Friday, January 16, 2015

Why I Hate the "Oscars So White" Campaign

It's the happiest time of the year for fans of movie award shows. For better or worse, the Academy Awards are perceived as the pinnacle of cinema in any given year. In fact, there's very little to argue against this, considering that when someone "bad" happens, the internet gets into a frenzy over a few poor judgment calls. While this is a warranted comment on a society desiring further equal representation in their pop culture media, it is also a little uninformed. With the slogan "Oscars so white" popping up on Twitter, there's concern that 2014's nominees is the least diverse in 20 years. This is true, but please stop acting like this is a new outrage.

The obvious statistics that have been public knowledge for years now is that majority of Oscar voters are older white males. Taking up a predominant amount of the voting power, they are inevitably the ones who struggle through campaigns in order to determine which films are viable. Some of their decisions may seem ill-informed and come across as "white guilt" winners such as Crash, which focused on race relations in Los Angeles, CA. Others reek of old voters such as The King's Speech. Still, this is the important element to consider throughout the rest of this piece.

The next is that Selma had arguably the least fortunate marketing (a quintessential tool in Oscar contention - regardless of the idea of quality over money) of the year. While it came out in limited release on December 25 and voting ballots weren't due until this past week, it still had one disadvantage. It wasn't racial or even sexist. It was simply that the film was still being edited and color corrected up until its release. With many competing films already having screeners out, this proved disadvantageous. Yes, this shouldn't stop voters from seeing a movie. Yes, it is in many respects unfair. However, it is how the game has been played going back to the 90's with VHS tapes being sent to voters. Selma failed to get their word out and whoever did see the film prior to the Christmas Day showing saw a copy in need of various edits. As someone who saw this particular cut, I can attest to this fact despite the final product not being wholly distracting.

Also, there's a lot that has to do with any given  year of competition. Be honest with yourselves, you nagging public who are so quick to slap an "Oscars so white" onto your Twitter. Is your favorite movies of 2014 racially diverse? What about the fact that the top 10 grossing films were all directed by males? Yes, women played protagonists in a few (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 and Maleficent), but these films weren't necessarily ethnically as diverse. None of these films featured ethnic characters as anything other than supporting roles. This is fine, but to argue that you want diversity in the Oscars, you have to provide diversity in what you see. 

Of course, there's the easy comment that Oscars and blockbusters aren't exclusively linked. In fact, there were several independent films (Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Whiplash) on the list in rather prominent positions. This is a fact that is greatly overlooked simply because they're not ethnically diverse. We do have Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Birdman), a man of Mexican descent, for Best Director, but that's apparently an afterthought. Yes, there's despair that Ava Duvernay (Selma) was ignored and likewise David Oyelowo in the Best Actor race. Still, considering the poor marketing campaign on the film's part, it doesn't feel right to blame the Oscars.

It is a delusion that we all want to live by. We want to have our Oscars racially diverse because that is how life is. It is a proper thing to strive for, but considering that films are made predominantly to be popular and make money, when male-lead films are the biggest sell, what is the incentive to women? Yes, we have young adult adaptations like The Hunger Games, but there's nothing that reaches female emotional complexity by women for general populous on par with Boyhood or Birdman. Angelina Jolie directed Unbroken, which seemed like a strong contender, but even that was about a man's struggle. Great films by the likes of Gia Coppola (Palo Alto) and Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights) are at best critical darlings that flew under the radar. More so than recognizing minorities in cinema, the female director problem is noticeable.

Still, to accuse Oscars of being white is to not notice the improvement that they have made in the past few years. While it doesn't correct its past, which already awarded films tackling racism for decades (see: In the Heat of the Night, Driving Miss Daisy), it does show some signs that they are being more aware of the need for change. For the sake of argument, let's look at the field that Ava Duvernay was ignored in. Let's look at the past five years of Best Director winners:

2013: Alfonso Cuaron - Gravity (first Mexican to win this category)

2012: Ang Lee - Life of Pi (first Taiwanese - and more generally, Asian - to win this category twice)

2011: Michel Hazanvicius - The Artist (second French to win this category)

2010: Tom Hooper - The King's Speech 

2009: Kathryn Bigelow - The Hurt Locker (first woman to win this category)

It may seem odd to single out this category, but considering that these are each very diverse filmmakers, it has to stand for something. The fact that there have been women, Asians and Mexicans nominated along with the white filmmakers and still won show some sign of racial diversity. Considering that last year also saw 12 Years a Slave become the first film directed by a black man to win Best Picture also shows some growth. True, it does feel haphazard to have such a "regressive" year following those achievements (not to mention an award for an LGBT transsexual character played by Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club). 

But to call Oscars reductive after doing so much right is rather ill-informed. It doesn't feel like these people saying "Oscars so white" even watch the Oscars. It doesn't seem relevant to people who call Guardians of the Galaxy high art. Yes, it is good, but the Oscars aren't likely to recognize it compared to hard hitting dramas or films with social commentary. In fact, the Oscars have more accusations of being overtly concerned for other people, especially in the 80's with films such as Out of Africa. The concern to diversify has always been there. They even gave the Best Supporting Actress statue to Hattie McDaniel in 1940, only 13 years into the awards' existence and in a more segregated era. Yes, the fact that it took a long time before that happened again with Hallie Berry for Monsters Ball in 2001 is a little disappointing, but it was the turning point that has lead to more diverse standards.

To have one year where things seem unfairly white only is a problem because we want it to be. Yes, there were great films by black filmmakers (SelmaDear White People), but there wasn't a lot of hope for them. Selma was probably the most because it had importance written all over it. Also, it didn't get entirely shut out. It did get Best Picture. This doesn't explain every other ignored spot, but at least it was recognized. The fact that this year could easily see a Mexican win Best Picture for the first time (Inarritu for Birdman) seems like hindsight for some reason.

Still, let us pose a question: how many films by black filmmakers did you see in 2014? Once again, box office contradicts public interests in making this argument any more clearer. True, there are Kevin Hart comedies and Tim Story is a successful black mainstream director, but do we perceive these as high art, Oscar worthy titles? I mostly ask because you're the ones accusing Oscars of being predominantly white yet the general audience argues in favor of specificity of films predominantly lead by white males (a fact that lead franchise Marvel claims that it is working on with a Black Panther movie).

To summarize, it isn't wrong to put some blame for the Oscars not have gotten better voting results for Selma. However, it is wrong to single the film out as the only travesty. It is in a sense the black sheep, choosing to be representative of the best of black cinema instead of being part of a greater group of titles. This doesn't excuse the acting fields, which are very white in their own predictable way. Still, it is a matter of what films are being shoved into the conversation as prestige. In the comments, please suggest to me a racially diverse of logical candidates that could have upset this race. Again, the only real call is Selma with Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo. Otherwise, it is slim pickings.

Also, it is more egregious that there is a man problem with the Oscars. Save for less than 10 women, the Best Director race has been predominantly male. With Bigelow being the only winner, this is evident of another problem. Much like Gone Girl missing out in Best Adapted Screenplay (Gillian Flynn would be the first woman in history to be in the category for adapting her own novel), there's a sense that this is a bigger and more relevant issue. There isn't really a color thing. The past two Best Director winners have been Mexican and Taiwanese. 

The issue is the lack of women. This was an issue that was aptly brought up in 2012's race when Bigelow missed the cut for the great Zero Dark Thirty. Being the only female winner, it seemed odd to not have the second turn. Then again, why haven't any women since 2009 been nominated? This is one progressive step that is greatly ignored. Again, Selma was singled out because of Duvernay's gender, which didn't seem as problematic as commenting on her race. Read into it as you'd like.

In closing, I don't think that we should be complaining about "Oscars so white." It is ill informed. True, there's a lot that could be fixed, such as a more diverse voting cast. Still, there's a sense that they're making progress. While Selma did drop the ball kind with their screener releases, there's a sense that we're complaining about the wrong thing. We want diversity, but don't, by box office numbers, actually support that and instead place complete emphasis on the one racially different movie that pops up on radars. Still, to accuse the Oscars of not being diverse is to ignore the steps that they have made recently to change that. It isn't much, but considering that they already had "big message" movie winners for decades now, it isn't like they're excluding people on purpose sometimes. It's just how the cards land.

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