Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Why Sundance Has Me Worried About Oscar's Diversity Problem

Scene from The Birth of a Nation
It seems like everywhere you turn, there's someone else who's giving their opinion on Oscars So White. While it is a conversation that has lead to some welcomed changes for next year, one cannot help but wonder if people are going into Sundance this year with that in mind. It is likely that you have heard about director Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation. No, it's not a remake of that century-old film that put blackfaced men as the villains in very racist ways. However, it's a film that's not too far off, time wise. Taking place in 1831, it follows the largest slave rebellion in American history. The film recently sold for an unprecedented $17.5 million and was met with unifying acclaim. While the film is itself capable of being great, I do wonder if it's going to be Oscar bait solely because of the Oscars So White movement.

*I want to say before I go any further that I have not seen the movie, nor am I at Sundance. I am very proud that Parker manages to have success. I don't wish to discredit anyone's art with what I am about to say, though I am sure it will come out a little haphazard. 

If you have been paying attention to Sundance and The Oscars over the past few years, you can see a certain correlation developing. In 2014, Sundance gave us Whiplash and Boyhood - both films of which went on to win the supporting actor fields at The Oscars. The following year found Brooklyn entering significantly in The Oscar race after debuting at Sundance. While this is how it always seems to go, the past two years have at least given a sign that maybe there's something that this January film festival is telling us about awards season that isn't immediately clear to those outside of the know. With films being bought left and right, it's likely that we've seen a few of this year's Oscar contenders.  One could argue that The Birth of a Nation is definitely in the race, simply because it is one of the most lively and immediate films of the festival.

The film is also striking for the obvious connotation that The Birth of a Nation as a title has. To film historians, it is a very loaded topic that itself comes with as much praise as it does backpedaling. For starters, D.W. Griffiths' 1915 film revolutionized cinema by creating a lot of the techniques still used today. However, it was also a film that suggests that black slaves were sex-craving psychopaths who could only be brought down by The KKK (more subtraction points for serving as enrollment propaganda for years after). If anything, it's impressive to see how far humanity has developed. Even then, it's a difficult topic beyond its three hour silent film nature. So to use the title is very bold for a modern filmmaker, though not without precedent provided that it can subvert that film's reputation by itself being a film that reaffirms blacks as more than the caricatures that they were 100 years ago.

I know that it seems like a bold statement, but I do feel like the film has a certain selfishness tied with Oscars So White already, even if it wasn't Parker's intentions at all. The film may have not been made with awards in mind, but the distributor who bought it for an impressive sum may be thinking to themselves that this is the tool to solving the diversity problem in Hollywood. Suddenly, we'll have a black film for sure in the Oscar race, especially with one that promises to invigorate and scar the viewer with an impressive image of history. After all, one could argue that "It worked for 12 Years a Slave." It isn't totally selfish to think this, especially since director Steve McQueen's 2013 film ended up being as impressive as its subject matter was challenging. In fact, it's changed the conversation about slave history in America, though there hasn't been much film conversation in the two years since. Maybe that's where The Birth of a Nation will step in.

I just wonder if it's cynical to think this way about all films this year, regardless on their subject or quality. I've recently discussed with how LGBT films need to be more representative of modern rights. Maybe that should be the case for racially charged films, too. As much as a great activist movie can be inspiring, I do wonder if there's a chance that maybe we can have movies with black, Asian, etc. actors who aren't always going through the wringer to live their lives. After all, Brooklyn is merely a film in which her struggle is between her culture and her new life. There's nothing too problematic about it. Yet for black actors, they get recognized for films like The Help and 12 Years a Slave. As good as they are, they still are in the submissive state that separates them from being entirely individuals. Sure, they may overcome strife, but again - can't there just be a black movie where the struggle is between work and family?

I worry that the wrong messages will be taken away if The Birth of a Nation becomes the Oscar front runner that it seems to be at this point. It seems crass to talk about 2016's Oscars already, but it does feel like people are at least implicitly covering their tracks here and that it will lead to a slippery slope where any black film that's halfway good will turn into Oscar bait. It feels unfortunate to think this way, but with everything else going on - how can you not? We all want to figure out that race problem as soon as possible so that The Academy can look reputable in society's eyes again. I'm confident that The Academy's recent changes will do that in time, but The Birth of a Nation's unprecedented buy gives off the impression that someone is already trying to beat the odds. 

I guess if there's one thing I hope is taken away is that I don't want this year's Oscars to be compensating by simply just throwing out films that emphasize what has been lacking the past two years. I will be fine if The Birth of a Nation turns out to be a masterpiece and it deserves the awards. I just don't feel like we should develop the habit of trying to solve our race problem for next year by getting "important" films bought from film festivals. Let the quality speak for itself, and maybe we might get somewhere. Otherwise, we'll be looking at a lot of bad films next year that were solely nominated because of their diversity. Maybe this is just skepticism speaking, but I still think it's terrible that you cannot help but already feel like Oscar bait is being applied to this small film that means to hurt nobody. Thankfully, I haven't heard too much about it just yet, but I still feel like we're all thinking about it and thinking that one film can fix the problem. It doesn't.

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