Saturday, February 13, 2016

OscarsSoWhite Is A Waste Of A Social Movement

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The Basics: The anger among Americans over the lack of black nominees for the Academy Awards is a ridiculous waste of activism.

The best answer I ever heard to a terrible question asked at Star Trek convention came from actor Robert Picardo. Picardo, back in the day, was asked by a Trekker what he thought of Arnold Schwarzenegger's bid to be Governor of California. Picardo, who had no clear political credentials to give an authoritative response to the question like a political pundit would, very coolly replied with an incredibly articulate answer. Picardo said that his hope was that, if Schwarzenegger were elected Governor, he would remember the studio system that created him and work to bring opportunities back to California to revitalize Hollywood. It was a smart idea and, alas, Picardo's hope for Schwarzenegger remembering his roots clearly failed, as the latest Star Trek film was shot - like so many projects these days - in Vancouver.

The demise of Hollywood has been long-coming and it is currently getting a weird twist in the OscarsSoWhite protests. Activists within the black community were outraged that, yet again, the Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences nominated incredibly few ethnic minorities for major awards for the 2016 Oscars. This prompted the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and pledges from prominent blacks in the entertainment industry to boycott the 2016 Oscars.

The problem is that the "protesters" who are objecting to the whiteness of the Oscar Award nominees are absolutely missing the legitimate target of their grievance. Complaining that the Oscar nominees are mostly white is like bitching about the color of the shoes of the officer who is giving you a speeding ticket or blaming your waitress for the quality of your food at a restaurant. It takes little common sense to observe that the person at fault is the person speeding (not the cop giving you a ticket) and that servers have no control over what the cooks prepare. In a similar fashion, blaming the members of the Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences for the bulk of their nominees being white is completely misdiagnosing the problem.

The Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences Is Just A Clique

First, the Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences is hardly indicative of society at large. While I would never make the argument that popular films and high-grossing films could have a relationship with quality movies, the Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences seldom nominates films that the population at large knows or actually likes. The films that get nominated for the Oscars are usually films that are art house movies, as opposed to anything remotely resembling a blockbuster film. Similarly, the nominees do not even have to be in wide release to qualify for the nomination; they have to have been released in Los Angeles and New York City. The point here is that the Oscars seldom reflect any sense of widespread appreciation of films.

Second, the Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences seldom leaves its own comfort zone. For sure, Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence are wonderful actresses and Robert De Niro and Christian Bale are amazing in pretty much anything they are put in, but does that mean if they show up for a movie, they deserve to get nominated for an Oscar? Probably not; but people like Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood release a film and certain actors show up and they are virtually guaranteed to get nominated for an Oscar.

Third, the members of the Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences are somewhat idiotic. Seriously, the voters for the Oscars are either so busy, so self-absorbed and/or so so stupid that they cannot remember greatness for the better part of a year. When I started my Best Picture Project (check it out here!), I found it troubling how the nominees came mostly from October through December of the year (every now and then, there is an obvious bit of Oscarbait that is released early, like The Help, which was an August release). As the years have gone on, the vast majority of nominees for the Oscars have come from December. The voters seem only to recall the last great movie they saw and they vote for that.

The Oscars Merely Reflect The Industry

Regardless of the deficiencies of the members of the Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences, the Oscar nominees come from a body of work that is based on business models, not artistic integrity. Hollywood studios are not looking for the next Aaron Sorkin or Francis Ford Coppola; when they want to make a movie, they hire Martin Scorsese, Spike Jonze or Tim Burton - they are not looking for the next generation of talent, they go with the established talent and moneymakers. So, any attack on the Academy for the lack of diversity in its nominees is as misguided as Occupy Wall Street protesters trying to get big business to bring about economic reform (as opposed to Congress!). The Oscar nominees come from the body of work and crop of talent working in the field for the year.

And what does that body look like today? If you're black and an actor, there are remarkably few roles being offered to you. Let's see, there's historic Civil Rights Activist, there's slave in a period piece and there's authoritative role that involves some sense of racebaiting (i.e. "We'll make Morgan Freeman god or the President . . . what a statement!") OR there's Tyler Perry's latest flick. The most prominent, highest-grossing producer of works with black entertainers is Tyler Perry and, let's face it, these are not enduring, timeless, high-quality films. Expecting a Tyler Perry film to get loads of Oscar nominations is as ridiculous as wondering why Jim Carrey's 1990s comedies did not net him Best Actor nominations or Oscars. If Twitter had existed in the 1970s, #OscarsSoWhite would never have been a trending topic; blacksploitation films of the '70s made a marketable product to a demographic with money to spend on it, but they weren't - by and large - great films.

For sure, there are roles being offered to amazing actors that have nothing to do with the ethnicity of the actors involved. Will Smith's breakout role as a pilot in Independence Day or Idris Elba's amazing, understated role in Prometheus in no way capitalized or called attention to the ethnicity of the actors. But such roles have every black actor competing against every other actor - white, black, Latino, Asian, etc. - in the world to get. And, as a lifelong fan of genre works will note, such roles almost never get nominated for Oscars. Science Fiction and Fantasy are the genre equivalents to non-white actors as far as the Oscars are concerned.

The point here is pretty simple; if black performers want to get noticed by the Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences for roles that aren't cerebral, obvious, race- and Oscarbait roles, they have to stop taking the roles that hinge on ethnicity and rock the world out of the roles that trade on the "actor" part of the "black actor" resume. For sure, I could stand to watch Don Cheadle in Crash all the time, but if War Machine was written better, Cheadle could absolutely carry a super hero film of his own, as opposed to being relegated to the role of a sidekick in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The solution to OscarsSoWhite is to offer nonwhite actors better roles, not to kvetch about the lack of nominations for nonwhite actors for mediocre roles or terrible movies. And - welcome to the club, indie films have been waiting for you! - the fundamental problem black performers and producers are going to experience is that the Industry is dominated by business models, not artistic vision or integrity. Until major studios find profitability in non-Tyler Perry films involving predominantly black casts and create works of quality within that profit motive, the Oscars are going to include nominees from a pool of performers and producers that meet the business model that works for them. If Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences is given better works to nominate from, the diversity presented to them should be reflected in the nominees. But right now, Hollywood producers and performers are overwhelmingly white and the Academy's nominees reflect that.

There Are Vastly More Important Issues

At a time when gun crime in the United States is on the rise, public school budgets are gutted while big businesses are granted tax breaks, and the disparity between those with wealth and those who live in poverty continues to grow, complaining about the ethnicity of Oscar nominees is an absolute waste of activism and attention. I've argued that there are years the Academy should not even nominate a film for Best Picture, because the movies that year have almost homogeneously sucked. As a friend of labor, I have a lot of empathy for professional actors, especially television actors. Actors have been getting absolutely screwed on promised royalties for their projects from streaming services and DVD/Blu-Ray sales. I've had enough contact with enough celebrities to know that there is a pretty sizable population of performers who live in fear for their careers; they know they are being denied their contractually-obligated royalties for their work, but they refuse to fight for them because they cannot risk being blacklisted and not work again. That's wrong and the studios should be forced to pay their contractually-agreed-upon royalties to their performers and producers. But, until high-level celebrities stand up for actors throughout the industry - i.e. Tom Hanks, Jennifer Lawrence, and Kelsey Grammer risk little by standing up for all the struggling or mid-valued performers (like supporting actors on television shows) - and force them to pay out, the industry has no reason to change.

My point here is that, even within the industry, there are vastly more important issues facing actors, actresses, producers, directors, and studio heads than how a cliquish group of people suffering from a lack of imagination and seriously short-term memories vote on an award that the majority of them will never even be nominated for. And, for those not in the industry, there are real issues that the majority of the population could use the help of those who have resources with. So, the next time a celebrity complains about OscarsSoWhite and threatens to protest one of the most lavish parties of the year, forward this article to them and challenge them to fight for real, substantive, change in the industry.

For other articles, please check out:
The Worship Fallacy
I Share My Existential Crisis
Facebook Is Not What You Think It Is

For other reviews, please check out my Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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