Sunday Night Rants
Next Sunday, we’ll be doing our annual coverage of the Academy Awards. This month, we’ve been trying to see and review many of the nominated films, both as a guide to our readers who may want to know which films we feel are worth the hype, and in order to be able to make informed critiques of the actual ceremony. It doesn’t sound very credible to pick for or against a film if you haven’t seen it or its competition.
This award season, the relevance of the Oscars has been called into question by many for its shocking lack of diversity, both in its membership and in its selections. Many may think the Oscars were never very relevant: movie insiders feting themselves by picking movies hardly anyone had heard of, let alone seen. The awards almost never reward films for being popular (some animated features seem to be crossing this boundary, as I can see no other reason why Big Hero 6 should have been on anyone’s award list last year). If the picks don’t reflect audience’s tastes, don’t reflect contributions of many in the film industry, and don’t reflect the realities of the world around them, what possible value can they represent?
I feel the Oscars can be a positive tool to broaden viewers’ horizons, reward obscure or risky projects, and recognize merits in films beyond their mass appeal. Every year, I am surprised by an unknown project that slipped under the radar that comes to my attention because some part of it was nominated. The system can work to show us more than we usually see…but the industry needs to desperately rethink their methods. The Academy seems stuck in an echo chamber where only a handful of contributors really matter, and so instead of opening our eyes to new and wonderful films, they myopically focus on the efforts of a select few. Studios recognize this, and actively game the system, ensuring we only hear the same dozen names each year. The Oscars need a wake-up call, and part of the reason I cover them is to have conversations like these, so we can start to chip away at the wall that surrounds them.
A Dangerous Clique
It may seem blatantly obvious what The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ problem is: they hardly ever nominate films, directors or actors of color. For the second year in a row, the five major categories have virtually no minorities (in fact, only one non-white nod was given this year: Alejandro Inurritu for best director, The Revenant.) My hot take is that the problem is deeper seated: the Oscars don’t pick minority films, directors or actors, not because they want to freeze out non-white groups (in fact, when presented with black nominees, the Academy as a whole awards their performances at a rate noticeably higher than what would be expected just based on their percentage of the general population and nominee population, but more on that hollow victory later…), but because the monolithic movie industry does not produce and promote films, directors and actors of color.
The Academy is less a Klan rally, and more an embarrassed Rotary Club, who try to make up for a completely un-diverse membership by going out of their way to praise the few minorities who are able to scale the high wall keeping most people of color out. The real problem is that Hollywood is happy to take money from minority viewers, but is dead-set against making them part of the creative process. The awards process that rewards only a select few directors and performers acts as a further incentive to maintain the status quo. If putting a Leonardo DiCaprio or a Helen Mirren in your film means you’re going to get the high publicity bump from an inevitable Oscar nod, you’re really only concerned with lining up a bankable cast from inside the clique instead of searching for new talent.
No Herrings, Red or Otherwise
Nothing brings out the trolls online faster than talking about race. I’m not worried here, because A.) we have a very strictly moderated message board, B.) I’m full of alcohol, and C.) I’m about to lay out the ground rules in advance. Any arguments that ignore these can go die in a ditch, for all I care.
1. Nobody, NOBODY is arguing for affirmative action in this case. I’ve discussed this issue with others of presumable good faith and high intelligence and within seconds have had them shut the conversation down, angrily, because “we shouldn’t nominate films just to meet some damn quota!” First off, fuck you. Nobody mentioned quotas except for the very offended white people I talked to. Second, my argument does not in the slightest recommend or espouse the idea that we need diversity that rigidly reflects population. Not what I’m saying at all. As I’ve said, the Academy generally awards minorities when they are present…they just aren’t present very often.
2. The solution is not to create a new category for POC. Holy hell, I can’t believe people actually suggest this at this stage in our civilization. Separate but equal at the Oscars? What a condescending and patronizing idea. That we should award a Female Best Director, or Best (minority) Actor is ludicrous, offensive and not in any way suggested here. Take that straw-man argument out back and burn it, you troglodytes.
3. The “It’s what people watch!” argument is completely busted. Oscars as a popularity contest? Really? Have you actually seen any of the nominated films? I’ve seen four, and it’s my fucking job to watch them! How many people watched Spotlight? How many have sat through The Danish Girl or Brooklyn? Those films were in no way nominated because they had a widespread following, or did well at the box office. Hell, most Oscar noms are shown at four theaters in the dead of November, and only expand nationwide if they manage to get a nomination. They don’t do well and then get nominated, they get nominated and then get a bump in viewership. We don’t nominate films because of what people watch. How many Oscars does Michael Bay or Tyler Perry have!?
4. “The Academy has already made plans to open up the diversity of the voting process, and has a minority president, so stop whining you damn SJW!” The Academy has done some things to help the problem…eventually…because the “SJW” complained. But they are not the problem’s core. Once again, they aren’t the bottleneck: it’s the studios. If studios recruited and promoted talent, not via quota but as a natural off-shoot of who is active (and guess what, there are plenty of directors and actors of color out there waiting for a shot!) the Academy wouldn’t have to slap a band-aid on the problem; there would naturally be more diversity to choose from and more minorities choosing it! That’s right, you wouldn’t need to troll for more diverse voters because the natural recruitment system already lets you vote if you are active in film. You don’t need to award the few allowed to create more power, more people would be creating and would reflect that back into what and whom is nominated.
My Argument: The Real Problem.
The Oscars are stuck in a vicious cycle: anything but a big blockbuster needs bankable names to get off the ground; the same dozen names are safe bets because they’ve been nominated in the past; being nominated in the past leads you to being chosen to work on “serious” projects; only those serious projects get the attention of the Academy…and therefore we start another round of “gets nominated roles because was in nominated roles.” Even projects that took a risk like 12 Years a Slave had to play this game by filling out minor roles with Oscar favorites like Fassbender, Pitt, Cumberbatch and Giamatti. Do we really believe that only 12 actors and 5 or 6 directors can actually turn out worthy products? It’s such a winning strategy that films like The Big Short and American Hustle seem like summer camp for stars rather than real movies. When Sly Stallone gets 12 big names together, we all laugh at The Expendables. When David O. Russell does it, we nominate it for an Oscar.
The film industry at this point doesn’t reflect our national make-up, but it sure does represent our national tendency to fetishize the successful. Look at our politics: name recognition and clout trumps policy and track record every time. The big get bigger and everyone else has no place at the table. We need a way out of this rigged system.
There are things we can do to shake up the current system. The Academy has made a token effort to increase the number of under-represented groups who vote. We need to hold them accountable. If this white-out is the same next year, there’s no recourse but to boycott. I love talking about movies, but it won’t hurt my enjoyment of the medium to skip over the big show…and to skip over seeing nominated films in favor of films that better represent the world around us.
As viewers, we hold enormous sway over what gets made. Latinos make up 17% of the population…but 32% of frequent cinema goers! That is one massive block of viewers, and if they don’t like being ignored by Hollywood, god help the studios when they ignore those films that don’t speak to them. The industry is absolutely abysmal at including people of Hispanic and Asian descent: as bad as the problem is when it comes to black performers getting roles and nominations, other people of color are completely shut out. Women of color have it even worse. We need to stop supporting a system this rigged. By watching and talking about great movies like Beasts of No Nation or Sicario, we can vote with our dollars and feet. By supporting alternate venues such as Netflix and Video on Demand, we can show that there is a bankable market for smaller products that are meaningful and diverse. When the gates are actually opened, we can support those productions. I’m not saying you have to run out and see Tyler Perry’s latest mess, but genuinely good-looking films like this week’s Race should make it onto our viewing cards.
Lastly, figures in the media need to speak up. Eyeballs and wallets alone won’t change the tide, we need voices as well. More reviews that cover marginalized projects should be done. We try to cover a more diverse selection here, and we highlight films that are especially good or especially bad about these issues…but we could always be better. Like I said above, if we need to take a hard line against the awards shows and the projects associated, that’s what we need to do. If a source is particularly good (or bad) at doing so, let them know and ultimately vote with your clicks.
I hope that acknowledging this problem and spreading our opinions to those who are watching the Oscars anyway may be helpful, a way to educate from within the medium. But if we care about this issue for more than one month of the year, and really think that opening up the medium to other voices is not just equitable but necessary for obtaining the best possible voices and performances, we’re going to have to keep the pressure on and make sure our viewing, and reviewing, practices work for everybody, not just those who already are sitting on top.