As some of you may have noticed in 2015, I haven’t written many reviews about new movies (only one to be exact, for the incredibly mediocre Mr. Holmes.) My contributors Heather Nichols and Candace Wiggins have been more diligent about getting their thoughts about current cinema in written form. I only ventured out to the movie theater about seven times; other than the new Star Wars, which I liked but didn’t love, I was disappointed with the films I saw. (Krampus, a stale hipster revamp of the 80s family movies with a punitively mean-spirited streak, was the worst of the sorry lot.)
I am probably not the most qualified to comment on the Oscars as I haven’t seen any of the films that scored any of the major nominations because they struck me as stale, more of the unoriginal middle-of-the-road fare with which we’ve been overloaded.
Some pundits were optimistic that there wouldn’t be a repeat of the #OscarsSoWhite fiasco that put a damper on last year’s Oscars. However, many realized that this would occur again. In a particularly funny and sad segment on The Nightly Show, they previewed the inevitable Black snubs, noting that Will Smith is out because “only white actors can win an Oscar for a movie nobody saw” and that voters will overlook Michael B. Jordan because punching people isn’t seen as acting when done by a black man.
The anger is understandable. When the critically acclaimed and financially profitable Straight Outta Compton and Creed only yield nominations for four white screenwriters and a white actor respectively and that in both of Cheryl Boone Isaac’s terms as Academy President the nominees were lily-white, it feels like an outright conspiracy.
As Viola Davis noted, the Oscars are symptomatic, but not the real problem lies with the lack of distribution of films with black actors, writers, directors, and/or producers. While I think this assessment is closer to the truth, I believe there are other factors contributing to the problem.
It is a bit of a misnomer to put the blame squarely on Hollywood as a whole. Many commentators talk about the top 100 grossing films in a year and the Oscars in the same breath. They are slightly separate issues because the blockbusters are rarely awards magnets (except for maybe the technical categories). Mainstream Hollywood movies certainly have a long way to go, but have been more cognizant to include people in color in prominent acting roles (their track record on writers, directors, and producers still leaves something to be desired.) John Boyega, excellent as Fin the Stormtrooper apostate turned hero in the multi-billion dollar smash Star Wars reboot, proved that people of color do not disrupt the movie world. As superhero fatigued as I am, the upside does seem that they sometimes lead for more diverse casting.
The ones who have really dropped the ball are the Mid-sized Indie productions and the big film festivals such as Sundance, TIFF, and the New York Film Festival. This is the community who produce Oscar bait; good luck finding a person of color in any of the whitey tighty films. An art-house cinema owner in a liberal artsy city told me that movies with black protagonists are a really hard sell; he would either get co-sponsorship from an outside organization or knowingly take a hit on the few occasions he could afford to.
The person widely credited for turning the Oscars into a race that rivals the presidential elections in terms of cost and time is Harvey Weinstein who usurped major Oscar wins for ho hum masterpieces like Shakespeare in Love, The King’s Speech, and The English Patient. In approximately 300 producing credits, about 50 feature a person of color in a prominent acting role (out of this list, non-whites as protagonists is significantly smaller, maybe 15).
If that seems like a troubling statistic, the other top producers of awards friendly fare such as Scott Rudin, Steven Spielberg, and Tim Bevan & Eric Fellner have a more significantly dismal track record. It is interesting to note that films produced by Spielberg (Memoirs of a Geisha) and Rudin (Aloha) have been associated with major PR snafus. Geisha alienated huge swaths of Asian audiences when the Japanese characters were played by more Western aesthetically pleasing Chinese and Korean actors.
Casting freckly ginger Emma Stone as a Hawaiian was only one of the myriad of miscalculations of Aloha, a film that represents Hollywood at its worst. Like so many studio films, Aloha was helmed by Cameron Crowe, an out-of-touch middle-aged man coasting off the acclaim of his earlier works (namely Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Almost Famous). According to the Sony leak, Amy Pascal and other execs knew the movie was doomed for failure (it flopped miserably), yet they acted as if everything was fine until post-production where they barraged him with criticism.
The producing duo Bevan and Fellner who are the British equivalent of Harvey Weinstein, have been major U.S. industry players since Four Weddings and a Funeral was a surprise smash in the States. While Britain has become more progressive since their colonial days and has a historical reputation for laxer censorship and tackling franker and grittier material, like so much of Europe, the entertainment industry like its society is still racially homogenized. Colorful character actress Miriam Margolyes caught Will.i.am and Graham Norton’s audience with a surprisingly remark, “I’m fascinated by you [because] unfortunately I don’t know many black people.”
Unfortunately, in more recent years some white European stars have made statements about race relations in less comical and self-aware ways than Margolyes ranging from absurd- Julie Delpy wishing she was a black man because they have more privileges than white lady feminists- to hostile- Charlotte Rampling claiming that boycotting the Oscars was racist to whites (though she kept mum when the interviewer followed up by repeating grievances by black people in the industry).
My big beef with the Oscars these days is that they are not only homogenously white, but the white movies and performances they recognize are generally nauseatingly mediocre. I depart from most Oscar critics as I wasn’t on the Selma bandwagon and I didn’t feel that Ava Duvernay or David Oyelewo were snubbed. (I believe that its Best Pic nomination was shameless ass-covering). That said I liked Selma’s white arch-nemesis American Sniper marginally better, though I’m not sure it deserved a BP nom either.
One of my favorite films in recent years (that of course had no Oscar traction) was an unpretentious BET-produced showbiz drama, Beyond the Lights, beautifully directed by underrated writer-filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood and acted by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who cannily captured the soulnessness of pop stardom) and Nate Parker. It made $14.6 million, double its budget, yet it is considered to be a huge flop. For some reason, BET pushed it into a wide release without any promotion, so I think the box office return was not too bad all things considered.
I suspect that movies like Tangerine and Beasts of No Nation were overlooked by the Oscars because of their untraditional shooting methods/distribution as much as for their subject matters and casting. The most (maybe only) interesting awards moment was when Idris Elba scored two surprising SAG victories for his work in Beasts and Luther, almost as if to give the Oscars the finger. Since Alejandro Inatru, the mind behind the mind-numbingly awful Birdman, has it in the bag again with The Revenant, I think I’ll be skipping the Oscars this year.
I will continue to follow this story with a vested interest, and I hope that other commentators will do the same, because although the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag will be temporarily retired, the lack of diversity remains as a lingering problem.