Every year when Oscar nominees are announced, they are examined for racial representation. If the films up for Best Picture are inclusive, the nominations pass the test for racial diversity. But if they’re not, the Academy is slammed for being “so white” and “out of touch.” As the final destination for each year’s trip through American cinema, the Academy usually takes all of the heat for whatever is missing at the last stop of the journey, but in general the factors that determine Best Picture contenders start building much earlier than this.
This year, right on cue, the YouTube channel Renegade Cut (self-described as “leftist video essays about politics, philosophies and culture”) has posted a lengthy lament about the Oscars being too white and out of touch. They join the long parade of people and websites and news outlets that get this issue wrong. Every year.
By the way, when I first started OscarWatch 20 years ago, slapping and crapping on the Oscars was already a sport, but back then the complaints had nothing to do with how white and male they were. It had to do with the type of movies they chose. The dreaded “Oscar movie.” But when that gripe began to sound as frivolous as the movies it sought to scorn, the conversation shifted to demographics and representation. Let it be said, this was an upgrade in the discourse. No sensitive moviegoer can argue that these things aren’t important — they are. And even as the Academy listened and responded with an aggressive and effective push to create a better racial and racial balance in its ranks, it remains the prime directive of individual voters to chose the films they believe are the highest achievements of the year, drawn from the pool of movies they are charged to assess.
It would be one thing if this all happened in a bubble, as this guy suggests in Renegade Cut. But they don’t. If you’re hungry for a 21-minute “leftist video essay,” here’s a ripe one (but if you imagine you’ve heard it all before, you’re probably right).
Before we delve deeper, let me present my own bona fides. Here are a few pieces I’ve written over the years about Oscars and diversity and inclusion, or the lack thereof:
The State of the Race — Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman Might Be the Film of the Year 
Best Director: Can Barry Jenkins Make DGA History as Their First African American Winner in 68 Years?
The State of the Race – How the Presidential Election May Change the Way People Think About the Oscar Race 
Ava DuVernay’s Evolution as a Filmmaker from I Will Follow to Selma to 13th 
Screen Actors Guild Rebels from Status Quo for Second Year in a Row 
Fences: Whose Dream is the American Dream? 
Ava DuVernay Hits Historic Milestone – First African American Woman to Direct a $100 Million Film 
Academy Makes Bold Move to Diversify Membership, adds 683 
Fixing #OscarSoWhite Can’t Be on the Academy Alone 
The Case for Straight Outta Compton 
DuVernay’s 13th Will Be Among the Most Important Films to See at the Dawn of the Trump Era [2-16]
Creepy Racist Commenters Crawl out from Under Rocks at Breitbart on Selma Story 
More Filmmakers Should Follow Ava DuVernay’s Lead: Make it Happen, Don’t Wait for it to Happen 
The State of the Race: Ava DuVernay Makes History … 
Lee Daniels’ The Butler – Waiting for an Echo 
Ava DuVernay Joins the Original Screenplay Race, Emayatzy Corinealdi for Best Actress 
DuVernay Changes Landscape of American Film 
Revealing Crimes Against Humanity: The Historical Record of 12 years a Slave 
The State of the Race: Fruitvale Station Poised to Make Oscar History
Oscar Flashback – Driving Miss Daisy and Do the Right Thing 
Hollywood, the Oscars and Race
As the lady once said, “This ain’t my first rodeo.” So okay, let’s have another Oscar primer, shall we?
It’s easy to lament the Oscar process, and many of us have. It begins when publicists wrangle their spot (at film festivals) as they strive to usher a “winner” past the first hurdles. By “winner,” we mean a movie earmarked for the Oscar — yes, often as early as the day a production is greenlit. At festivals, a climate is created to help people like me “lose their shit” for great movies that are being unveiled for the first time. The degree to which festival-goers collectively go wild for good movies and refuse to shut up about them is usually enough to get actual industry voters to at least watch the movies to find out what’s causing our infatuations. That’s the hard part.
All people like me can do is bring the horses to water — we can’t make them drink. The people who get the ballots will either like what we’re singing about or they won’t. And by “like,” we mean that Oscar voters, for the most part, give a good goddamn about what critics think.
There’s not a filmmaker alive who hasn’t felt mistreated by critics at one time or another, so why would those filmmakers trust critics to assemble and cherry-pick and pre-select their choices for them? Likewise, when film industry professionals see a movie they enjoy, they don’t worry about whether to admit that enjoyment for fear of getting slammed for enjoying something that doesn’t necessarily align with outsider demands.
A consensus is built from thousands of individual opinions, and people like what they like. Don’t you?
That’s how primaries and elections work and that’s how the Oscars work too, and the outcomes are impossible to corral because they are voted on by thousands of individuals. Sure, collectively “they” are the Academy. But as individual members of the film community, “they” are not a herd of obedient, like-minded sheep. They are also:
The DGA — 17,500
The PGA — 8,000
The SAG — 120,000
The Golden Globes, the National Board of Review, the AFI, a multitude of film critics groups, audiences, ticket-buyers — each of these plays a part in what films gather momentum and begin to cluster and rise to the top at the end of the year as consensus picks. It’s interesting to see how they may differ, but what matters is where they all agree.
When we talk about a consensus vote of thousands, we’re really talking about what movies the most people like best. The bigger the sample size, the more reliable their choices are in determining the lists they make of what’s “best.”
The Producers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild are both more diverse across the board, in terms of a balance of women and people of color that reflects the civilian population. More than the Academy, to be sure. But in general, it stands to reason that the larger groups are a much more accurate demographic mirror of the entire country (the 2010 census found 72% of the U.S. population is white, 61% are non-Hispanic white.) The 9000 Oscar voters are currently not that. But among the 250,000 people who work in the industry at large, the ratios are much better, and the balance is improving year by year.
In the past ten years, two films by black directors have won Best Picture: Moonlight and 12 Years a Slave. Five out of the past ten Best Director winners are from Mexico (okay, two of those winners have won twice, but even that is reason to celebrate). Ang Lee has won two Oscars. On the gender side of the issue, Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director and Best Picture in 2009.
This is the kind of thing that should be acknowledged and rewarded, but these advancements also require constant vigilance. Because the tendency for everyone — not just the Academy but for voters across the board, from critics to guild members — is to default to the traditional white narrative. One reason being, if voters are mostly white they are going to lean into stories they are moved by and can relate to. Another reason, even more significant, is that the people who decide which movies get made in the first place have always been predominantly white, but we’re lucky to live in an era when that’s changing too.
If a film makes money, then more films like that get made. If a film bombs, chances are films like that will have a harder time getting made. For all of the films by women that did well this year, there were several that didn’t. And several major films that sold empowerment over, say, sexuality also didn’t do well: Charlie’s Angels, Terminator: Dark Fate, etc. Those results will then influence what kinds of movies are green-lit and what kinds of movies are rejected. Netflix is there to cushion the fall: if filmmakers are rejected Netflix might say yes, regardless of box office constraints.
Bottom line, there’s one fundamental thing that all voters look for when they choose their favorites and mark their ballots: does the movie tell a universal story well? Voters will respond to that. But an experience that is more specific will likely not be chosen by a broad consensus. This is why, by the way, LGBTQ stories are so rarely in the Oscar race. Moonlight was a rare exception but it told its story in a universal way. Ditto Call Me By Your Name and Brokeback Mountain.
Whatever you want to say about the Academy, you have to apply the same responsibility to the broader consensus.
This year, the Producers Guild and Directors Guild announced their nominees on the same day as Oscar ballots were turned in. No group can be accused of undue influence on any other. And guess what? When Oscar nominations were announced, They Picked The Same Movies.
And lo! They have similar taste. Because by that point, these movies, as I’ve already pointed out, have won major awards. They have been vetted and been given the stamp of approval by 100 groups with 100 different inclinations. They all generally agree that the top movies of 2019 are these:
Parasite — Palme d’Or (as long ago as May 2019, and now SAG Ensemble award)
Joker — Golden Lion
Jojo Rabbit — People’s Choice Award at Toronto
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — Golden Globe
1917 — Golden Globe (and now the PGA)
The Irishman — New York Film Critics, National Board of Review
These are the top films. They were award-winners long before the Oscar nominations were chosen by the supposedly “all-white, out of touch” Academy. Parasite is always going to be exception because it wasn’t made by nor does it star “all-white guys,” which is apparently its only major liability this year.
That’s six. That left three spots. I did my best to champion Melina Matsoukas’ Queen & Slim (most critics ignored it) and Dolemite Is My Name (most critics ignored it). The consensus was in place long before the Academy filled out their ballots and these wonderfully diverse and masterful films had been already excluded.
Once the Globe nominations came out (50% of Globes voters are women) and the ruckus erupted about the lack of women directors, really only one director got the major push from critics and mainstream press — Little Women (that’s the one with the all-white cast, but suddenly nobody seems bothered by that). Critics had included The Farewell here and there, but that movie did not make the cut.
People may try to put all the blame on the Academy but The Farewell missed at SAG, as did Little Women. While it’s true that both Lupita Nyong’o and Jennifer Lopez were dropped from the Oscar roster after proving their strength with the consensus, it can be argued that their absence was mainly to make room for the two stars of Little Women, which by then was getting a passionate push for nominations. No one figured that the two to get cut would be women of color. They assumed white actors would and when that didn’t happen, the Academy was charged with white preference. And okay, it’s hard to argue with that. I’ve been pointing this out for years.
The three other films that got included for Best Picture were Marriage Story, Little Women, and Ford v Ferrari. Somehow the only film of this whole bunch that is getting hit with resentment is Ford v Ferrari, which is one of the most popular films of the year — it earned an A+ Cinemascore and still has the highest audience rating of all of the nominees. But even then it barely got in. And trust me, this is the one drawing the most heat because it very white and very male. Those are the optics that are unacceptable to many out there.
There is nothing wrong with criticizing the Academy’s choices, but unless you are specifically talking about Nyong’o and Lopez, you are doing the Oscars wrong. The consensus of all of these movies was already solid. Otherwise they would not have — all nine of them — landed on the Producers Guild top ten.
If you’re unhappy with how things have turned out, your problem is not with the Oscars. Your problem is with the consensus. Your problem is with the films that hundreds of thousands of filmmakers like best. That’s bigger than the Oscars, but the Oscars are a bigger target.
But back to the click-bait premise of Renegade Cut’s question, “Do the Oscars Matter?” Well clearly they must, otherwise why would the editor of Renegade Cut go to all the trouble of making that video? Why would so many people protest the choices, and their hosts, and every decision they’ve ever made, every nominee and every winner?
If the Oscars didn’t matter, no one would care. They are meant to be peer awards in an industry that makes movies, rewarding films they think are worthy of honor. An Oscar can make (or break) careers, drive up box office, and make people feel really good for a night. Their long-term validity in the eyes of the general public is likely not going to be based on how inclusive they are, but rather because of their genre bias which excludes the movies people actually pay to see. They would matter more if they were not so insular so that they included everyone out there who loves movies. They really don’t, and they don’t care they they don’t — but there again, they take their cue from the critics, the bloggers, and the industry, not from the public.
Last year, Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman were both nominated for Best Picture. Without Kyle Buchanan constantly beating the drum for Black Panther, or without the eruption of the “popular film category” threat, who knows if it would have made it. BlacKkKlansman, and Get Out the year before, were solidly part of the consensus all through the season, as most films have to be.
Criticize the Oscar voters all you want, but if you do so, remember you must also criticize all the guild members and many of the critics too. And while you’re at it, blame the nominated movies themselves for being good enough that thousands of people loved them and voted for them.