Team Colors: This Year’s Oscars Controversy Trivializes Hollywood’s Diversity Problem

Team Colors: This Year’s Oscars Controversy Trivializes Hollywood’s Diversity Problem
Spike Lee celebrates his honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards in November, flanked by Will Smith, Wesley Snipes, Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. (Picture from Oscars.org website, ©2015 by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)

Whew! I guess we can all breathe easier now, right?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in response to the firestorm of controversy surrounding the lack of minorities among this year’s Oscar nominees, has established new rules to diversify AMPAS membership. The aim is to double the number of minorities and women by 2020.

A positive step? I suppose. Though like the Oscars themselves, it actually means very little.

Spike Lee seems slightly mollified, expressing gratitude to Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs for pushing through the changes, though he still plans to boycott the awards (lest he appear to be making a “punk move”), probably because he’d prefer to attend the Knicks game anyway.

Funny that Lee’s boycott didn’t begin back in November, when he was given an honorary Oscar at the Academy’s Governors Awards. Then, it was nothing but kind words for Isaacs (a black woman) for “trying to bring some flavor up in here.” Apparently, the mere two months between his moment in the sun and the Oscar nominations announcement convinced Lee she had not tried hard enough.

It would have been interesting to see if he’d still be skipping the ceremony had his controversial Chi-Raq (a mess in my view, but much admired by some critics) been nominated for Best Picture or had he been nominated for Best Director. For that matter, would Will Smith have been as quick to boycott if his performance in Concussion had been recognized, even if he was the sole minority acting nominee?

Speculating on the motives of Lee or Smith is dubious on my part. After all, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s when he had a lot more commercial clout, Lee certainly broke down some doors for black filmmakers. But the larger point stands. Whether there are one or two non-white Oscar nominees or a dozen, it will all be a cosmetic change that says more about our focus on celebrity than our attention to the problem of diversity in Hollywood.

The Academy membership surely needs to be more balanced, but the organization’s dynamics are completely trivial when compared to the lack of minorities serving in executive positions at the major studios, minority directors with significant creative control, and the cultural makeup of almost every position in the commercial film biz, from production assistant on up.

Those in favor of the protests would argue that simply seeing more people of color up for Oscars spurs industry engagement with minorities. Recent history, however, shows that’s B.S.

Halle Berry and Denzel Washington after their Oscar wins in the "breakthrough" year of 2002. (Picture from Oscars.org website, ©2015 by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)

Halle Berry and Denzel Washington after their Oscar wins in the “breakthrough” year of 2002. (Picture from Oscars.org website, ©2015 by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)

The breakdown of AMPAS membership (overwhelmingly white and male) has not changed significantly in its history and certainly not since 2002, trumpeted as a “breakthrough” year at the Oscars, with Denzel Washington and Halle Berry winning top acting honors (Berry being the first black woman honored as Best Actress) and Smith a nominee for Best Actor.

In 2005, Jamie Foxx won for Best Actor and Morgan Freeman for Best Supporting Actor, while other nominees included Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo. In 2007, Forest Whitaker won Best Actor (with Smith again nominated in the category) and Jennifer Hudson Best Supporting Actress, while Eddie Murphy and Djimon Hounsou were both nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

The years since have been leaner for black lead acting honors, but Mo’Nique, Octavia Spencer and Lupita Nyong’o won Best Supporting Actress trophies, while there were nominations in lead or supporting categories for Freeman, Washington, Gabourey Sidibe, Viola Davis, Ruby Dee, Taraji P. Henson, Quvenzhané Wallis, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Barkhad Abdi.

For the last two years, the acting categories have gone all white. So have we suddenly taken a huge step back from racial progress at the Oscars? The relative stagnation of the membership suggests that’s not the case. It is basically the same block of voters who honored all those black performers listed above and chose to honor only white performers this year and last. Are most of those members racist? Probably not, in left-leaning Hollywood. Have most of them been raised and employed in the environment of “white privilege” that Mark Ruffalo recently decried? You bet.

But a two-year gap in recognizing black actors doesn’t signify any sociological sea change at AMPAS. The awards remain what they have always been: a popularity contest determined by insiders, highly influenced by paid marketing campaigns and cronyism. This is a tradition of rich and famous people patting themselves on the back and giving a little lip service to art…nothing more.

With five or more competitors turning the art of film into sport, the Oscars and other major awards are now a scorecard that can be fallaciously applied to the diversity problem. Naturally, the score is kept mainly via celebrities and box office revenue. The tsk-tskers hold up Smith, Idris Elba, Michael B. Jordan and Straight Outta Compton as examples of the unfairly denied. Depending on your tastes, maybe they were. It seems like a much bigger omission to me that a black filmmaker has never won a Best Director award. But outside of a handful of names, who knows who the hell directors are anyway? You don’t see them on the cover of People very often.

In the wholly subjective, meaningless rankings of this artist versus that artist, you could pull out a long list of deserving white performers or filmmakers who didn’t crack the Oscar clique. Black or white, everyone should remember the Academy Awards has an astonishing history of missing the boat.

Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Luc Godard, Stanley Kubrick, John Cassavetes, Robert Altman and David Lynch are just some of the giants never recognized with a competitive Oscar. And those are just a few of the influential “losers” from the directing category.

Yes, great films and artists have won Oscars, but movie trivia junkies aside, the public mainly forgets it all. Unless a movie sweeps multiple major categories, like Gone with the Wind, The Godfather: Part II, or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, its Oscar tallies quickly evaporate in our collective memory. Great movies endure. Trophies just sit on the shelves of winners. As Ricky Gervais told nominees at this year’s Golden Globe Awards, “No one cares about that award as much as you do.”

Yet, for a few weeks each year, as the buzz builds, it feels like people do care or somehow should care. The stakes seem high because so much media attention is on who walks down the red carpet and who makes a teary-eyed speech upon winning.

And it gets attention as a social signifier, not because it’s relevant, but because it’s easy. Tackling the issue at its core—whether pressuring studios to diversify at the executive level or working with SAG-AFTRA to bring more minorities into the union fold—takes a lot of time, hard work and putting your professional standing on the line. Sitting out the Oscars, sending out some fiery tweets, or even doing a few interviews are all much less taxing for the oh-so-busy A-lister.

Considering the history of this country was built largely on the exploitation of black people, it’s understandable that protests have mainly centered on the omission of black nominees. But with Hispanics currently the largest minority group, there has been surprisingly little attention to who’s been left out of the party from that community. For that matter, there has been little uproar over how few Hispanic actors headline Hollywood films in general. To some degree, this is surely because many Hispanic-Americans choose to watch Spanish language films from abroad or American films dubbed in Spanish, adding another wrinkle to our cultural divides.

It’s a safe bet that you will see more minorities nominated for Oscars next year, but whether that change will reflect the voting body’s makeup or just a wave of “white guilt” adds another icky layer to this superficial response to the problem. It also puts new minority members in a thorny position, as there will surely be unspoken pressure to tailor their initial votes to suit the mission of diversification. Will you have to wear your team colors, with all the ugly implications of that phrase?

Maybe that’s the price that needs to be paid in the short term. Assuming the new guidelines do make AMPAS more diverse, there will be less reason to question an imbalance in the nominating process in the future, regardless of the color of the nominees.

But that shouldn’t make us forget that none of this consternation over the Oscars really matters. In the heat of the controversy, Charlotte Rampling and Michael Caine have become the villains of the moment, and their comments did show the gross insensitivity and ignorance that goes along with that old demon, white privilege.

But in the rush to slam Rampling and Caine, it should not be forgotten that both are products of that privileged class, not the architects of it. In other words, if you really want to affect change in the industry, the targets need to be better chosen than two very talented, elderly actors who stuck their feet in their mouths.

Instead of expecting golden statues or blue ribbons to remake the movie landscape, Spike Lee—and all of us—would do better to explore an alternative road, as Lee did back when he was busting his way into the industry. It’s arguable that the 2015 movie that did the most for black filmmakers and actors was not Creed, Concussion, or Straight Outta Compton, but Dope, a sleeper hit from writer-director Rick Famuyiwa.

Scene from "Dope." (Photo: Rachel Morrison/Open Road Films.)

Scene from “Dope.” (Photo: Rachel Morrison/Open Road Films.)

Made independently for around $700,000, Dope secured a $7 million distribution deal and then made a tidy box office haul of around $18 million with very modest advertising. Set in Inglewood, with no household names in the cast (outside of producer Forest Whitaker, who narrates), Dope showed aspiring filmmakers it is possible to make it to the multiplex without a superstar in the cast, a superhero happy meal tie-in, or riding on the legacy of a hit musical act.

In today’s rigid Hollywood of predetermined blockbusters crowding out all else, a small-scale, stand-alone, word-of-mouth hit like that is a far more precious accomplishment than the empty vessel of industry self-congratulation that is the Oscars. Fight the power? Yes. Fight the Oscars? Why waste your time?

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    Joel Wicklund has been writing about movies for over two decades now and, shockingly, he is still allowed to do so. He was a film critic for Chicagoist before its demise, among other outlets. He insists on claiming more online space here in the hope of indoctrinating more lost souls in his personal cult of cinephilia. Reviews, rants, interviews, features…you get the drift.

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