Wouldn’t it be great if someone had a real answer for that? Sure, we can say they’re racists. I think when most people hear the word they imagine Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave. Racism, in terms of film awards (because it’s easier to talk about in other ways) is really more about preference. They prefer white actors. On the other hand, they nominated Viola Davis, Naomie Harris, and Mahershala Ali. Ava DuVernay’s 13th also gets a nod in documentary and Bradford Young, I think, becomes the first African American to get a cinematography nomination there (British-born Remi Adefarasin – won for Elizabeth). You’d think if they were purely racist, these nominations would be all-white across the board. But you have to admit that it’s bizarre that they’ve never nominated Denzel Washington, arguably one of the greatest actors alive. Never. Not one time. They gave him a Brittania Award, which is like an honorary Oscar. Marshall Flores did some digging and discovered they’ve also never nominated Morgan Freeman, either.
Barry Jenkins not getting in for Director is another weird one — although remember Tom McCarthy did not get in for Spotlight and that movie won Best Picture. They made room for I, Daniel Blake and Nocturnal Animals and it sort of bumped the favorites out. What grabs the heart, twists it, and stomps on it is what we all know here, the narrative we’re working through about last year, and every year, where white performances dominate these awards because the nearly all the voters are white and they can’t help but prefer those that mirror themselves.
We always say we want surprises — but I actually say the opposite. Surprises aren’t always good. Surprises can be the most disappointing aspect of awards season. What these two perceived “snubs” (a word both Mark Harris and I hate) tell me is that they remove opportunity and that is really what separates white people from people of color: opportunity. We simply do no have the same opportunities. Now, stat people like me know that there is no way Denzel Washington can win his third Oscar for acting. The road has been cleanly paved for Casey Affleck to sweep the season because no winner in recent history has ever gotten there without a BAFTA nom. Affleck is very good and deserving in Manchester by the Sea. I can’t say a negative thing about him or the film — I think it is easily one of the best films this year and one of the best I’ve ever seen, top to bottom, inside and out. But what what I saw Denzel Washington do is something I’ve only seen one other time on the big screen and that’s Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. To bring an iconic character like that to such vibrant life – to feel the legacy of generations of slavery and segregation working itself out through him and his children is … just … one of the most powerful cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. It kept me awake the night after I saw it and I could not stop thinking about it the following day and for weeks afterwards.
Barry Jenkins’ work as a director in Moonlight was not recognized, although he is recognized, like Tom McCarthy was, in screenplay and I suspect he will win there. I’ve never seen a movie like Moonlight, though apparently it’s difficult to get people to even watch it — you can imagine what they think it is when they don’t watch it, right? But that movie — that last scene is simply one of the most surprising, stirring exchanges on screen this year. I have run out of words to describe how great this movie is and I’m sorry that the Brits didn’t see that. They really want to push Ken Loach and I, Daniel Blake through because that movie is somehow a bigger deal to them because it is about them and their culture. Make of that what you will.
Still, what both of these stats tell me is that it becomes much harder for Moonlight to rise and much easier for La La Land to rise. A few years ago I would be tearing them apart for it — oh, prop up the great white hope at all costs. Damien Chazelle comes from privilege. His parents are university professors and he graduated Harvard, made a short film, then made Whiplash, which won Oscars, then made La La Land, which will sweep the Oscars and he’s just barely thirty. Good for him. It’s a great and fun movie. Contrast his story with Barry Jenkins’ story, or contrast any of the five white actors nominated for Best Actor with Denzel Washington’s and you’ll see what I mean when I talk about opportunity. That is where racism is at its most insidious with regard to the film industry and the power that drives it.
But this year I won’t tear them apart because somehow film awards have become the least important thing to fight about this year. We can’t fix our culture by fixing film awards. I used to think so but I don’t anymore. If we fix them, we merely put a band-aid on an infected wound. It’s a deep wound that isn’t about to heal anytime soon, at least not here in America. Rather than find a way out of it, America has chosen to stuff it all back inside with a great lie that under Obama racial tensions are worse than ever, as though that was supposed to heal the wound.
What I know about the Oscar race after almost 20 years covering it is simply this: awards are about right now. Nothing more, nothing less. The real permanence, the real movers and shakers in the industry don’t get anywhere near the awards race. We do spend a lot of time ushering our favorites through — it’s a big deal to the white community that designer Tom Ford made a movie like Nocturnal Animals. Somehow that is a big deal. Tearing that movie apart isn’t going to change anything. They’re giving him encouragement that says: good job, keep going. Back in 1993, I won a writing award at UCLA and Gil Cates told me that this wasn’t meant to be an award of achievement but rather a nudge of praise to keep going. Well, we see how that one turned out. Just kidding. But at their best, film awards offer encouragement, open doors by celebrating people who have dedicated their lives to art. They are also an opportunity to move forward with more money and power in Hollywood. The last thing they are is a proper arbiter of good taste. Those doors of opportunity are open to whites at every turn and almost always slammed shut for everyone else.
The last thing to remember is simply this: The BAFTA changed their voting around a few years ago and the changes took place in 2013. That’s only two years of history to work from. That means anything can still happen and we should no be daunted by stats. Like how the lack of an ensemble nomination by SAG probably won’t stop La La Land, these things might not make a difference one way or the other for Fences, Loving, or Moonlight. But if I were BAFTA, I’d be wondering about Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman. I would lay awake nights wondering about that – especially considering their recent efforts in promoting diversity in the British film industry. Ironic, isn’t it?
The changes won’t take effect until 2019. But this year shows us why they were necessary.