It is pretty to think that all of this year’s Oscars outrage might have been avoided with just a few shifts in nominations. In truth, recognition for some combination of Samuel L. Jackson, Will Smith, Teyonah Parris, Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan, Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, Jada Pinkett Smith, Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, Mya Taylor, Aaron Covington, and Spike Lee* might have actually prevented the current and justified clamor over the blinding whiteness in the acting categories for 2016’s 88th Academy Awards ceremony; all people (rightly) want is to see talent represented from all backgrounds, all ethnicities, and all walks of life in what is easily the year’s most noteworthy celebration of the movies. Is that so much to ask?
Apparently yes. The reality is that even if the Academy’s voting body had shown favor to minority actors, actresses, writers, and filmmakers**, Hollywood would still have a race problem. The movie industry would still be white-dominant. White would still be the default. White people would still run the studios, hold the producer roles, the directing roles, and the screenwriting roles. Hollywood would still be the place where whiteness is recognized before blackness, or before any other minority identity, for that matter. The business is built around white people first and foremost. Ultimately, it is a small thing that The Danish Girl has been given prominence over films like Tangerine, for example, and that the white components of Creed and Straight Outta Compton have been acknowledged at the expense of its black components.
At the same time, it is not a small thing at all. People watch the Academy Awards (though ratings saw quite a dip between 2014 and 2015, for whatever that’s worth). If snobs like myself roll their eyes at AMPAS voters for their taste level and proclivity toward mediocrity, we still tune in to watch the AMPAS telecast every year no matter how much bellyaching we commit to the subject beforehand (particularly when someone like Chris Rock is hosting, which in this case is pretty much the definition of a silver lining). The Academy Awards are a cultural phenomenon. They have been for ages. They are not so much a barometer of quality but a barometer of what the many-faced mirror of the film business is interested in, and according to the last couple of years, it is interested in emphasizing the status quo.
In micro terms, none of this matters. 2016’s release slate contains a slew of films created by people other than white men – Kelly Reichardt, Anna Rose Holmer, Assad Fouladka, Taika Waititi, So Yong Kim, Don Cheadle, Amma Asante, Ana Lily Amirpour, Nate Parker, Mira Nair, Roschdy Zem, Barry Jenkins, Ernest Dickerson, Roger Ross Williams, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, and others – on top of films like Jeff Nichols’ Loving and Richard Tanne’s Southside with You. Even if the Oscars remain white-centric for the next decade, minorities will continue to make advances behind and in front of the camera. (See also: Coogler, soon to be helming Marvel’s Black Panther film.) But in macro terms, the AMPAS repeat offense of overlooking minorities in their nomination process is absolutely significant. Fifteen minutes in the Oscar limelight is a big deal. If fewer people appear to be tuning into the show each year, you’re still talking about a shindig with an audience of millions. If there is one sure way to solidify a person’s name in mainstream cultural consciousness, it’s by putting them on a stage with that kind of visibility.
It is not the voters’ fault that Hollywood is incredibly twitchy about making*** movies featuring black people, that tell black stories, that are manned by black directors, that are penned by black writers; it’s Hollywood’s fault, though with Creed and Straight Outta Compton both proving that those sorts of movies can be both critically and commercially successful, Hollywood doesn’t have much of an excuse anymore. (Not that it did to begin with, but y’know.) The Academy’s voters are guilty of abetting Hollywood’s whitewashing tendencies, nothing more, nothing less. When the Academy nominates movies made by and starring white people, and which tell white stories, Hollywood takes note and makes more movies by and starring white people, and which tell white stories. (This can also be said of box office returns: when white-dominant movies do well, Hollywood churns out more of them in the hopes of raking in repeat revenue.) Picture this yearly drama as an ouroboros, a big, alabaster snake chowing down on its own tail. One problem feeds into the other, which feeds into yet more problems, which just go all the way back to feed into the problem that stirred up all these troubles in the first place.
If you must blame the Academy for anything, blame it for validating Hollywood’s racial biases. Do not, however, blame them for the industry’s race problem, because there’s plenty of blame to go around for that. Blame the studios. Blame audiences. (You can even blame critics, because film criticism isn’t exactly a multicultural bastion. Film critics are predominantly white and male. It’s a problem.) Hell, blame Charlotte Rampling and Michael Caine, such as they deserve; both of them have offered roundly ignorant ideas on this year’s Oscars fracas, with Rampling suggesting that maybe, just maybe, no black actors were worthy of a nomination, and Caine stating that “you can’t vote for an actor just because he’s black.” They’re accidentally correct, of course, because tokenism isn’t the same thing as inclusion and is, in fact, harmful to the realization of true diversity, but this sort of thinking (which, incidentally, isn’t limited just to them) also grandly misses the point. No one is asking for the Academy to honor black people on the basis of their blackness. They are asking for the Academy to honor black people***** on the basis of their talent.
Preference is subjective and no two people will watch a single film the same way. That’s just how art goes. But give me a damn break. If the Academy saw Creed**** and genuinely thought that Michael B. Jordan’s performance was simply not as good as Brian Cranston’s in Trumbo or Michael Fassbender’s in Jobs, then, well, fine: hurrah for white mediocrity, I guess. But they clearly thought enough of Creed to nominate Sylvester Stallone. Stallone is indeed phenomenal in that film, but a large component of what makes him great is Jordan, who gives him a dynamic, youthful foil to play off of. Similarly, the writing of Straight Outta Compton is fine, but made finer for its ensembles performances, which each give the film’s biopic conventions an injection of necessary vitality. But as frustrating as it is to see these movies neglected, and as easy as it is to leap on the Academy for their oversights, we can only hold them marginally responsible. The source of systemic racism isn’t so effortlessly cited and rooted out as that. You need wider and deeper change than even Cheryl Boone Isaacs can promise to achieve that goal******.
*Yes, he won an Honorary Oscar. No, this doesn’t change the argument.
**In fairness, Alejandro González Iñárritu isn’t white. One out of four ain’t bad, eh?
***Much less promoting.
****See above. It is hard to tell how many critics’ groups actually saw Creed. WB didn’t send out any screeners, for one thing, and for another the movie mostly fell off of the promotional radar after November passed. Clearly enough voters saw it to secure Stallone his nomination, but maybe not enough to secure one for Jordan. Then again, maybe the voters really are all a bunch of virulent racists, though that seems unlikely.
*****And Asians. And Latinos. And so on. Don’t let my writing here fool you: this issue isn’t just about black artists getting their proper due, but minorities in general. Note that the openly gay Todd Haynes’ whiteness did not help him score a slot among the likes of Iñárritu, Adam McKay, Lenny Abrahamson, Tom McCarthy, and George Miller in the Best Director category.
******Solutions that you can put into affect right now: watch movies directed by minorities. Talk about those movies with your friends and get your friends to watch them. Stop watching the same middling crap about white struggles that studios output every year for the sole purpose of winning meaningless industry distance pissing contests. If you’re a critic, all of this goes doubly for you. You should also probably watch this. It’s important.