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#OscarsSoWhite Is Right, But Needs To Go Further

Jeremy Fuster |
January 16, 2015 | 5:37 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

There's much better ways of demanding diversity in movies than retweeting collages of white Oscar nominees. (Twitter/Viktor T. Kerney)
There's much better ways of demanding diversity in movies than retweeting collages of white Oscar nominees. (Twitter/Viktor T. Kerney)

For better and for worse, every conversation about the Oscars between now and February 22 is going to be about one thing: diversity in Hollywood.

All 20 of this year’s acting nominees are white, and all 20 nominations for directing, writing, and cinematography have gone to men. This has happened in spite of the fact that “Selma,” a biopic about Martin Luther King, Jr. beloved by critics and audiences alike, has received weeks of awards buzz for its African-American director, Ava DuVernay, and a brilliant lead performance by David Oyelowo.

READ MORE: Oscars 2015: Complete List Of Nominations

That’s when Twitter, hot off the heels of a 2014 where it became more socially powerful than ever, went straight to work. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite soared to the top of the trending lists, bitterly decrying the Academy for making “Selma” the only Best Picture nominee to receive fewer than five nominations and refusing to make DuVernay the first African-American woman to be nominated for Best Director. In fact, “Selma's” only other nomination was for Best Original Song, leaving it as a film somehow deserving of being considered for Best Picture but not deserving of any of the categories that reward the elements of a Best Picture. 

At its heart, #OscarsSoWhite is dead on the money with its criticism of the Academy. This will probably be the hundredth time you’ve read this statistic, but the median age of the Academy voters is 63, with 93 percent of them being white and 76 percent of them being male. Meanwhile, the moviegoing public, much like America, is trending towards a minority-majority. Recent MPAA statistics show that 52 percent of frequent moviegoers are female while less than half of frequent moviegoers are Caucasian.

This means that the divide between the tastes of the Oscar voters and those of the viewing public is getting wider than ever. While the Academy is trying to remedy this by offering membership to more people of color, the small number of people admitted each year compared to the thousands of old fogies who are already members means that it will be a long time before we see any significant change in the voter demographic.

But the problem with Oscar nominations isn’t just who’s deciding them, it’s also how the films are marketed. Studios execs like Harvey Weinstein have boiled awards campaigning down to a cold, cruel science. When it came to this politicking, “Selma” lost the fight, as Paramount Pictures failed to get out screeners to the various Hollywood guilds in time for their nominations (though it should be noted, the screeners got in to the Academy voters on time). 

“Selma” was also the victim of a despicable smear job by some historians, who singled out its portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson as inaccurate. While it is an error that should be taken into account, it doesn’t change the fact that King is the central figure of “Selma,” not Johnson, and DuVernay handles her portrayal of King as a man and a public figure just as well as – and arguably better than – its biopic peers handle their central figures. 

READ MORE: #OscarsSoWhite Brings To Light Lack of Diversity Within 2015 Oscar Nominees And The Academy

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Selma" (Paramount)
David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Selma" (Paramount)

The fact that “Selma” got singled out for historical accuracy lambasting is even more ridiculous when you look at another Best Picture nominee, “The Imitation Game.” This film came under fire for its portrayal of Alan Turing, who was key to the Allies’ victory in WWII when he cracked the German Enigma code, but was arrested for his homosexuality following the war.  British historians attacked the film for featuring a completely fabricated subplot in which Turing was blackmailed into staying silent about a Soviet spy working within MI6 in order to keep his homosexuality a secret. Historians and critics also attacked the film for portraying Turing as an antisocial, almost autistic individual who butted heads with his fellow code breakers, while all records show that the real Turing was a very amicable man. Yet, thanks in part to the careful publicity control done by The Weinstein Company, the numerous complaints against “The Imitation Game” did not gain nearly as much momentum as the relatively minor ones against “Selma” did.

Ultimately, while the Oscars do a better job of rewarding excellence in craft than other major awards (coughcoughGrammyscough), the predominance of old, white folks in the Academy allows studio politics to make or break tough races. If a studio doesn’t get behind a worthy film, it isn’t going to get lots of nominations; while conversely, a film that appeals to specific tastes can land loads of nominations despite not being as well received or representative of outstanding cinematic merit. This is the reason why terms like “Oscar Season” and “Oscar Bait” exist.

“The Imitation Game” is such Oscar Bait. It is inexcusable that DuVernay and “Selma” were snubbed from most categories while “The Imitation Game” was given eight nominations. Yes, “12 Years A Slave” cleaned house last year, and deservedly so. But it should be noted that that film ended with Brad Pitt saving the black protagonist from slavery. “Selma” has no white saviors. It is focused on African-Americans fighting for themselves in an era that is still within the lifetime of many drawing breath on this Earth, something that holds particular resonance in light of the rise of #BlackLivesMatter. For the Academy to not recognize this is indicative of a lack of diverse perspectives on film within the Academy and popular cinema as a whole.

That said, #OscarsSoWhite will likely draw unprecedented and much needed attention to the Academy’s problem with diversity, like many hashtags it mainly responds to these problems with snark and oversimplification rather than a constructive long-term solution. Ideally, the “Selma” snub would have led to critics and fans promoting movies and performances that they felt would have been deserving of Oscar nominations and created a more diverse field. Instead, we’re getting a collage of all the white acting nominees that has been retweeted hundreds of times and took over the front page of USA Today and The Oakland Tribune.

READ MORE: Remember This Scene: 'Boyhood'

Such a collage is a simple way to encapsulate the diversity problem, but does nothing to address it other than provide easy outrage. It takes what should be a complex debate over acting performances and views it, quite literally, in terms of black and white.

 While a strong case could easily be made for David Oyelowo winning Best Actor, the same can be said for the actors who did get nominated in the category. Even Benedict Cumberbatch’s nomination for “The Imitation Game” was well deserved, even if the Alan Turing the director and script had him play bears little resemblance to its real life counterpart. This was a very crowded year for Best Actor, with four of the nominees being first-timers and several other deserving performances—most notably Ralph Fiennes in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler"—getting left off the final list.

The competitiveness of this year’s race isn’t something that is brought up by a collection of white nominee mug shots. In fact, viewing the Oscar race through such a limited lens does a disservice not only to the nominees, but to “Selma” and David 
Oyelowo as well. Take Oyelowo’s face and insert it into that collage in place of, say, Bradley Cooper. Now you have a collage of 19 white nominees and one black nominee that could easily become fodder for a sarcastic tweet about Oyelowo being a “token” nomination that the Academy threw in to make it look like it cares about diversity. In other words, such a collage would paint Oyelowo’s hypothetical nomination as the equivalent of a guy saying “But I have black friends” and take away from the artistic achievement of his performance as MLK. 

"Dear White People" (Code Red Films)
"Dear White People" (Code Red Films)

For all of the outrage over #OscarsSoWhite, it’s a bit depressing how few writers and fans have actually used this opportunity to stump for films that feature actors and auteurs who aren’t white men (Bustle’s Rachel Simon is one of the refreshing exceptions). Bear in mind, “Selma” isn’t the only one worthy of consideration.  2014 saw Chadwick Boseman light up the screen as James Brown in “Get On Up.” Then there’s “Rosewater,” a film that got zero Oscar buzz despite it being Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, but featured a brilliant lead performance by Gael Garcia Bernal as a journalist who was tortured in Iran for a satirical interview. And what about “Dear White People,” a satire that confronts racial relations in a manner that’s simultaneously hilarious and thought provoking? There are many more Oscar-worthy films in this vein that should be discussed right now, but largely aren’t because we can’t get past complaining about how out of touch the Academy is.

READ MORE: Ava DuVernay And David Oyelowo Reteam For 'Selma'

Hopefully, once the initial furor over the “Selma” snubs dies down, it can be replaced with a deeper debate about this year’s films, both the ones that were picked and the ones that could have brought diversity to the proceedings. It’s a talk that’s worth having, because in spite of all the jaded claims to the contrary, the Oscars still matter. In fact, it can be said that it’s the only major awards show that holds a meaningful cultural impact. Taylor Swift doesn’t need another half-dozen Grammys to bring attention to her music, nor does “Game Of Thrones” gain much if it wins a bunch of Emmys this year.

Most awards shows lack weight because they give hardware to people who are already kings and queens of pop culture, serving as nothing more than an unnecessary coronation of their greatness. That is not the case with the Oscars, which often serve as a platform for films that would not reach the masses’ attention otherwise. The Oscar victory of “Spirited Away,” for example, helped anime gain a bigger foothold in American culture and played a part in Disney releasing more films by Hayao Miyazaki nationwide. At the same time, an unjust snub of a deserving film can also help it gain notoriety. You can bet that “Selma” will be jumping back up the box office charts on this MLK Day weekend, because the snub will draw moviegoers to the theatre to see what all the fuss is about. 

That’s because the true impact of the Oscars isn’t in who gets statuettes and nominations. It’s true impact is in the discussion it creates. There are often complaints that there aren’t enough serious films being produced for adults nowadays. Without the Oscars, those complaints would get even louder. Strong indie films like “Boyhood,” “Whiplash,” and “Birdman” would have a harder time achieving mainstream appeal, and it would be harder for rising filmmakers to market more experimental fare to major studios without the possibility of an Oscar Bump in the minds of financially focused execs.

The Oscars may bug us, but they can serve as a force for good when it comes to promoting movies as an art form. Once we’re done being angry about “Selma,” we can start the push towards making the awards show an even stronger promoter of diverse cinematic artistry, because the Academy won’t really settle the debate over which films get looked back on decades from now as the best of 2014…their decisions just get the ball rolling.

Reach staff reporter Jeremy Fuster here or on Twitter



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