Why #OscarsSoWhite has got it so wrong

The United States has a deep and divisive race problem. The horrific events surrounding Trayvon Martin and Ferguson, among others, have in recent years made their way as news across the globe alongside what appears to be a mostly white, far right minority that insists it’s important that Americans bear arms. It’s a troubling pairing, to say the least. But I don’t want to address that, specifically.

I’m not going to claim to be an expert on American (or Australian) issues on race. But I AM a man who loves the Oscars and what they represent as the very best in film. And I’ve been disturbed and frustrated by the tone of the argument summed up in the last two years as #OscarsSoWhite, spearheaded by Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett-Smith.

OscarsSoWhite

Jada Pinkett-Smith – and let’s face it, nobody is in conversations about how, “it should have been Pinkett-Smith’s year,” – is using her husband’s platform and position and comes across like a whining, spoiled rich girl, not getting her own way about Will Smith not getting an Oscar nom. Not all black people agree with her, either…to say the least (warning: NSFW). There is certainly a disparity of opinion. Spike Lee has more credibility, but of course makes a living writing movies that cash in on this exact argument. Though his response, at least, offers a solution and is worth a considerable look.

So what are the real problems around race and the Academy Awards? Because despite what I said above, they do exist.

There are three troubling racist elements that are getting little to no coverage on #OscarsSoWhite, which as always has mostly ended up as an excuse for white people to lambast each other on social media.

  1. Pinkett-Smith and Lee are notably referencing black nominees – not ‘non-white nominees’. Lee, at least, asks how there are ’20 white nominees’ in the acting, but never casts a glance at Alejandro Inarritu in the director’s chair. Presumably he’s still too white for Lee’s taste. Nobody mentions Alfonso Cuaron’s win for Best Director in 2014, or Inarritu’s win last year. Both are Latino men.
  2. People are pointing at the actors, not the directors, producers and voters. Actually, the voters have had some backlash and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs wisely addressed this – not the people who were nominated – when she addressed the topic at all. The lack of diversity is a problem that is slowly getting addressed, but as membership lasts until an Academy member dies, it is rather difficult to address immediately. Adding a whole heap of new members is not necessarily a solution – but I still think it is the best current solution. There is a systemic problem: the roles in ‘neutral’ films that could go to non-Caucasian actors, rarely do. For example, Birdman. Or Gravity. Keaton, Bullock or Clooney’s roles could definitely have been given to an African-American. Why not Eddie Murphy, Halle Berry or Forest Whitaker? Straight Outta Compton is going to have a black cast; Spotlight is going to have a white one. But the neutral roles need work.
  3. The phrase ‘people of colour’ keeps getting bandied about as if one’s colour should determine their capacity to receive an Academy Award. This strikes me as (a) representative of a different sort of racism against both white people and non-Caucasians that aren’t black – Latinos in particular, who represent a larger percentage of America’s population but receive no #OscarsnohablaEspanol hashtag in support. But (b), it also serves to diminish the actual acting of black actors and actresses by reducing black roles to a form of tokenism. Now, if a black actor is not nominated, it’s racism. But rest assured, when a black actor is nominated or wins without deserving it – it stands out as tokenism.

Let me give a quick example:

In 2014, Lupita Nyongo’o won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Patsey in 12 Years A Slave (which also, deservedly, won Best Picture). Nyongo’o is beautiful and talented – but that was not a difficult role (comparatively) and she did not particularly stand out. Meanwhile, Jennifer Lawrence – yes, a beautiful, already-awarded, young white woman – is ignored for a far superior performance in American Hustle. Similarly, the elderly June Squibb, who shone in Nebraska, was also overlooked. I can’t help but look at that and mutter #OscarsSoToken. A much better case can be made that Barkhad Abdi should have won Best Supporting Actor for Captain Phillips.

2016 is similar.

Yes, Michael B. Jordan is fine in Creed (to me, director Ryan Coogler is a more worthy inclusion). Even John Boyega is pretty great in The Force Awakens. And Idris Elba is exceptional in Beasts of No Nation.

But you know what? None of those men were in the best 5 for their position this year. Like it or not, I would not put any of them on my Oscar ballot – though I would include Puerto Rican Benicio Del Toro for Sicario. And I’d listen to arguments for Creed as a Best Picture nominee.

Here’s my point:

Do we want to see people of colour rewarded for their colour, or for their quality?
For their ethnicity, or their merit?

Pinkett-Smith rails against some pretty great choices for acting in 2016. Though I haven’t seen Concussion, the fact that it has a release date of Feb 18 in Australia (post-summer, just pre-Oscars) isn’t the strongest argument for its quality.

To me, there is only one film-related argument that justifies #OscarsSoWhite. It comes down to more black studio executives, more black producers, more black screenwriters and more black directors. Let’s see more Ava DuVernay’s and Ryan Coogler’s. Let’s hear black voices telling black stories and, better, black voices telling human stories that transcend race.

Threatening to boycott based on white actors deservedly getting nominated is the wrong move. The Academy has made the right calls. They are – this year – nominating based on merit.

It’s just that the industry heavy-hitters, and the Academy itself is #SoWhite. And that’s the problem.

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