The Academy is now dodging incoming for the shutout of The Woman King and Till, but most notably in the Best Actress category where two Black women widely-expected to place were excluded. Three white women, one Spanish-Cuban woman, and one Asian woman were nominated instead. It is, indeed, a sign of the times.
Gina Prince-Bythewood has given us her take on how Oscar season was eye-opening experience for her. The money shot:
As I moved through this awards season, I was struck by the Academy members who simply didn’t want to see the film. People thought it was a compliment at some of our screenings to tell me they had to be dragged there, because they didn’t think it was a film for them, or spoke of contemporaries who couldn’t be convinced to come with them, and being so surprised by how much they loved the film. To hear that over and over, it’s tough to stomach.
I don’t approach any film like that. I saw Everything Everywhere All at Once and Top Gun: Maverick because I heard they were really good. When you hear that, you go to the movie. Or you look at the trailer and say, “I want to see that. That looks good to me.” We, Black women, do not get that same grace. So the question we need to ask is, “Why is it so hard to relate to the work of your Black peers?” What is this inability of Academy voters to see Black women, and their humanity, and their heroism, as relatable to themselves?
Perhaps the difference is that when she goes to see Top Gun Maverick or Everything Everywhere, she doesn’t see black characters as the villains of the movie the way white people are so often (and mostly accurately) portrayed in many films about slavery and/or racism. Asking some people to go see movies that make them feel bad about their ancestry is usually a task only the most enthusiastic activists are up for, especially when times are tough. In general, audiences — including awards voters — want to watch movies that make them feel good. They feel movies about racial injustice often target them and thus, it’s like eating a dirt sandwich — an agony that a lot of people are not exactly chomping at the bit to engage with.
That is definitely a touchy subject to bring up, but it is the reality. This is often the problem overall with the Oscar race — but it’s especially so right now, after many years of the Academy and the industry doing their best to make real change, from the inclusivity directive set to take place in 2024, to how BAFTA has changed, to how voters have voted for the past few years. The good news is that it has created a thriving industry for just about every group imaginable in unprecedented ways. The bad is that when it comes to a contest, where people are going to decide what they want to watch, they’re not necessarily going to choose to feel badly about everything, hopeless even. They want to feel like the good guys…
The other problem was that The Woman King was hit early on with troubling questions about the storyline that was mostly down-played in the press on the Left. I had read about it, and was wondering how the film could have been greenlit at all, given the sensitive and complex aspects of the actual history. When the story broke wide, and people began discussing it, my first thought was: well, there go its Oscar chances.
I watched the box office mostly stop cold when the story broke. And no matter how hard the publicity team pushed it, or where the nominations showed up I kept thinking the simmering controversy was going to hurt the movie.
This comment was left on the video which gives us a taste of how it was being discussed:
As a West African, I believe that next time before Hollywood makes another African movie they need to come to Africa. They need to talk to the indigenous people and know their history instead of making a movie based on imagination. I have recently watched a documentary by a Nigerian that was born in Benin Republic that has more details than this movie. He went and interviewed descendants of the Royal family. Dahomeians have a dark and bloody history. Even they told him how Voodoo was introduced to their kingdom by one of their king’s wife on or before 17th century. These female warriors were used by their king to kill and destroy neighboring communities behead their victims and tie their heads their waistband. While survivors were sold as slaves or sacrificed to their idols. Any communities that refused to pay tributes to their king suffered the same fate( there is a place in America called African Town, the 110 slaves came from Benin Republic ) Most of the descendants in America were told the story of how the female Amazons raided their town, killed their king and sold survivors into slavery. FYI, why the younger brother overthrew the then king was bc the king did not want to continue selling his people to the Europeans. The king was caught and exiled never to see his homeland again. I believe that stories of Africa are better told by Africans Not by Americans or Europeans.
Not every movie has to be 100% historically accurate. In fact, no movie ever is. But if a movie intends to address the horrors of slavery at the hands of white people, then I would imagine these complicating factors might give people a convenient out for their reluctance to watch or award the film. In other words, if some people have to force themselves to watch something that they expect will make them feel bad, then finding a way out of it might sound appealing.
The other issue for The Woman King was the high-profile, high-powered competition from The Black Panther Wakanda Forever. They are both large canvas epics featuring outstanding and significant roles for Black actresses, heavy on crafts like costume, hair, etc. Black Panther did better at the box office and during the precursor awards circuit, but it’s likely these two blockbuster epics canceled each other out in many categories. Finally, because of the narrative thrust chosen by the screenwriters, I thought Viola Davis was more of a supporting player, even though it’s called The Woman King. She doesn’t dominate the whole movie as she deserves to do more often.
Despite all that, though, I personally enjoyed the movie, so I was surprised when it was completely shut out.
It’s most likely true that many voters did not want to watch Till because they felt, for themselves, that the story would be too painful. If enough of the had been strong enough to watch it, I believe Danielle Deadwyler would have been nominated. I think an unknown number of people avoided it because the story of Emmett Till is unbearable for them to watch – even if the movie focused mostly on activism and less on the case. Deadwyler was my own choice for Best Actress. I think her work is the best of the year. But I also understand each of us has a self-protective desire to avoid pain whenever possible. I’m betting lots of people simply didn’t watch Till.
Prince-Bythewood also says:
My issue with what happened is how people in the industry use their social capital — screenings in their homes, personal calls, personal emails, personal connections, elevated status. People like to say, “Well, Viola and Danielle had studios behind them.” But we just very clearly saw that social capital is more valuable than that. That type of power is exercised in more casual ways in social circles, where folks are your friends or your acquaintances. There may be diversity on your sets but not in your lives. And Black women in this industry, we don’t have that power. There is no groundswell from privileged people with enormous social capital to get behind Black women. There never has been.
This is all true in this one year and this one case. However, the women involved in the campaign to get Riseborough the nomination (which I’ve stated again and again I think is bad form and WRONG) are the kind of women who would absolutely do the same thing if someone called them and asked them to. It’s easier to get voters to rally around ONE performance than many different performances. I believe what they did sets a bad precedent. It has changed up the rules, mid-game, and wasn’t fair to those who were already in line.
But I also think that the farther away we get from who actually deserves to win based on the performance alone, the more pointless the Oscars become overall as a competition for greatness.
One thing Prince-Bythewood doesn’t mention, I don’t think, unless I missed it, is that she was nominated by the BAFTA for Best Director — in a slate arrived at to balance member votes with committee refinement.
Edward Berger, All Quiet on the Western Front
Park Chan-wook, Decision to Leave
Todd Field, Tár
Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once
Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin
Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Woman King
In one instance, she was completely shut out for Best Director but in another she was hand-picked by a process involving a committee. Which is more or less valuable? If it was a select committee that placed you among the nominees to overcome inherent voter bias, does it still count as an honor that one would be proud of? I ask the question because I don’t know. In my own opinion, the answer would be no. If someone was giving me a nomination only to satisfy equity requirements it would mean less than if I got there on merit. If I believed the system, or the voters, were really that corrupt, that they could never recognize greatness or high achievement because they have a long history of overlooking Black filmmakers, I would likely not want to compete at all — what would be the point?
Hollywood and the Oscars have to start appealing to the majority again, rather than trying to correct the wrongs of the past and the present. If they don’t, the industry is going to sink faster than the Titanic. But of course they also can’t abandon groups that have been traditionally locked out of both films and awards. Change is slow, maybe in some years like this one it feels too slow.
The good news is that these very fine movies got made at all. That The Woman King and Till — which were written, directed by, produced by, and starring women of color — found support, studio backing, and audience appreciation is an important achievement in itself.
Will the Oscars ever be fair? No, they never will be. They aren’t designed for fairness. They’re designed for winners and losers. It’s a hard pill to swallow but there is no purpose for them otherwise. If enough people ultimately decide that they represent systems of oppression in and of themselves, then they may as well just get rid of the notion of choosing “the best,” and hand out certificates of achievement like so many other industries seem to do.
The BAFTA has initiated a process involving committees to protect themselves against having this exact kind of thing happen. As award season moves on, inexorably, we’re going to see Viola Davis and Danielle Deadwyler at the SAG awards and at the BAFTAs. So it isn’t like people aren’t going to notice the difference at the Oscars.
I will say this: it’s much harder to be nominated as a woman or a woman of color, especially in the directing category, unless voters can rally around JUST ONE, not more than one. Years like 2022 — when voters had an abundance of talent among multiple Black women filmmakers to chose from — are rare, and can result in disappointment. Years like 2020 — when voters could all agree on the remarkable achievements of lone Asian women filmmakers — are equally rare, but the results were more gratifying. With so many factors in play, we can’t always get the precisely favorable combination to satisfy everyone.