The Emmys made the historic, unprecedented move of awarding the well deserving Viola Davis the first black actress to win in lead in their history. The audience didn’t seem to notice. Only Louis CK stood up as Davis left the stage. Viola Davis once again gave a memorable speech which said the opportunities aren’t there for black women to get into the awards conversation in the first place. That has never more true than it will be for Oscars 2016. Not one of the frontrunners for Best Actress right now are black, let alone any other non-white ethnic group.
There is a reason Halle Berry is still the only black woman to win Best Actress in what will be 88 years of Oscar history. It’s hard enough to get someone like Sandra Bullock in a gender swap for Our Brand is Crisis. Swapping ethnicities is equally difficult. Bullock in that role meant she drags with her “female baggage” that men may or may not take to. An actress of color put into a white actresses role without explanation brings in that same baggage. We celebrate these suddenly powerful roles for actresses this year, of which there are many, but we must also acknowledge the start contrast between the Emmys and what will be the Oscars. There will be no black women nominees, at least not in the lead category.
We know that the market drives the inequality. Those who make the deals put their faith in men. The only films that are within even a hair’s breath of the Best Picture race to feature a black star or a black cast would include: Beasts of No Nation, Straight Outta Compton, Creed and Concussion. They’re all black male characters almost entirely.
It comes down to a lack of opportunities and perhaps a lack of interest with the Wall of White that dominates the Oscar race. That includes the mostly white, mostly male critics and bloggers. The mostly male and mostly white industry voters. The mostly male and mostly white Academy voters. You know who isn’t mostly male and mostly white though? The ticket buyers. Only there do you see a broad spectrum of every ethnic group.
In the Best Actress race we don’t even have any alternatives at this point. Those opportunities are flat-out not there. They are on television. Even with versatile talent like Gugu Mbatha Raw, Kiki Palmer, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and yes, Halle Berry — to name a few — it’s almost impossible to get them starring roles in films that plan on the Oscar market. This is not one of those years.
Still, there is no point in condemning the films, the filmakers or the actors for being “too white.” Writers tend to write what interests them, or what they know. Since men get one deal after another, the films that get made tend to be about what interests them. It doesn’t necessarily follow that an Oscar win can guarantee real change either. Selma was a successful, profitable culture quake last year, even with the Team White Guy grumblings about it. That should be enough to get more deals made about black history — lord knows there are enough stories about it. I think I heard someone was making an LBJ movie instead.
The thing is, the times they are a-changing. Social networking has completely upended the game. Movies, and the Oscar race, are all part of an ongoing, general conversation. Young people aren’t going to be as willing to give over their attention to an industry and its awards that focus on a singule group =- a shrinking majority, in fact — that seeks to recall the history of white Americans only. Even the transgender subject matter present in the early stage of this race — with The Danish Girl and Ray are already having problems with LGBTQ groups who say they are more about straight people than trans people. But at least those doors are cracking open even a little.
Teenagers and those coming up fast behind them are going to be hungry for more than what’s being served up which means the people making decisions in Hollywood are going to have to think outside the box, like Mad Max: Fury Road already did, and the upcoming Star Wars movies does. Improvise, adapt, overcome. But you can’t do that if you’re stuck on the same channel.
So far, it’s a good year for women (albeit white women only)
The Best Picture race is so far down to these movies – Spotlight, Steve Jobs, Brooklyn, Carol and Room. Mad Max: Fury Road could be another strong contender, if the pundits like Anne Thompson turn out to be right. Ridley Scott’s The Martian is another big, popular movie that might be one of the strongest early contenders. But already, if these movies are in, that’s four films ABOUT women with strong female leads. Nearly half.
The balloting process will hurt films that star women the most, which is why the best opportunities for women behind the camera and in front of it were the two years when voters had ten nomination slots and not five:
The Hurt Locker – directed by a woman, won Best Picture/Director
An Education – written, directed by and starring women
Precious – starring black women
The Blind Side – starring a woman
Winter’s Bone – written, directed by and starring women
Black Swan – starring a woman
The Kids are All Right – written, directed by and starring women
The following year, the Academy shrunk the nominating ballots down to five. And the results were interesting.
The Help – starring black women
Beasts of the Southern Wild – starring a young black girl
Philomena – starring a woman Gravity – starring a woman
No films starring women at all except The Theory of Everything, but it was really about Stephen Hawking, let’s face it.
*When I say “starring” I don’t mean co-starring. I mean the central story revolves around a woman and a woman only, not a couple.
With five nomination slots, voters may elect, even this year with an unprecedented number of films driven by women, not to include them in their top five, which may instead reflect their own preferences — generally speaking, stories about men specifically, white men usually.
The films that might withstand the 5 choice litmus test starring women could include: Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road. I would be nervous about Carol, Room, Suffragette, etc.
The rest of the films hover in circles outside the main circle but are being considered, films like 45 Years, The Danish Girl, Suffragette, Truth, Trumbo, Black Mass, and Beasts of No Nation. All of these and the aforementioned movies are threatened by what’s coming next — the Big Oscar Movies that are set to be screened next week at the New York Film Festival and then launch into the Oscar race later in the year.
Those movies in anticipation are:
Bridge of Spies
By the Sea
The Hateful Eight
The Whitest Oscars Again?
If there is any possibility for Beasts of No Nation, Creed, Straight Outta Compton or Concussion to get in, no one will be able to accuse the Oscars of being the “whitest ever.” The only category that will be all white most likely will be Best Actress. The Oscars can only reward what is there in the first place, as Viola Davis said. Without imagination and a fair amount of courage those opportunities will never be there.
One thing is clear from last night, however — the film industry and the Oscars that feed off of it are the ones lagging way, way behind. The generations coming up behind this one aren’t as color blind as the previous generations. They aren’t as unwilling to see black women as vital, interesting people who make great subjects for films.
The country is almost ready for the first woman president in its history. Maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t but it’s hard not to feel the seeds of change humming from the foundation. Everyone wants to see Hollywood and the Oscars evolve. Last night’s Emmys showed us that an audience watched the first black woman in history win Best Actress. They voted for her because she deserved it. They barely noticed that they were a part of history. Only a few of them even stood up at all. But the rest of us at home were shouting from the rooftops. Social media was lit up in a frenzy. The audience would later find out what they’d just been a part of. And so it goes with progress. You barely notice it’s happening until it’s blown past you.