Now that Gold Derby and Vulture have both written pieces about this possibly being the whitest Oscars ever it’s time to look back once again on last year’s missed opportunities because those opportunities do come around. You know what happens to them? They are shitcanned by bloggers and critics, then roundly dismissed by industry voters. Just look at what happened last year with two American (and African-American) film directors – Lee Daniels and Ryan Coogler. Despite a hard push by the Weinstein Co, despite continual hammering by Yours, Truly, among others – pundits, critics, bloggers and industry voters turned their noses up at these two offerings, both depicting vital and important stories of African American communities. Like Max Von Sydow says in Hanna and Her Sisters people should not be asking how could this happen – they should be asking why it doesn’t happen more often.
Not even a screenplay nomination for Ryan Coogler last year. Coogler was honored at the Cannes film festival and Fruitvale Station was named by AFI as one of the year’s top ten. Boston Film Critics Online (which is barely a critics group) honored Fruitvale as one of their top ten. The pic got a lot of “best first film” and “best breakthrough director” but that was pretty much it. It never went on to Oscar glory and was, in fact, completely shut out of all of the guild awards.
The Butler got not a single Oscar nomination and not a single major award from critics. It was shunned completely, even its brilliant star Forest Whitaker, even David Oyelowo in a fantastic supporting turn. Great acting across the board but what. Insert the sound a helium balloon makes when you slowly deflate it. It just wasn’t good enough for the awards community.
When Ava DuVernay won Best Director for Middle of Nowhere at Sundance her film received no love from the industry or the critics. She won alongside Ben Zeitlin who was ushered in on a great stallion as the next big thing. Good for him. He deserved it but come on, really?
This same story is told year after year with black filmmakers, women filmmakers, and other minorities trying to break through. They step up to the plate, they strike out. Oh, their movies are good enough, the critics will tell you. They don’t have enough popular stars to get in.
Here’s what I see. There is one guild voting body that actually is diverse, that puts its money where its mouth is and that’s the Screen Actors Guild, which awarded both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer their top acting awards while also awarding The Help best ensemble. Last year, the Butler made a showing ONLY AT SAG. The rest of the guilds and the Academy (and the bloggers and critics?)
Let’s just say what no one wants to admit because they’d much rather blame the artists who don’t earn their high praise – the critics and the industry prefer stories about white men. With the exception of Gravity last year, that’s pretty what gets served up across the board, what is accepted and revered.
So you’ll have to forgive me my outrage this year when a couple of bones were thrown last year at 12 Years a Slave amid much advocacy and hard pushing. This is status quo, my friends, for the time being, until there are more diverse voices covering film and voting on these awards, is here to stay, despite the token films that pop up here or there in the awards race deemed “good enough.”
This year, there are two films by African American directors heading into the race. The brilliant Ava DuVernay’s Selma and Chris Rock’s Top Five. I think I know how this is going to turn out, not that I or anyone should let that stop them from having a dream today.
But perhaps those complaining about it being a white Oscars would do well to help remind critics and industry voters how very rare a year like last year was and how shameful indeed that those who came knocking were turned away. And mediocre works were let in the door. The front door. No one should be the least bit surprised by how this year is shaking out so far. More films like The Butler, Fruitvale Station and 12 Years a Slave succeed in the awards race (one did, two didn’t) the easier it is to get projects with black filmmakers funded and made. That is the best the Oscar race has to offer to the world anymore – it can help launch careers, open doors and present opportunities. Now that two films were cut you’re going to have pundits quietly closing those doors with the old refrains “is it an Oscar movie” “With The Academy go for it”? We know the answers to those questions are going to be no, not unless the films were also produced by Brad Pitt.