Film & Television

The Incredible Whiteness (and Maleness) of Oscar

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The Oscars are just a few days away. Last week, we celebrated the actresses who will be recognized at the 88th Annual Academy Awards. These ten women turned in brilliant performances and absolutely deserve their honors. However, in some ways the recognition feels a little like a consolation prize. Two categories that are, by their definition, limited to women were, no surprise, filled with women. But, this is not a year that will be remembered for Oscar diversity — in the areas of gender or of race.

When nominees were announced last month, there were once again no women directors, and no black directors or actors of either gender (for the second year in a row despite some Oscar-worthy contenders). There are women represented for original and adapted screenplay, and in some of the secondary, more creative categories, like costume design. Some films about blacks but written by whites, have been recognized (Straight Outta Compton), and black musician Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye) is up for Best Song for work on the movie titled, ironically enough, Fifty Shades of Grey.

The lack of diversity has reactivated last year’s Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. It has also inspired countless comedy routines. But, it isn’t funny. Many black celebrities, including actress Jada Pinkett-Smith and director Spike Lee, have threatened to boycott the awards. And, there have been widespread calls for African-American host Chris Rock to step down in protest. He has decided to stay the course, but has rewritten his opening monologue to address the controversy.

Academy President, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, interestingly enough the organization’s first president who is both African-American and a woman, issued an official statement just four days after nominees were announced

“While we celebrate extraordinary achievements, I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes. The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership.  In the coming days and weeks we will conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond. . . In 2016, the mandate is inclusion in all of its facets: gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. We recognize the very real concerns of our community, and I so appreciate all of you who have reached out to me in our effort to move forward together.”

At the annual “Class of 2016” luncheon, she admitted, less formally, “This year we all know there’s an elephant in the room. I have asked the elephant to leave.”

2016 is a particularly homogenous year (and dishearteningly so), but the Academy Awards has historically been a celebration of white men. Much ado is made each time there’s a “first:” “First Woman Director” (Kathryn Bigelow, 2010, for Hurt Locker), “First Black Best Actress” (Halle Berry, 2002, for Monster’s Ball). These milestones are important, but they can also be misleading and actually result in a step backwards. Because we can’t complain there hasn’t been a female director, the pressure’s off.  If we complain there aren’t any black actresses represented, someone will point to Ms. Berry. “Never” is a powerful condemnation; but “Only one” isn’t much better.

There’s also the argument that the Academy Awards are a subjective contest. Movies are not honored because of objective criteria, like box office receipts (which in itself would not be a fair fight given that box office is a direct result of distribution based on some studio executive’s subjective call). There have been plenty of white actors and directors snubbed over the years. The much bigger problem is the lack of diversity in the films being made. When there is a standout movie with a minority cast, creative team or subject, there is too much pressure to praise it. Read More »

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