It probably strikes the typical oscar voter as surprising, frustrating and ironic. They want to believe they belong to an institution that purports to celebrate heroes — an institution that, more often than not, honors movies about good guys over movies about bad guys, and thus represents a righteous, high-minded ideology. Many of them lived through the 1960s. They probably fought in the Civil Rights Movement. They drive a Prius — or, if they’re next level, a Tesla. They do what they can for all the right causes. They fight against injustice whenever they see it. Most are liberals. Staunch Democrats. Many are happy get behind Hillary, and even those who see themselves as Bernie supporters will still vote for Hillary if they have to. They feel in their hearts that they have good intentions. Although the size of their fortunes has ballooned with savvy investment advice, they do not see themselves as part of the Wall Street schemes that support their lifestyles. They choose to see themselves as outside that system — fighting against it — even while living lavishly because of it. Above all, they most certainly do not see themselves in terms of the word being bandied about this week, as racists.
Inside this comfortable self-image, very few are paying attention — really paying attention — to what’s happening in Hollywood and what’s happening to the Oscars as a result. How many Academy members stop to consider what their choices say about what’s happening in our culture’s broader discussion about race and representation in art?
The past year has been replete with articles expressing exasperation and anger over how few films about women have been featured in the Oscar race over the past ten years. No film has won Best Picture with a lead actress nominee since 2004 with Million Dollar Baby. With all of the admirable talk about the Academy making strides to rectify gender inequality in its ranks, they present us with only three Best Picture nominees led by women, two more with strong women anywhere in the casts. A few women of color had prominent speaking roles in this year’s Best Picture nominees, though most of these roles are woefully small.
On the one hand, Oscar voters probably feel they can’t win for losing. They’ve made an effort to include stories about women and this year, at last, they’ve largely succeeded. This achievement might have been the issue we could all celebrate — if only the voters had been able to make their ballots for one single film or actor of color. Some did, no doubt. Why didn’t more of them do so? The same thing happened last year. Selma barely squeaked in but no actors of color were nominated — not even David Oyelowo playing Martin Luther King, Jr.. Why didn’t he? Because room had to be made for the American Sniper instead?
As George Clooney said yesterday, “We’re moving in the wrong direction,” and he pointed out that things haven’t always been this way. Why have things gotten worse and not better, he asked. In spite of the recent Best Picture win of 12 Years a Slave and the nomination of Selma for Best Picture, why is the overall slate of Oscar nominees getting less diverse instead of more? Remember not too long ago when Jamie Foxx and Forrest Whitaker and Denzel Washington and Mo’Nique and Jennifer Hudson and Lupita Nyong’o were accepting their Oscars. Proud moments. But we’ve now had a white-out for two straight years when there have been plenty of worthy options.
The one false point that I cannot abide is the nonsensical argument so many others have been making: that the films or the actors this year just weren’t good enough. That’s nonsense. So if you’re hoping I’m going to concede that the best got in and it was a just a very competitive year then I’ll have to say upfront: don’t make me expose those who really didn’t deserve to get nominations because I can do it. Not just this year, but every year, as far back as you want to go.
The announcement of this year’s nominees has caused this year’s Oscars, like last year’s, to blow up into one story and one story only. Sure, we can talk about diversity in the other categories, like the shorts or the Documentary or Foreign Language choices — but everyone knows that the true seat of power in Hollywood rests with the actors, the directors, and the all-important Best Picture. I respectfully submit that there are four contributing factors to this year’s results.
I see four primary forces behind the result of the Oscars over the past decade: 1) the devolution of the Hollywood business model itself — as described quite brilliantly and horrifically in Lynda Obst’s book Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business., 2) the rigged game of the remnants of a star system that favors and nurtures white gods and goddesses, and the film critics that bolster this unhealthy obsession, 3) the growing resentment of old guard Academy members, many of whom feel obligated or forced to vote for black actors and black films whether they want to or not, and 4) the unreasonable expectations placed on black actors and productions with black actors, women and other minorities, a baggage imposed by strident, politically correct movements that demand these professionals bear the burden of our past and politely chart our future. The list of demands gets longer each year, and further becomes impossibly difficult to fulfill.
1) The business of Hollywood discourages variety in films Oscar voters prefer – and encourages cherry picking and special meal delivery
In Lynda Obst’s book, Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business, she explains how Hollywood has dramatically changed in the past ten years. Part of it is the need to “open big.” If you don’t open big you are screwed. Part of this is because piracy is a serious problem for studios. But mostly it’s the growing dominance of box-office returns driven by “pre-awareness” — relying heavily on tentpoles, sequels, and remakes. It’s so hard to get movies made that half of them end up on television anyway and almost always those are the ones starring women or minorities, unless they’re “niche films” made for a “niche audience,” like Tyler Perry makes – a director who does incredibly well and does so by not giving a single fuck what White Hollywood says he should do.
Interestingly, and not at all surprisingly, films starring racially diverse casts do really well overseas. But to do great business overseas you can’t really make the kinds of films most Oscar voters respond to. As the big business of Hollywood continues to make shitloads of money making movies Oscar voters don’t like, the Oscar race has become far more specialized, or niche, and an entire cottage industry has emerged where Oscar strategists are attached to movies early on, in charge of shepherding the films Oscar voters are presumed to like. And too many pundits play along, as we coral and herd and spoon-feed the Oscar-friendly, sifting out diverse choices into a limited pile for voters.
Think of Oscar voters like that one guest at the dinner table who requires a special meal — nothing too spicy or “ethnic” — and mostly only what they’re accustomed to consuming. God help you if you run out of potatoes or macaroni. Everyone else at the table is open and willing to eat whatever fresh delicacies you serve, but that one guest has to get the same tame meal every time.
The rise of the “Oscar movie” is a recent invention borne out of the the Academy pushing up the date of the Oscars by a full month — thus removing the public reaction out of the process of choosing Best Picture. There were always “Oscar movies,” tailor made for the Academy and released in December. But they were also movies for the public to fall in love with so that awarding them was a cultural event with impact. Now, the public mostly scratches its head and says “da fuq”? when they hear the nominations because this process takes place in a busy world of critics, bloggers, pundits, publicists and voters — often many weeks before the nominees ever open in theaters.
Pundits and strategists together find the “Oscar movies,” the ones “they” will go for, casually discarding any that are pre-judged as “not that great,” or aren’t “Oscar-y” enough — which severely limits our options right out of the gate, as you can imagine. At the same time, we’re proven right every year we try to imagine “fetch” will happen with the Oscars. It isn’t going to happen. It’s never going to happen. Sometimes you just can’t let go and you try and you push and you advocate and you cajole — but to no avail. Too many voters remain stubbornly immovable because they only want to eat that one kind of meal.
This is why, when a film like Beasts of No Nation comes along, or Fruitvale Station two years ago, they’re the first to falter in the system. When a film is too critically acclaimed and ambitious, it’s seen to be too esoteric — but these are the very films that need the Oscar race to make money. They need to be pushed as hard as possible for awards recognition. It is almost impossible to get them made in the first place and twice as hard to get the mainstream critic establishment and the Oscar industry to pay attention to them. Films like this make up a very small list usually, but it’s a list of exquisite gems.
So we’re looking at a narrow opening to begin with — films that get the requisite cred from critics, enough to get in through the tiny hole to make it onto that plate of mostly bland food items that looks just like the same plate served five years ago. The Oscar voters haven’t changed all that much. Yes, the industry and the culture has changed around them, but the Oscar industry keeps Academy voters shielded and protected from the real world.
Why has it gotten worse? Because that tiny hole has gotten smaller. The niche factor of the Oscars has gotten even more niche. There is only room for Brits, let’s face it. And Whites, let’s face that too. It’s harder and harder for even one movie to break through that’s outside the norm.
When there was more time, another month for movies to marinate and voters to contemplate, the Oscar were more plugged in to the general public. When Gladiator won Best Picture, for instance, it was a shared experience between the industry and the public. Remember that year? With Traffic and Crouching Tiger? That was an incredibly diverse year.
2) The Star System favors white celebrities. Look around your Twitter feed and Facebook. What kinds of pictures of celebrities do you see, day in and day out? Beautiful stars from the old days of Hollywood glamour? What color are they? The Oscars, in many ways, still reflect that old, outmoded version of Hollywood glamour — that’s why it’s so hard for older women, heavier women, less gorgeous women, and any woman of color to be Princess for a Day. The awards establishment seems stuck in that glamour-puss past — they want Jennifer Lawrence each and every time. They want Audrey Hepburn redux. They want Grace Kelly. They want a pretty little doll to put atop their pretty frosted layer cake. All the better if she gave a great performance, but that isn’t necessarily as important as her, ahem, “desirability” to a certain type of person. Ahem. We tend to coddle actors because we’ve learned (i.e., been taught) to love them. We naturally want to see someone we love get recognized, like Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts or Rachel McAdams. We wait patiently for them to finally deliver THAT PERFORMANCE that will win them the Oscar FINALLY. Their career narrative becomes something we’re invested in. Once in a blue moon, you’ll find someone interested in investing in the narrative of a person of color or anyone else who doesn’t fit the Audrey or Katharine Hepburn model of the ideal Oscar Queen.
Best performance? Honestly, it’s rarely ever been about that. It’s more about the “moves” in a star’s career that are either applauded, scorned, or ignored by their peers. It’s seldom “how good they are” and more often “how good for them.” Few actors of color have ever been allowed to create such a narrative. I can think of a couple — Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, and Viola Davis. But for the most part, it’s about watching the various ups and downs of the gods and goddesses we’ve anointed as worthy of our worship. To a degree, we are all culpable in this because of our lifelong conditioning and obsession with white celebrities that our culture elevates to the status of gods.
As someone who’s run a site on the Oscar race for 15 years, I can tell you that the hottest traffic generators are rarely people of color. When I devoted almost an entire season to Viola Davis, I had the most hate directed at me I ever have, and had to witness readership flee to pro-Meryl sites (demoralizing, since my own long-standing admiration for La Streep needs no explanation or apology). I know if I post about a white celebrity like Jennifer Lawrence or any one of those endlessly trending #hashtag white celebrities, my site’s traffic will spike. This annoys me so I try not to do it, but if I was only about driving traffic (as many sites are) that is what I would be forced to do. Think this is an Internet problem? Think again. This is why magazines always put white people on the cover for the past half century. It isn’t really about “racism” so much as it is an insidious pervasive racial bias — it’s about how we’ve all been conditioned and have conditioned ourselves through media, Hollywood (let’s face it), and even toys to see the white people as the only appropriate gods and goddesses. This situation is, I think, slowly changing, but it’s very much in place this year and it’s why you see actors automatically placed in frontrunner status — like Johnny Depp over, say, Michael B. Jordan.
Not only has the business of Hollywood changed, it’s changed in response to the way audiences and film criticism has changed — the rise of the fanboy in film culture has left little room for anyone but your typical white male protagonist to emerge. It isn’t only fanboys, though. J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy have almost single-handedly changed the kinds of films fanboy culture supports. Even though Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac are the two most worshiped stars from Star Wars, there is no getting around the fact that John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are the real stars. We can hope that this just the beginning of a promising new way for doors to open. But we’re still talking about tentpoles, sequels, and remakes as the juggernaut economic force in today’s Hollywood — and that’s a genre Oscar really won’t touch, at least not now.
The growing chorus of men who openly oppose feminism, for instance, the “not all men” or Gamergate crowd, the ones who publicly shame, bully and humiliate any celebrity who calls herself a feminist are the same people who are the first to jump up and say “not everything is racist!” Or else they feel pissed off that anyone would bring up the issue at all. This is just your run-of-the mill white privilege rearing its ugly head. White men have been in charge for a long time, and they are not budging any time soon until they are overtaken in numbers, and maybe not even then. Meanwhile, just the mere threat of losing their power on the distant horizon makes many of these men flare up in their last throes of desperation.
Fanboy culture, film criticism is as white-centric as the Oscar race — man, oh man, do these guys get resentful (as Academy members do — but we’ll get to that later) whenever they feel they “have to vote” for something or someone “just because” they’re black. They have no problem with their stunt picks, like James Franco winning for Spring Breakers. But they resist the urge to advocate with their picks, because then you start getting into the area of what defines a good performance, or what it means to “deserve” an award. We’ve all seen people win Oscars for any number of reasons, though. To my mind, “Just because they’re black” is as worthy a reason as “I’d like to see her naked and astride my peen.” Or “She’s given so many great performances over the years,” or “She’s churned up big business for Hollywood,” or “He gained 35 pounds, or lost 35 pounds for the role.” These are all equally dubious reasons to hand someone an award. It is naive to think any of these prizes are purely objective assessments of talent or worth. The Oscars are about power and dominance — they aren’t really about artistic achievement and never have been. It’s an exclusive club. The Academy makes their own rules.
3) The growing resentment of Academy members who don’t want to be called “racists” but also hate feeling obligated to vote for black actors and movies “just because.”
The Academy just can’t seem to wrestle free from this stigma of race in their awards choices. Each time they award a film like 12 Years a Slave (the one time a film with an all black cast, directed by a black director has won Best Picture – in 88 years) or nominate a film like Selma, there are these creepy confessionals that pop up from resentful anonymous members who start dissing the film in question, or revealing their secret resentments for “having to vote for it” out of guilt, as if that’s the only reason. The subtext of what they’re saying is that they wouldn’t have voted for it if they didn’t feel like they had to.
Given the option, these voters would prefer to opt out and hope they’ve paid their penance enough to be let off the hook. What they like most of all: movies about white movie stars being the good guys. They simply can’t see themselves reflected in films about black characters or black culture, especially if that culture hasn’t been whitened to be more “universal.” What I loved so much about Ryan Coogler’s Creed was the freed-up dialect with no need to make it “sound more white.” The same went for Straight Outta Compton. What we saw with these two movies — and believe me, there is a thriving market for films aimed at black audiences that are even more ignored — was the kind of crossover appeal that should be embraced by people like Academy voters.
The growing resentment really started as far back as Do the Right Thing, when that cinematic milestone was shut out of the 1989 Best Picture race, causing a wave of accusations aimed at the Academy by prominent film critics and audiences alike. These older men didn’t see themselves as racists and hated being characterized as such. Why couldn’t it just be “the movie wasn’t good enough?” That question — that excuse — would continue for the next several decades and remains the first sulky rationale today. These voters don’t seem able to admit that what defines “good” is a matter of personal perspective. It’s a big world with a lot of different viewpoints, and yet – with a few notable exceptions, then and now — we always end up talking about what white people define as good or great. To make diverse movies that appeals to the Academy will require an identity overhaul. Make movies white people like and then on top of that, make movies film critics will respect and Oscar voters will respond to.
The best answer to Do the Right Thing’s shutout in the Best Picture race would have been to mentor more black directors. Hollywood had never seen anyone like Spike Lee. You’d have thought they would have welcomed him with open arms and mentored the shit out of him. They didn’t. They did the exact opposite. They marginalized him to the point where any black director from then on who was let in the club better not be an outspoken one. To Lee’s enduring credit, he continues not to give a fuck. This year, the critics who supported the late-breaking Chi-Raq were not enough to launch it into the Oscar race. It needed more time to seep into the general consciousness.
The number of ostensible liberals dealing with “this black thing” every year is growing, and with it grows the resentment of white men who like to see themselves as cool civil rights dudes, not racist. It just gets worse, not better, so much so that actors and directors are almost punished for even trying to get anywhere near the Oscar race. They’re simply dismissed. The Academy elders seem to think: “We gave 12 Years a Slave Best Picture, so that gets us off the hook.”
There is no easy solution to this ongoing dynamic — there is only hoping that it one day goes away as a more diverse membership evolves; I can’t even convince men on my Facebook feed or on Twitter to feel less resentment even for having the discussion — you can imagine what one man alone with his anonymous ballot is feeling.
4) The Long List
Much has been made of the kinds of films Oscar voters respond to, as opposed to those made by black filmmakers and starring black actors. So much has been made, in fact, that criticism for the disconnect gets flung in all directions. One problem with this (valid) criticism is that it has become a crippling factor for black actors who get offered a variety of roles, the few who get as many opportunities as white actors to play complex characters.
The Help is a great example of this. A popular movie that made a shitload of money and was headed for the Oscar race. But here it was again, that same complaint about black actors playing maids. Hattie McDaniel, in fact, was shunned by the black community for playing a maid in Gone with the Wind (okay, worse than a maid: a slave) and for winning the Oscar — a hard fought battle for power for sure. McDaniel said at the time “I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than earn $7 a day being a maid.” McDaniel’s legacy — her achievement and subsequent chastening — is still being worked through by the black community today, half of whom can’t cut her a break and the other half who celebrate her history and her talent.
That dynamic continued on to warp perceptions for 70 years, all the way to The Help. The quite credible frustration that, yet again, a black woman was about to win an Oscar for playing a maid. “Poor people, drug addicts, slaves and maids — can’t we get some positive roles for black actors?” The problem is that whenever that happens, film critics and the Academy shun those projects, like The Great Debaters, for instance, or Akeelah and the Bee. As if to say, “Don’t even try to step out of the roles where we’ve decided you belong.” The problem with this is that actors of color are the ones who must pay the price. They just get less work, less power, because they’re not allowed to do films that make money. Must they carry the burden of their entire community? Always and until the end of the time?
What we saw happen with The Help was the beginning of the diverging roads between the much more diverse Screen Actors Guild and the staunchly less diverse Academy. The Help not only won Best Ensemble that year, but both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer won coveted SAG Awards. The Academy, of course, famously opted out of honoring Davis as the second black actress to win the Best Actress Oscar in 84 years. Mark Harris advocated tirelessly for her. Dozens of pundits were writing op-eds about how she should win, but the Academy balked and gave Meryl Streep her third Oscar. And as we now know, Streep has and will have many more chances to win Oscars. Davis, not so much.
If you reach even further back, you’ll remember when Steven Spielberg got a load of shit dumped on him for being a white guy who dared to make a film about black women. The Color Purple was attacked from every angle — for “whitewashing” the style, for “straightwashing” the lesbianism, but mostly because a white man had the audacity to make a movie about black characters. The Color Purple was the last film with an all black cast to be nominated for Best Picture until Precious in 2009 and The Help in 2011. Because of the backlash against The Color Purple and the way Spielberg was treated for even trying to go there, it just got harder and harder for movies featuring black narratives to get made. Who wants to step in a big pile of horse manure like that? Black directors were not being mentored and no white directors were brave enough to do what Spielberg did. The result? Less work, less power, less career- and legacy-building for black actors who had to take whatever was deemed acceptable. It was all so terribly unfair.
Politically correct strangulation of art is worse now than it ever has been. The pressure for films and performers to right the wrongs of society is just too much. All it accomplishes is to give free reign to movies about white characters, preferably white men who can do whatever they want be whatever they want, explore any dark theme, play good guys and bad guys. No one cares because no one is going to object except to say, “Why are there only movies about white guys?” I’m not blaming the victim here. I’m only saying, can we all lighten up a little bit when it comes to the growing list of can’t and shouldn’t and should and must and don’t?
Even when the list of demands is somehow met, that doesn’t mean anyone will go see the movie. It still has to pass muster with critics as we saw happen with The Butler. The restrictions are too high and unfairly placed on minorities, and here’s the rub: none of these same standards seem to apply to the apex of Hollywood power: white males. Think about that.
The Way Out
Since Oscar expanded Best Picture, every year except 2010 a film with a black cast or a black actor has been represented – 2009: Precious, 2011: The Help, 2012: Beasts of the Southern Wild, 2013: 12 Years a Slave, 2014: Selma. What has changed so dramatically this year to cause both a shut out in Best Picture and in the acting categories?
The thing about Oscar voters that most people don’t know or don’t think about is pretty simple, actually, and it isn’t as sinister as it seems. Academy members get just a few short days to fill out their nominations ballot between Christmas and New Year’s. They have an enormous pile of screeners and most of them do not watch the screeners unless they feel obligated or otherwise forced. If forced, most of the time they will do the right thing, but many of them have to be pressured into doing it.
Weeks ago, I saw Scott Feinberg at The Hollywood Reporter putting Straight Outta Compton on his Best Picture predictions when no one else was willing to go there. That small thing he did created a shift in thinking among people who make the significant lists. We started considering Compton in a different way, and for a while there it seemed like voters might be paying attention. With ten nomination slots, and not five, Compton might have been nominated.
Whether Oscar advocates can help or not or whether critics can help or not is really beside the point. All advocacy is good — especially if the film is good enough and successful enough to deserve awards attention. There are bigger and more important things than the Oscars. The Spirit Awards are growing in prominence. When a movie like Creed earns $100 million, it will inspire other black directors to start making films. The films, the filmmakers, and the industry as a whole are making progress. The controversy this year will ensure people pay closer attention next year, in regards to the kinds of films being considered, the films that are pushed through, the films that manage to make it in, and of course, as always, to the films that don’t.
Either way, in a year when Hollywood has so much to be proud of, the Academy gets to enjoy #OscarsSoWhite as the biggest story of Oscars 2016. Not the number of movies about women that got recognized, not the history-making Best Picture and Best Director nominations in consecutive years of Alejandro G. Iñarritu, not the astonishing level of achievement on display from dozens of exciting filmmakers. No, the Oscars instead must live with the mistake they can’t seem to stop making — another shutout of black actors that haunts them now and will always be a stain on their legacy until things finally change.