Been trying to play catch up with the “best of the year” contenders for my inevitable Top 10 (though I’ve got 7 locked down), but in the meantime let’s talk about a completely uncontroversial topic like race and the Academy Awards!
So in case you missed it (or you had better things to do), the Academy for Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences unveiled last week the nominees for 90th Academy Awards. While there were a few obvious choices in there (Leo for The Revenant and George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road), quite a few people noticed that 99% of the choices for best actor, best director, and best writer were white. Especially eyebrow-raising (to a few people anyways) the critical and commercial success of films with predominant African-American casts like Straight Outta Compton and Creed.
Then Jada Pinkett-Smith got all riled up because there were no Black actors nominated this year, and how could they ignore her hubby’s brilliant portrayal of a poorly-accented doctor in Concussion? Then Spike Lee jumped on the controversy bandwagon by highlighting no Black directors were nominated, coincidentally at the same time he had a movie released in December. And finally you had several Black actors call for a boycott of the Oscars this year, while other Black actors called the move a farce….so welcome to the clusterfuck I suppose.
From where I stand, as someone who has a somewhat-obssessive tendency to watch and learn as much about film history as I can, the “controversy” really is not new and is more of a symptom of a long standing problem the American film industry and more particularly the Academy Award has had for the past few decades. The problems begin and end with the Academy’s membership.
See the Academy doesn’t publish a list of who is actually a member of the organization and who is not. Hell, most renowned actors and actresses aren’t even aware of the Academy’s membership themselves. So the Los Angeles Times did a little digging back in February 2012 and came up with a few interesting statistics: 94% of the Academy is white, 77% of them are male, and a bizarrely 86% age 50 or older. The median age is 62. Also, not helping? Many members of the Academy appear to not have worked in the film industry in years, but they’re still allowed to vote since membership is basically for life. So yeah, little fucking wonder the people who actually determine the “best” films and performances of the year do not share the same opinions as mainstream America.
Get this for American moviegoers, according to the MPAA, 2014 showed that 10% of frequent moviegoers (people who go to a cinema once a month or more) were African-American, 25% were Hispanic, 56% were Caucasian, and 9% were Asian or other. Gender wise, things are pretty 50-50 for men and women. Finally the largest age group of tickets sold in 2014 and largest section of frequent moviegoers went to the 25 through 39 age group, but only at 23%. As you can see, American film audiences are pretty diverse when it comes to age, gender, and race. So the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences looks both unrepresentative of film audiences in the United States, and woefully outdated.
“Oh but the Academy is composed of only people who have actually worked in film, you don’t want every Tom, Dick and Harry to choose who made the best films,” the contrarians of the Internet would inevitably chime in. That’s fine, except you find that more men are the central characters of films compared to women in a 70-30 split according to a UCLA study, while Caucasian actors headline about 90% of widely released films according to the same study. No diversity studies have been done on cinematographers, special effects crew, costume designers, and the other behind-the-scenes people who truly make Hollywood tick.
Regardless, it’s obvious the group determining what was the best in a year of American cinema is completely unrepresentative of what American moviegoers (both sporadic and frequent) actually prefer. That’s to say nothing of the growing audiences for streaming services. And that’s the biggest rub: not only are minority races being disregarded in Oscar runs, but films that do not appeal to a very specific and niche group of people are never in the consideration.
It happened to The Dark Knight in 2008, a year where the “best picture” nominees where The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire, two films you might have completely forgotten about or just flat out didn’t see. Or hey, what about in 1994, when Forest Gump won in a year that Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption were both nominated. These two years are among the most egregious examples of showing how the Academy has their heads shoved so far up their own ass they can’t appreciate quality films that have truly survived the test of time. Worse still, you have films that are clinically designed to appeal to this odd demographic and these movies are simply made to get an Oscar and nothing else, your Shakespeare in Love beating Saving Private Ryan and The King’s Speech beating The Social Network, Black Swan, Inception, True Grit, and Toy Story 3 (all of those were nominated for 2010).
And great, unique films aren’t the only parties getting the shaft by the Academy, they’ve screwed over their actors plenty over the years. In 1974, Jack Nicholson was up for an Oscar for his performance in Chinatown against Al Pacino in The Godfather, Part II. Pretty exciting match up right? Except neither man won and both lost to Art Carney in Harry and Tonto…a film I’m almost willing to bet my right foot that none of you have fucking even heard of. Pacino did get his Oscar two decades later for Scent of a Woman (super obscure) but that screwed over Clint Eastwood for Unforgiven, Robert Downey Jr for Chaplin, and Denzel Washington for Malcolm X. Thus forcing the Academy to give apologies in the form of awards for all of those guys later down the line. Hell Whoopi Goldberg got shafted for The Color Purple and was repaid with an Oscar for her comedic role in Ghost of all fucking things.
The Academy’s diversity problem isn’t just about getting a token Black, Hispanic, or Asian performer on the nominee list. Please, I would rather see someone like Idris Elba on the Best Supporting Actor list (because he fucking deserves it for Beasts of No Nation, except the Academy doesn’t like the idea of Netflix putting out quality films) as opposed to Will Smith getting the equivalent of a pat on his head for a parody of an accent. But the diversity issue extends beyond race to age and gender preferences as well.
Films are a powerful medium to tell the stories on the times, the places, and a people. And audiences respond to these films in sometimes surprising but always amusing ways. I don’t want the Academy to reconsider its list this year, they made their bed and now it’s time to lie in it (besides, Chris Rock is practically cackling to himself right now with all this ammunition the Academy has fed him). But I do want the Academy to change its archaic membership and open it up to fresh blood who are seeing where the film industry is going. Maybe then, we can get nominees people can agree with.
But perhaps more importantly, this whole debacle has been yet another reminder to Hollywood that it’s audience is far, FAR more diverse that they have taken for granted. There are tons of Black performers, directors, and writers who deserve a shot at the big leagues. There are scores of women with unique ideas that they want to write and direct. But none of these people are even given the chance to do so unless they get absurdly lucky or sign on to something absolutely worthless. See any actor working under Tyler Perry and the writers/directors slumming it in directing crap YA adaptations.
American film audiences are hungrier than ever before for more diversity in their films, so not everything is a fucking comic book adaptation or a po-faced drama appealing to elderly people who have aged poorly. This industry is capable of better and should strive to be better.