In 2012, there were two films by African American filmmakers about the African American experience that were up for Oscar consideration. One was Lee Daniels’ The Butler about the life of the black butler who worked in the White House for 30 years under four US presidents, and one was Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, about an unarmed black citizen who was fatally shot by BART police in San Francisco on News Year’s Eve. Fruitvale Station made the rounds, Weinstein Co. style, from Sundance to Cannes on through. The Butler had star power — Jane Fonda, Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, among others.
There was a third film that dealt with black history in the race that year but it was directed by a British filmmaker, Steve McQueen, who had requisite arthouse cred, according to the critics. McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave was the only one of the three that made it into the Oscar race, even though it looked like the Oscars were at last on the verge of change and that Harvey Weinstein was going to be part of that change. It was such a huge risk he’d taken, especially with Fruitvale. Although it had garnered early enthusiasm, when the end of the year rolled around most critics only had eyes for 12 Years, partly because it was McQueen. The industry liked it because Brad Pitt was behind it. It was also a great film.
I remember thinking that year that we might really see a major shift in the Best Picture/Best Director race. But that year Steve McQueen did not win Best Director. Alfonso Cuaron won for Gravity. (It should be said, another Academy milestone — launching a 3-year Oscar-winning streak for Latin American directors.) Both The Butler and Fruitvale Station were 100% shut out of the Oscar race.
So, can a hashtag like #OscarSoWhite really change anything, as Anne Thompson is suggesting it will? It has already motivated the Academy to change its makeup to address the cries of protest. This year the AMPAS invited a record number of members of all colors and ages and have found ways to try to weed out some the older less-active members who have not kept up with the times. The Academy took it upon themselves to make these changes, after both SAG and the Producers Guild exhibited a willingness to reach beyond their comfort zone by nominating Straight Outta Compton and Beasts of No Nation last year. That Idris Elba was shut out from the Oscar’s Supporting Actor race was astonishing. Notably, in contrast, Elba won two Screen Actors Guild Awards last year.
Thompson says this year could be the most diverse awards race we’ve seen in a while and then lists all of the potential titles that could be included. Hope springs eternal, my friends, in the early stages and it’s important to point this out — but there’s always a but.
For starters, films about the black community or people of color have to run quite the gauntlet to get past the first phase. That is, to satisfy the white and black communities in terms of the film’s politics. Both communities seemed to hate that the very successful film The Help did so well. They hated it that the women were playing maids. AGAIN. The Butler somehow bothered film critics, as well, among those who found it too sentimental, perhaps. Bottom line, a few dozen white writers in the Writers Branch were deciding that film’s fate, regardless of what audiences thought of it.
Successfully navigating the gauntlet will matter for some of the films heading towards Oscar. A film that the majority of film critics like is not usually the kind of film that audiences or Oscar voters like, but once a movie gets hit with bad reviews it’s almost impossible for it to emerge out from under them. It begins and ends with a simple sentence, “I heard that was bad.”
Once a film makes it past that first hurdle, it then has to be sifted further through the tastes of thousands of mostly white people. What will they respond to? What will they hate?
By the time we get to Oscar voters, remember: they have just five slots to fill. What were their five favorite films of the year? It hardly matters if a 20-something African American voter puts down a few odd choices. What will matter is how many hundreds of other voters put down the same movies.
This is not to be doom and gloomy about it all. After all, there are a few exciting prospects that await, like Ava DuVernay maybe being nominated for her doc, The 13th. Lion will be one of the few films to feature a large cast of Asian actors — starting with the marvelous Dev Patel in the lead. Can it somehow bypass the snooty film critics and land right in Oscar voters’ laps? That’s what I would hope for it. I don’t need to hear what some 30-something white dude whose favorite film of the year is Hell or High Water thinks of Lion. We can already guess.
But some caution needs to be exercised regarding films that have not yet been released. They simply can’t be evaluated until they’re seen, even if we’ve all been predicting them to be nominated for some time. These include Fences and Hidden Figures.
The only two films that, right now, seem to be slam dunk contenders would be Moonlight and Loving. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation would have been a strong contender too, or so it seemed out of Sundance, but we outlined its challenges yesterday.
Even these films that seem like slam dunks now might struggle cracking into the Academy’s limited list of five. I have confidence that both are good enough to get in but if you count those two and then you count Fences and Hidden Figures? That’s four films about African Americans in the Best Picture race? My knowledge of Oscar history tells me that no, four won’t get in and it will be a miracle if two do. The most likely scenario is that only one does.
Anne Thompson is the best in the Oscar business, I think. She outclasses the rest of us. But I’m just going to suggest we not declare #OscarsSoWhite dead just yet. Let’s wait to see where the ballots take us.