvester Stallone is one of the giants of the industry. The political incorrectness of the second Rambo movie and jingoism of Rocky IV have long ago been forgiven. I can well imagine a kind of groundswell for his nomination. And while Creed was an outstanding movie, it is a Rocky movie.

And now Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee have announced their intention to boycott the Oscars. George Clooney and Lupita Nyong’o have voiced similar criticisms. Chris Rock, this year’s host, is being pressured to step down. The story has legs.

So, for example, why wasn’t Will Smith nominated for Concussion? Big star, important, issue-oriented movie? Why not a nod? Well, who should he replace? Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl? Terrific actor, former winner, in an exceptionally well-made movie about transgender people? Okay, then, why not Bryan Cranston for Trumbo, or Michael Fassbinder for Jobs?  Except that Hollywood loves biopics. And you’ve got a film about a victim of McCarthyism, or a film about the founder of Microsoft. It’s not an easy call.

What makes this issue so fascinating is the way it illuminates the way racism actually functions in our society. Here you have a group of people who would rather die than be regarded as racists. And with the very best of intentions, they try to honor particularly outstanding members of their group. And they end up belittling and insulting their Black colleagues, quite inadvertently. But the outrage of the Hollywood Black community is real, and justified. Racism’s insidious that way.

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