#OSCARSSOWHITE SHOWS PEOPLE STILL DON’T UNDERSTAND THE ACADEMY AWARDS
#Oscarssowhite? Damn straight.
For the second year in a row, the Oscars have nominated only white people. There is no reason why F. Gary Gray, Michael B. Jordan, Idris Elba, Will Smith, or hell, at least one person out of that group, should not be lauded for his artistic film work this last year with an Oscar nod. People are offended by this; some have taken to hashtagging about it (#oscarssowhite), harping on how it’s more of a sign of the racism pervading America, acting like it’s a personal affront, boycotting it, and why not?
The thing is, there is no logic to this approach. You cannot shame the Academy Awards to political correctness; you cannot goad them into diversity; your viewing choices and DVD purchases won’t do a damn thing. Because despite the false connection all Americans believe they have to our greatest homegrown art form, moving cinema, one thing holds true: the Oscars aren’t even slightly about you.
The Academy Doesn’t Really Care What You Think
If you’re not already part of the industry, that is. But wait, you’re consumers and, goddammit, you’ve spent your hard-earned cashish and time and energy watching these films and buying popcorn and special edition DVDs shaped like iconic vehicles and you’ve wasted your paycheck on T-shirts with protagonists bubbling out ironic statements. Maybe you even run a blog and you get free swag and have influence over a couple dozen or even a couple hundred film-obsessed ticket-buyers. But to think the Oscars are about ticket sales and popcorn and your devotion to PEOPLE MAGAZINE and TMZ is missing the point completely.
The Academy Awards is a workplace award ceremony, no different from the Zanesville National Uniform Retail Association Manufacturer Awards ceremony. Except we worship these employees much more than, for example, Rebecca Davies, 2014 Manufacturer of the Year Best Apprentice. We see these celebs in magazines doing “normal” things like jogging or picking up dog poop; watch videos of them silly and drunk and upset. And the interviews, that’s how we really get to know them. They tell us how they grew up with two parents in a San Fernando Valley craftsman and were always kind of weird. Hell, that could be me, minus the craftsman and the valley palm trees. Their movies mean so much to us, no wonder we forget that the Oscars aren’t viewers’ choice awards. They’re over the top workplace awards with an artsy twist presided over by a group of people who have either previously been nominated for an Oscar or were sponsored by two existing members.
#Oscarssowhite But So Is The Academy
A few years ago the LA Times did a study of the Academy makeup and found what you would expect: As of 2012, it was 94% white, 77% male. Median age is 64 and only 14% is younger than 50. That makes for a lot of old white men voting on films. Most of them probably haven’t been to a public screening at a movie theater in years, if not decades (most Academy voters watch the nominees on special screener DVDs). Until 1968, when Jack Valenti overhauled the ratings code, the list of banned cinematographic elements (the Hays Code) included “miscegenation”, “insulting clergy” and “profanity” (including such words as “hell”). So for the median-aged Academy Voter, this was the norm until they were 20.
That’s a huge part of the problem and it’s not going to change any time soon. A Rabbi once told me the reason Moses “got lost” in the desert for 40 years was to kill off all the elderly members of the Tribe who couldn’t exist outside the Egyptian slave system to which they had grown accustomed. True or not one thing remains – the older people get, the less they like change. Which means that any significant change in Oscar voting will require kicking out many of the legends and icons of old Hollywood.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, Academy president, just announced a few new shake-ups in the ranks in response to the whitewashing, one of which is a review of all members, dropping ones who have been inactive for 10 years. But what does that mean? There are plenty of old school producers who mostly relax poolside, every now and then lending cachet or cashish to or making calls on behalf of a film or a colleague and get a producer credit.
There will also be some diversity-driven shuffling of the board of governors and benchmarks for diversification by 2020, according to Isaacs. But it remains to be seen how much this will do for actually changing the vote of the 6,261-member academy as a whole. Thus the reason that boycotting by a handful of black actors won’t do a damn thing. The people inside the Academy vote how they vote and the rules hamstring any quick change; and the people outside it, who will be the ones who see the public announcements of boycotts and are most spurred to action, aren’t in the Academy (return to point #1).
Shouldn’t Oscar Follow Our Culture And Taste?
One of my friends posited the idea that people should make an effort to go to more diverse films and such support would send a message. See diverse films, ideally from all over the world, absolutely. But don’t expect your viewing habits to change the award rolls. Because films, especially ones that have the most viewers, often already have rather diverse casts. STAR WARS TFA, the top-grossing movie in the existence of cinema, has a black main character (and a woman in the other lead). A few years ago Tyler Perry was paid the most money of anybody in Hollywood. None of those movies are nominated for the “prestige” awards, as is pretty much standard for comedies or big-box films, and certainly STAR WARS (George Lucas, it must be noted, has never won an Oscar but is one of the few people who became a billionaire from his entertainment work). Even more, while there is a marked dearth of “black” films in Hollywood, the issue with the Oscars isn’t that there weren’t any worthy performances; it’s that those worthy performances didn’t get the credit they’re due.
In general, as much as the board pays lip service to caring about TV ratings and public opinion, and your viewing boycott may hurt their TV ad revenue, the Academy will never lower itself to adapt to TV ratings. They tried it once and Anne Hathaway just ended up pissing everybody off.
People constantly piss and moan about the Hollywood-Main Street disconnect. #Oscarssowhite supporters bring up how successful STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON was. But, again, it’s not about awarding the movies that the MOST people liked. It’s about rewarding the films that a group deemed the best judges of the art form in America liked MOST. People often forget that this very commercial entity that pervades all of our lives is first and foremost art. And the people in charge for at least half (to 2/3) of the existence of this nexus between creativity and commerce (okay, they’re still for the most part in charge) are white males. Do they vote for the films that connect with them most? Of course. And do you think white people, especially old white people, connect most with other white people? Yeah. And they don’t base their votes on what anybody else says or thinks. In an SNL weekend update monologue a few weeks ago, Michael Che says the Oscars need to award films people have actually seen. Then he asks who’s actually seen ROOM?
For one, I have. And it was one of the most poignant, beautiful, crushing, emotionally-weighted movies I’ve ever seen. The acting, the story, the film in general was far better than 99% of the flicks that made much more money. But as my wife asked me after we’d both come down from the soullercoaster tumult of its viewing, would a non-parent feel as affected by it as a parent imagining that situation, especially a mother?
As an aside, it should be noted that all of the performances I’ve seen that were nominated were great and deserved of acclaim. I just don’t agree that there was no work done by black talent that should be nominated for an Oscar above some of the other nominees. And no, I won’t start naming names of people who should be left off. This isn’t about hatin’; this is about sharing the love.
But in short, the Academy Awards is a workplace reward ceremony for an art form. Like any art form, its value is subjective, depending on the judges’ points of view. And the judges are mostly old white men spread across L.A. and NYC. To a certain extent, the fact that they’re not swayed by money or public opinion or (theoretically) anything is kind of refreshing. But there is no surefire short-term solution, short the Big One hitting L.A. and wiping out older members of the Academy who have spent their whole lives watching and making movies directed and written by and starring white people and consciously or subconsciously would likely never do different. There is a longterm one, though.
Get Rich, People Of Color, And Have Your Kids Join The Biz As Anything But An Actor (Though An Actor Is OK Too)
People of non-Caucasian descent, you need to get rich (or at least upper middle class). Then convince your kids to work in Hollywood, either in the grunt office jobs or as a writer.
I worked at a Hollywood talent and lit agency for half a decade. Over that time I worked with exactly six black people (and one black intern, for a few months)(and one black assistant for about a month before she was fired, not for her color but because she spent most of the day on the phone gossiping with her friends), not including the accounting department. There were a handful of Asians (side note, there have also only been a handful of Asian Oscar winners, and that’s only if you include Sir Ben Kingsley). Several Latinos also worked at the agency (not including the food/groundskeeping/catering side).
As for the writer side of Oscar membership, according to that LA Times article, the category of Academy Members with the lowest percent of Caucasian people was the “Actor” category, at 88%. While not good by any means, it’s much better than the “writer” category, which reaches into the high 90s. Films need to look diverse because they have to represent the world, especially films based in L.A. or NYC. But the behind-the-scenes studio system is still very much a white man’s world. That is changing; but slowly. That is where your children need to make their mark: writers, agents, executives. As Chris Rock said, “Shaq[uille O’Neal] is rich. The white man that signs his check is wealthy.” Don’t let your son or daughter aspire to be the actor; convince them to aspire to be the studio head.
One of the biggest reasons I would venture to say diversity is lacking, especially on the behind-the-scenes workings, is family money. Most entry-level Hollywood corporate jobs offer little pay for long hours and grueling, sometimes demeaning, work. Meanwhile, you’re expected to live a normal life in L.A. or NYC and to “network”, which is how the industry works, by “networking”, so on your $12/hour job you’re expected to go out for drinks and dinners and Beverly Hills lunches with similar up-and-comers a few days and nights a week while paying outrageous rents and if you’re in L.A., you even need a car (and ideally a nice one, can’t show up in that beat-up old Honda unless it’s been FAST AND FURIOUSED). To achieve this you either need to have some family money or you at least don’t have to worry about making any real money for many years after you graduate college. While there are increasingly prosperous black families in America, the “African-American Upper Class”, defined as making over $200,000 a year, is only about 1% of black families. There were 123,229,000 American households in 2014; a family that makes over $200,000 is in the top 5%. That makes a total of about 6,161,450 American households that could support a child entering the entertainment business. Based on black people making up 14.3% of the US population, there are 17,621,747 black households. And 1% of that is 176,217.47. Which means that of the households that can afford to allow their kid to pursue a job with tough longterm prospects and low pay for many of the early years, only about 3% is black. So since the average person who can survive as a Hollywood underling long enough to be a shot-caller and eventually join the Academy is from an upper-middle class/upper class family, then there would have to be 33 entry-level hires before one would have to be statistically a black person. And then there’s the high level of attrition, burnout, and competition in the industry which leads most entry-level hires onto other more stable and less all-consuming career paths.
Then there’s the basic truth of hiring: People generally like to hire (and understand) folks similar to themselves, though from what I’ve seen Hollywood seeks to be (appear?) diverse. There are special programs and workshops for “diversity writers” and a lot of TV show writing staffs have an opening that can only be filled by a “diversity writer.” But there still isn’t much financial incentive to produce “black” films (they don’t play as well internationally, with the exception of Will Smith, so the heads say) and while there are a few more “black” TV shows, it’s still few and far between. And again, Oscar has nothing to do with TV.
Do Hollywood companies hire fewer non-whites because they’re racist or are there simply fewer non-white people applying for those positions? Of course one of the factors is the barrier to entry: Even getting a gig as some mail room lackey destined to be pissed on by any number of execs on his or her way up the ladder takes connections. So white execs need to make more diverse friends and recommend their diverse kids to the interviews, that wouldn’t hurt. But once somebody gets the interview, is the HR person more or less likely to hire said person if they have some color to them? I can’t answer that. My inkling is that it’s like anywhere else and racial prejudices make their way into the equation. But I’ve never felt that in the biz (I am a white man so I wouldn’t necessarily )(though I’ve worked other jobs in other industries where other white people figured I’d appreciate the racist jokes they would whisper after looking over their shoulders to make sure nobody who wasn’t white heard them; I never had that in Hollywood).
Whatever the issue, diversity in corporate ranks is a problem across all industries, not just Hollywood. But we don’t tune in to watch the AMA’s doctor of the year awards or the Bar Association’s Top Lawyer of 2015. The truth is, like everything else we see in Hollywood, it’s a flashier, more dramatic version of real life. To add to the irony, just as America is increasingly revealed to be as racist as it ever was despite having a black president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the first African-American president of the Academy and has had to endure the embarrassment of heading an organization that doesn’t seem to appreciate the contributions people of color have made and still make to the industry the organization is tasked with feting.
Where Do We Go From Here?
- Will boycotting the Oscars change future nominee lists? Maybe. Probably not. While the Academy Awards broadcast brings in ad revenue, the Academy will never have trouble getting funding, especially from the old money people who are kind of the problem in the first place. And for everybody who boycotts the show, plenty of industry risers and pretty ingenues dream of getting an invite to the biggest entertainment party of the year; seats will not be empty. Just like people deciding not to stay at Trump Soho won’t keep Trump from threatening to deport Mexicans and Muslims or insulting soldiers.
- Will poking fun at the Oscars with #oscarssowhite change anything? It might guilt some voters into looking deeper at diversity picks. But it also might make other stalwarts become even deeper entrenched in the opposite direction.
- Will Cheryl Boone Isaacs’ “revolutionary” changes change future nominee lists? Maybe. It remains to be seen how much of the older part of the herd is culled. And how much a few flashy changes in the board of governors will trickle down to the average electorate. I’d like to think it’s a good first step but they did the same thing back in the 70s (in fact back then it was active within the last 7 years). There’s also another side: this will mean elderly men and women are put out to pasture, told that the industry they’ve spent most of their lives working in and presiding over and building no longer values their opinion. So it goes but still something to think about.
- One other part of Isaacs’ plan is adding the requirement to double women and minorities (somehow) in the ranks by 2020. Based on the above numbers, that means the Academy will now only be 88% white (though 54% female is a decent win, at least).
- Will watching diverse films in higher numbers change future nominee lists? Again, maybe. With BIRTH OF A NATION, Nate Parker’s 10-year passion project about Nat Turner’s slave uprising, setting the record for a Sundance acquisition with a $17.5 million dollar sale this week, the stage is set for at least one Oscar frontrunner with a strong black cast, writer-director and story (and it’s beautiful in the irony of the fact that Griffith’s original BIRTH OF A NATION would likely be worshiped as the first great epic motion picture if it wasn’t pro-KKK propaganda filled with blackface villains). But will Parker sweep the awards only for it to be like a few years back when, during one Academy Awards ceremony, Sydney Poitier received the lifetime achievement award, Denzel won an Oscar for a performance (TRAINING DAY) I wouldn’t even rank in his top 5 and Halle Berry won as well (though hers was for a legitimate top performance in MONSTER’S BALL)? Because the timing of that all felt a little too fixed, a little too much like “look people, we are diverse, get off our backs” and now we’re back to white business as usual. And something else to be noted, this film, while no doubt it will be amazing, follows what seems to be a pattern among African-American films; namely, for a black film to get made and gain attention, it either has to be about slaves or maids/servants. Or possibly about African dictators/child soldiers/civil wars.
Then there’s the more important question: Why care? With children being poisoned in Flint and unarmed black men being shot by cops all over, with wealth inequality widening and religious hatreds flaring up, there are certainly much bigger issues than what a bunch of people think about their co-workers.
On the other side, America’s biggest export these days is culture, and especially film. It’s the only new art form invented in the last hundred years, last couple thousand if you say photography is an extension of painting. And America is unquestionably the global capital and through film a powerful influencer of social mores. In a world where racism and hatred of other cultures is being pushed tounseen heights by terrorism and financial struggle, the importance of diversity in American entertainment has never been greater.
So maybe the real solution IS to support diverse films. Not the solution to the Academy Awards’ repeated nomination of white folks; no, absent grass roots infiltration of the voting ranks and an age/race paradigm shift among shotcallers, your best bet is to stop worrying and learn to love the bomb. But maybe by diversifying your viewing, you’ll at least get more diverse films made. That could lead to more Oscar nominees but that’s really a small deal when you consider how important it would be to the world. Regardless, how many white-hero’s-journey flicks or indies about dysfunctional white families can we watch anyhow?
So yes, make an effort to support films directed, produced, written by black people. And Asian people. And Latinos.
And if you like to watch glittering multimillionaires with dream jobs dressed in thousands of dollars worth of linens and rocks celebrating good films, even if they don’t properly represent the diversity of this country, and if you want to watch Chris Rock tear a new asshole into the very organization that hired him to host their pat-on-the-back awards while all the white people in the crowd laugh, some very visibly uncomfortably, tune in to the Academy Awards Telecast on February 28. And if you want to boycott the Oscars telecast, that’s cool too.
But don’t expect the Academy Awards rolls to reflect your newfound fervor. And don’t be surprised that a bunch of old white people vote to honor a bunch of young and middle-aged (and old) white people as well.