Monday, January 18, 2016

"Straight Outta Compton" Producer, Spike Lee, and More Address Oscars Diversity Problem

Scene from Straight Outta Compton
Last Thursday marked the announcement of this year's Oscar nominees. If nothing else, there was a lot of intriguing genre diversity in Best Picture, with two major sci-fi films competing with prestige dramas. Even the acting fields had their own surprises. However, there's one thing that has come up once again: Oscars So White. Last year it showed up because all 20 of the nominees in the acting field were white. This year unfortunately featured more of the same, with many crying out once again that The Oscars have a race problem. With that said, some major voices in the black community have made their opinion public, and everyone from Spike Lee (who recently won an Honorary Oscar) to Tyle Perry have ways that they could fix things. To say the least, some of them have good ideas.

Among the films that sought to show up big on Oscar nominations day was director F. Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton: the biopic of rap group N.W.A., which was a surprise box office success. Many prognosticators had pinned the film to show up in a few categories, including a spot in the Best Picture field. It only received one nomination, which was for Best Original Screenplay (and to make matters worse, the category's recipients were white). There's no denying that the film's impact gave it some edge with The Oscars going in. Despite this, the film's producer Will Packer took to Facebook with his own personal pubic statement (read in full here). 

Among the highlights of his piece was a nice balance between humble acceptance and a prodding notion to better The Academy's track record:
"I applaud Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs for her recent attempts to bring more diversity to The Academy. I applaud Producer Reginald Hudlin on his attempts to make the Oscar ceremony feel as inclusionary as possible. I look forward to working with them both to be a part of positive change going forward. WE must do better. We will. And make no mistake, we have. Even in the midst of this year's disappointing results I am emboldened by the fact that we had new and exciting diverse voices and performers along with tried and true veterans that were at least in the conversation. Strides have definitely been made."
On Twitter, actress Jada Pinkett Smith didn't think so humbly as Packer. It could just be that her husband Will Smith was snubbed for his role in Concussion, but in a recent Twitter post, she stated that:
"At the Oscars...people of color are always welcomed to give out awards...even entertain. But we are rarely recognized for our artistic accomplishments. Should people of color refrain from participating all together? People can only treat us in the way in which we allow. With much respect in the midst of deep disappointment."
Her boycotting sentiments was not without additional support from Spike Lee, whose impressive career earned him an Honorary Oscar this past year. He also has been publicly bothered by The Academy's lack of diversity, even last year reportedly telling director Ava Duvernay (Selma) when she wasn't nominated to not care about them. However, his public statements since have at least shown some desire to fix things instead of just complaining. In a Twitter post, he wrote at length (read in full here). Among his highlights was this comment:

"As I See It, The Academy Awards Is Not Where The "Real" Battle Is. It's In The Executive Office Of The Hollywood Studios And TV And Cable Networks. This Is Where The Gate Keepers Decide What Gets Made And What Gets Jettisoned To "Turnaround" Or Scrap Heap. This Is What's Important. The Gate Keepers. Those With "The Green Light" Vote. As The Great Actor Leslie Odom Jr. Sings And Dances In The Game Changing Broadway Musical HAMILTON, "I WANNA BE IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS". People, The Truth Is We Ain't In Those Rooms And Until Minorities Are, The Oscar Nominees Will Remain Lilly White.
"As I Said In My Honorary Oscar Acceptance Speech, It's Easier For An African-American To Be President Of The United States Than Be President Of A Hollywood Studio. Also The United States Census Bureau Released A Report Stating White Americans Will Be A Minority In America By The Year 2044. Don't You Think It's A Wise Business Decision To Have Your Product And Workforce Reflect The Diversity Of The Greatest Country On This God's Earth? I Ask, What's The Hold Up? And Please... Don't Go To The Well And Say There Are No Qualified Minority Candidates For These Green Light Gate Keeping Positions."
He makes the most vibrant and interesting point, though it's familiar ground if you remember his Honorary Oscar speech. It's nice to see him being so vocal about the problem and providing a potential answer. While this issue remains a touchy subject and with various members in the black community giving different reasoning, there's one side that seems to want something more basic that has nothing to do with race. Actor Tyler Perry was on a panel recently for the Television Critics Association for an upcoming broadcast of The Passion. During the time, he was asked about the diversity problem, and insisted that they merely show the numbers:
“I think that the way the Academy can stop this is very simple. Rather than saying who votes, I don’t want to know who voted and how they voted, I’d just like to see the numbers. I think if we saw the numbers of how many people voted for what movie, I think a lot of this would go away. If you look at a movie like Straight Outta Compton, if The Revenant had 10,000 votes and Straight Outta Compton had 9,999 votes, that one vote made the difference. That’s what my interest would be. What are the votes? I don’t think it’s racism. I don’t think it’s madness. Just what are the votes and how does that go? Let’s get that information. Even in the presidential election, we know who voted and how they voted. I think that would solve it.”
In all honesty, Perry's idea may not solve the problem, but it would definitely be a great service to Oscar prognosticators like myself. It is my held belief that due to a faulty voting system, Crash beat Brokeback Mountain at The Oscars. I would like to know how people voted every year, if just to see how relative their voting style is to my own. Would Brokeback Mountain have won with a few more points, or was it not even a close match? It's small mysteries like this left to the times that probably irk those dedicated to one of Hollywood's most prestigious awards. 

While none of this solves racism, all four of these opinions provide something peculiar and interesting on how the diversity is seen among black celebrities. While I'd argue that we should also hear from Asians, South Americans, etc. to actually embrace the diversity problem, it's nice to hear a vocal response that continues to suggest that things could be way different. Admittedly, I am not as on board with the Straight Outta Compton Best Picture snub theory as most (to me, it was too much of a conventional biopic), but I think that throwing all attention onto one black film like that is just as problematic. I don't have the answers, but I do think that those yelling Oscars So White must avoid the issue now becoming that the Oscars So White AND Black. If there's any other race speaking up on the issue, please inform me - as I think it's a side that's overdue for recognition as well.

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