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The State of the Race: How History Gets Made

For history to be made in the first place, tradition must be upended. It’s never easy. It’s never fun. It’s always bloody, either literally or symbolically. If it’s true of this year’s election, it’s is also true of the Oscar race. Tradition tells us that in 300 or so years of American history, up until 2008, we saw only white men lead our country. We accepted this and no one challenged it. Women didn’t even have the right to vote until 97 years ago. They were okay with it until they weren’t. Even at our country’s founding, slavery was a debatable issue. White male leaders decided to build the country using an enslaved labor force which most of the wealthy clung to bitterly, coming to an end only with a bloody civil war because some white men could no longer abide the hypocrisy of a new country based on freedom of all men yet still kept millions of men in bondage. Women were used routinely as sex slaves – and I’m willing to bet that much of the refusal to give up the free labor had to do, in large part, with the “free” sex, or as we now call it, rape. Great, lovely. Isn’t America a fine country? We’re pretty horrible when you peel back the onion. Humanity overall is pretty horrible when you think about it.

But back to making history. It wasn’t going to be easy for President Obama to break with history and not only get elected, but to get re-elected, and then threaten to become the most popular president since Ronald Reagan. His approval ratings remain steady around 50-55%. If Hillary Clinton is elected, that will mark a first for the Democrats to do what Reagan did when George H.W. Bush, his VP, was elected — secure 3 terms in the White House in a row for the same party. Clinton’s election will affirm Obama’s success, and put him in the league of the greatest presidents of all time. Funny, isn’t it? You’d think, given that, the American left would be embracing Clinton with gratitude, enthusiasm and passion. Ah, but it isn’t that easy. Hillary Clinton is a woman. It took this election to clarify just how much so many people hate, distrust, and resist women on the rise. They are judged by an entirely different standard.

The Oscar race has likewise been ruled by men, even if in the early days pioneers like Mary Pickford had a hand in the foundations of Hollywood. So much has changed that the dynamic is really rigged, just like American politics is rigged, to favor men.

It hasn’t come as a complete shock to watch so many varying forces attack Hillary, trying to bring her down on a day-to-day basis. From the left, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Michael Moore, Bill Maher, Rosario Dawson, Shailene Woodley, and from the right – every Republican. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at the behest of Vladimir Putin working for Trump, Benghazi, FBI email investigation, DNC leaks – and on and on it goes. Why it didn’t surprise me was because I’ve been covering the Oscar race for almost 20 years. Nothing gets the status quo more riled up than the thought of anyone but a white man rising. That includes women, black filmmakers, and even Ang Lee, whose Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or Life of Pi should have won Best Picture. Hell, Sense and Sensibility should have won. Had a white man directed all of the same movies – there is no way his films would not have also won. I’m not making the accusation of racism and sexism here. Those are damaging, loaded words. But I am pointing out that the status quo is the status quo and it has its rules of engagement.

The reason change is hard is because it feels unnatural. History doesn’t want change. It wants predictable continuity. It doesn’t get it, but that’s what it wants. White panic set in on both the left and the right. When Bernie Sanders talked about the disappearing middle class he was really talking specifically about the white middle class. You need only drive around Los Angeles to see that there is a thriving middle class of immigrants, specifically Mexican Americans. In the South, there is a solid black middle class. But to surrender to the Obama coalition is to give those voices a permanence in the American story. Trump stands for the same thing, as did the Brexit vote in England. The truth is that the country is changing. The world is changing. The climate is changing. We’ll likely be seeing some shocking things in the next 50 years. Hold onto your butts.

For white America, Obama’s presidency has been “enough,” and now they want to get back to the regularly scheduled programming. So too goes the Oscar race, in shifts. It took 73 years for a black actress to win in lead. Halle Berry won in 2001 because enough of a fuss was made about it that voters had no choice but to take note.

That year, both Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won, which seemed to either indicate a kind of sea change within the Academy or it was a “get out jail free” card for them, to reset their almost exclusively white history. With each win, though, comes a backlash. Each time a film or an actor rises, the very next thing that happens is the “just because.” Is she getting attention “just because” she’s black? Is she getting attention “just because” she’s a woman? They still say this about Kathryn Bigelow’s magnificent Zero Dark Thirty. They have to work twice as hard to get recognized and to date, only four women have been nominated for Best Director and only one woman has won. Contrast that with people of color — Alejandro Inarritu has won twice in a row, and before that Alfonso Cuaron won — that’s three straight years for Mexican-born directors. Ang Lee has won twice. No black director has ever won. No black director was even nominated until 1991, and to date only three have been nominated in total.

The reason why it’s so difficult for black filmmakers — and especially for someone like Ava DuVernay, who is both black and female — is that they have to carry much more than their film in the awards race. They have to carry the responsibility of speaking for the entire black community. They have to also appeal to the snooty white film critics in the first place (DuVernay passed those tests with flying colors), and then survive the whisper campaign that occurs among the Hollywood elite. And I can tell you, because I know for sure: they are 100% white men.

So why does it matter? It matters because the world is changing. When the world changes, it forces adaptation. America, and the Oscar race, must now open its doors to more than just the singular white male who has called the shots for so long. It isn’t just because women are 51% of the population and simply won’t stand being ignored any longer. It isn’t just that President Obama has switched on the light in the room and we’re not going back into darkness. It’s that stagnation leads to decay. Why television is thriving where the film industry isn’t is exactly because those breathtaking new voices in film are being forced out of white, male-dominated Hollywood and into the world of television. Visionaries like Lisa Cholodenko and Ava DuVernay find more freedom there. Older actresses actually get work. Look at the series The Night Of on HBO. Look at the diversity, the depth of storytelling, the brilliant characters – the out of the box writing. Movies are stagnating because those doors remain closed and locked, with the lights switched off.

As we begin our countdown to this year’s Oscar race, we will keep an eye on Mira Nair, who is coming to the race with Queen of Katwe. African American filmmakers like Denzel Washington and Nate Parker will also be in the conversation.

With each exception to the rule — like Parker, or Viola Davis — there will be that “just because” question popping up. For some reason, it is only really harmful when it threatens the white male power dynamic. It’s “Hillary Clinton is the nominee just because she’s a woman.” “You want to vote for her just because she’s a woman.” “People are only praising Birth of a Nation just because Nate Parker is black.” “Viola Davis is the frontrunner just because she is black.” The ‘just because’ argument really is just another tool to keep things ordered as they always have been.

Mostly, though, the industry, the media, and the public at large will be looking at the acting categories to see if they can begin to reflect the changing world, the way Hamilton does, the way television does — considering the possibilities rather than shutting them down.