For the second year in a row, the Academy Awards is accused of excluding people of color in their major categories. All the actors nominated in the four acting categories (lead actor, lead actress, supporting actor and supporting actress) are all white. The directors nominated in the best directing category are all white except one, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, who is Mexican.
Many thought with the uproar last year, things would change for the better this year, that people of color would be better represented at least in the acting, directing and writing and best picture categories. It appears the members of the academy doubled down on selecting what they believe to the best acting, writing, directing and best picture categories without any regard to the racial composition of the movies they choose.
For the past 10 years, the movie experience has been depressing for me. The quality of good films are getting less and less each year. Most films just pander to audiences to ensure ticket sales. Films do not have a message anymore. There are no lessons to be drawn from films, there are no lessons taught, only entertainment and even that’s dubious. Films today are safe, controversy-free, and if they want to generate controversy, it’s got to be the right kind of controversy. Not the uncomfortable kind where it requires its audience to think and process unfamiliar ideas. Films today definitely don’t seek to expand its audience’s world view.
The Academy Awards are a funny thing. Ever since I have been following the Oscars (with less interest each year), the ‘Academy’ is treated with scorn and reverence all at the same time. Actors, directors, producers, writers, film editors, costume designers, anyone who can receive an Oscar for their work all trash the members of the academy and revere them at the same time. When certain actors or movies are snubbed, the Hollywood establishment and reporters are all out with full force with their criticism. But when anyone wins an Academy Award, whether for acting, directing, writing or the less prominent categories, all the winners are gushing with gratitude and praise for the same academy members they were just criticizing just a few weeks ago. Everyone who works in Hollywood wants their work to be recognized by the ‘academy members’ but they don’t want to look like they are desperate for the recognition. They want to maintain a certain aloofness and nonchalance about it and when the academy fails to recognize what the Hollywood establishment believes to be good work, the claws are out and accusations begin to fly. But when award day rolls around, all the winners are equally gracious and thankful to the ‘members of the academy’.
The truth is, the ‘members of the academy’ rarely gets their nominations and winners right by public opinion or the critics. There are 5 nomination spots for each of the acting, directing, writing categories and thankfully they’ve increased the best picture category to 10 spots as it’s near impossible to narrow all the films which entered competition to just 5 of the best, even for a really shitty film year, which has been the case for the last 10 years or so (if not longer).
I know for a fact ‘Titanic’ was not the best picture of the year, it was not best anything yet it won the most awards in 1998. It was one of the highest grossing films of all time, but it was far from the best. The acting was mediocre, the story was mediocre and it’s a typical James Cameron film full of technological and special effects gimmicks and not so much the actual substance of the film. At least his subsequent film ‘Avatar’ had a political and environmental message but for ‘Titanic’, besides the attractive lead actors and a soppy star crossed lovers story line, it was a mediocre film which panders to teenagers.
I am an amateur movie-watcher. I didn’t study film and I know nothing about what makes good editing, cinematography or directing. When I watch a film, I watch for good writing, good acting, accuracy if it’s pertaining to a specific time in history and cultural accuracy if it’s about a specific culture. And if they can make a movie on a location outside of a Hollywood studio and they make good use of God’s green earth to accentuate the film, that’s even better. Some of the best films have never been seen from an American movie theater. Some of the best films are subtitled made in a different country which no one has even heard of. One comes to mind is ‘As It Is In Heaven’, a Swedish film by Kay Pollack. It was the last film I watched where it moved me on a deep level. It is a film about a world famous conductor returning home to the small Swedish village he was born and raised because of his heart condition. He was bullied growing up and while he went on to become a world famous conductor, the people who bullied him stayed behind in that small village. When he returns home, he realizes not much as changed. However, he finds it in his heart to forgive his tormentors and tries to find new meaning in his life by conducting a small church choir. Because of his world class music education and training, the little choir got so good that they got to enter a nationwide competition. That little tiny insignificant, nondescript Swedish village is a microcosm of the larger world. You have the blowhards, the bullies, the kind people who do good but don’t get recognized for their kindness, and you have romantic rivalries and jealousies.
The last American film which remotely moved me to the same degree as ‘As It Is In Heaven’ is ‘One True Thing’, a film with Meryl Streep who was terminally ill with cancer and her daughter, Renee Zellweger returns home to care for her mother, whom she was never close to, she never really got along with her mother and never looked up to her because she saw her mother as ‘just a housewife’. She was always daddy’s girl, she went to Harvard and studied English like her dad and she became a well regarded journalist (albeit a ruthless one) and her father is a tenured English professor at Harvard but ultimately a failed novelist. She returns home and finds out several family secrets that do not put her father in the best light. Over time she realized what a strong person her mother is and mother and daughter reconcile their differences, but not in a kissy-huggy, I love you all is forgiven way. She really saw her mother’s soul and she learned her mother ‘saw’ her all along. Her mother didn’t just favor her younger brother because he was sweet and uncomplicated when compared to her. Her mother was her biggest champion, biggest cheerleader, all done from the quiet corners of her soul, while she was toiling in her kitchen.
While Meryl Streep was nominated for an Academy Award for her role as the mother, the movie got very little else recognition. ‘As It is in Heaven’ was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film but it didn’t win and it never got wide release in the United States. This brings me to my next point. Film critiquing is highly subjective. It’s very rare you will find total consensus on how great a film is (or how awful a film is), and because it is subjective, you are allowed to discriminate based on that subjectivity. People watch and critique film with their judgement and biases. I would be hard pressed to find a film critic or member of the academy who will watch a film based solely on the quality and content of the film and not factor in their own biases of likes and dislikes. The ‘members of the academy’ are 94% white, 77% male with an average age of 62, black members of the academy account for 2% and Latinos even less than 2%. With this composition, it’s very unlikely they will nominate ‘Straight Outta Compton’ for best picture, best director or the acting categories. It’s also the same reason why ‘Selma’ didn’t get more nominations. A 62 year old white guy isn’t going to identify with the struggles of Dr. King and most definitely not the inner city struggles of Compton. As much as they would like to give all films equal consideration but when other films like ‘Birdman’ (the eventual best picture winner over ‘Selma’) or ‘American Sniper’ or ‘Whiplash’ are in contention, the 62 year old white guy will probably go for ‘American Sniper’ and the more cultured will probably go for ‘Birdman’. I can’t critique as I’ve not seen either film.
The second problem with Hollywood is one of their own doing, and that is the lack of good films being made. The Hollywood films being released now is a string of comic book, dystopian and vampire novel series with 3 or 4 movies in the pipeline to guarantee studios profits. Book adaptations such as ‘The Hours’ and ‘The Reader’ are far and in between and for an original screen play to be made is even more rare. Hollywood studios will not part with their cash unless they can reasonably predict a return on investment. And this may be harsh, but moviegoers are usually children and teenagers, not exactly the most literate or sophisticated demographic who will appreciate a nice Henry James adaptation or a Todd Haynes film. Children, understandably like to see animation films or films that feature talking animals. Teenagers like to watch Star Wars, The Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Gray, Fantastic Four, etc. They are less likely to go watch films like ‘Carol’ or ‘The Danish Girl’. Another one of my favorites films ‘The End of the Affair’ (which Julianne Moore was robbed of an Oscar win in my opinion), I went to see it in the theater, the theater was more than half empty. The people watching that are people at least 30 or older. Perhaps it’s just me, people 30 or older rarely line up around the block on premier night to see any film. Most can’t be bothered until it’s out on DVD or Netflix.
The combination of having a white, male and above a certain age demographic for academy members and Hollywood not making enough quality films where people of color are represented in lead or supporting roles, the result will be an all white Oscars. A good place to start would be to ‘retire’ some of the old, male and white academy members and replace them with younger, ethnically and racially diverse members. As for the gender quota, it may be wise to make it 50-50. Next, an equally important component is for Hollywood studios to take a chance and invest in smaller more artistic films and feature up and coming, more diverse and less well known actors to give them a chance to shine. For once, stop worrying about ticket sales and take a leap of faith. The billions earned from The Hunger Games and Twilight Series should be able to sustain a few losses and give audiences a more comprehensive theater experience.
Creating more movies from original screenplays can also solve some of the stereotypical role type casting problems for minorities. It can open up a plethora of opportunities for people of color. Black men don’t have to play the gangster, a corrupt cop, a drug dealer, a wife beater to get noticed, black women don’t need to play a prostitute, junkie, a sadistic mother or a self-loathing woman who sleeps with her husband’s executioner in order to win Oscar awards (Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball). The problem is not a shortage of talent in the writing, acting and directing genre, there is plenty of talent to go around. Just think of all the piles and piles of scripts waiting to be green lighted, there must be some Oscar worthy material in there. The problem is lack of opportunity. As Viola Davis said in her Emmy Award acceptance speech, the first black woman to win an Emmy for lead actress in a dramatic role: “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”