Debate Forum 1/26/16

JIM WITMER / STAFF JIM WITMER / STAFF

Oscars the grouch

Little Gold Man is now a black-and-white issue

By Sarah Sidlow

For the second year running, the four Oscars acting categories are conspicuously monochromatic. And by that, we mean white. Oh yeah, Hollywood noticed. There’s even a trending hashtag, “#OscarsSoWhite,” which makes it really, really serious. Recently—actually on Martin Luther King Jr. Day—actor Jada Pinkett Smith and director Spike Lee announced independently on social media that they would not be attending the ceremony.

Lee, who was awarded an honorary Oscar in November, says on Instagram he “cannot support” the “lily white” awards event. Star Wars actress Lupita Nyong’o also voiced her disappointment about the lack of inclusion in the nominations. Also among the oft-mentioned snubs this year: “Creed,” “Concussion,” “Beasts of No Nation” and “Straight Outta Compton.”

Adding to the A-list of boycotters is actor George Clooney, who says the lack of minority nominees goes beyond the academy selection process to the question of how many options in quality films are even available to minorities, and added, “By the way, we’re talking about African-Americans. For Hispanics, it’s even worse. We need to get better at this.”

Academy member Michael Moore, director of “Bowling for Columbine,” also says he will boycott the Feb. 28 ceremony.

So, what exactly is “the academy” anyway? Well, it’s comprised of 6,300 members: people within the film industry, who vote on who is nominated for the Oscars each year.

In 2012, a LA Times report confirmed the identities of more than 89 percent of the academy voters and found what many claim is a troubling imbalance. Here are the stats:

Oscar voters are nearly 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male. Black members make up about 2 percent of the academy, and Latino members less than 2 percent.

Oscar voters have a median age of 62. People younger than 50 constitute just 14 percent of the membership.

Caucasians currently make up 90 percent or more of every academy branch except actors, whose membership is 88 percent white.

Men make up more than 90 percent of five branches, including cinematography and visual effects.

But while supporters of the boycott claim the lack of minority actor nominees is evidence of a racist system, others are saying “Not so fast.”

Their claims basically range from “You’re mad you didn’t get nominated” to “The selection process is subjective—get over it.”

Among the funniest is Janet Hubert, who specifically targeted Jada Pinkett and Will Smith. Hubert co-starred alongside Smith for years on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as Aunt Viv, and, referring to Pinkett Smith as “Miss Thing,” accused the pair for simply being upset Smith was left off this year’s list of nods.

“I find it ironic that somebody who has made their living and has made millions and millions of dollars from the very people that you’re talking about boycotting just because you didn’t get a nomination,” Hubert says, adding, “People are dying. Our boys are being shot left and right. People are starving. People are trying to pay bills. And you’re talking about some [expletive] actors and Oscars. It just ain’t that deep.”

“Boyz n the Hood” director John Singleton (the first African-American director nominated for an Oscar) also opposes the boycott, telling Variety, “There’s only so many slots.”

By the way, the spotlight is also on two black individuals who are very closely connected with the Oscars: academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and comedian Chris Rock, who will host the 2016 Oscars, which he has monikered the “white BET Awards.” (Fun fact: the show is also being co-produced by “Django Unchained” producer Reginald Hudlin and live-television producer David Hill).

Reach Dayton City Paper freelance writer Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com

 

Acceptance speech

By Ben Tomkins

I will begin by immediately claiming victory in this debate, as anyone who chooses to boycott the Academy Awards is right for doing so. If I want to sit around watching liberals congratulate themselves for showing up to work and doing their job correctly I’ll watch old footage of health care reform passing. Actually, that analogy is a bit unfair. Obamacare had a tangible effect on my life.
As far as the boycott over a lack of ethnic diversity in the top awards categories goes, if I want to watch footage of old white people excluding minorities I’ll watch one of the Republican primary debates, but at least unlike the debates Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith are making factually accurate observations. Scrolling down the Oscars website and reading through the list of nominees, other than the fact that the Revenant was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (credited last on the poster, incidentally) it took me until the Animated Feature Film category to find someone remotely ethnic. It wasn’t even a “someone.” It was an “it,” and “it” was Shaun the Sheep, who is a black-skinned mammal covered in downy white clouds of wool.
Of course, I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about how the declaration of a boycott over a lack of diversity is an example of either reverse racism or playing the race card when you can’t get by on merit. First, anyone who thinks that white people are having their pants pulled down because a group of old white people selecting an all-white guest list for their party except for a single token Hispanic director of a movie starring all white people that takes place in the snow needs to re-read this sentence. Second, I will give them full credit and say that I don’t think it’s overt. Hollywood’s a really, really … really liberal place, but sometimes they suffer from the social disease that plagues the overly attentive.
It’s called “trying too hard,” and white people have a fantastically rich history of taking what should be legitimate successes for the hard work and dedication by minorities and making it a love-in about how great it is that white people are socially progressive. Here’s an example: when you give Hattie McDaniel the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, thereby making her the first black person in history that white people agreed was worth tolerating on the set, they gave it to her for portraying the most loyal slave anybody had seen in eighty years.
This is not to say it’s not progress of a kind. She was an excellent actress, and considering that a few years earlier Joe Lewis had become the first black heavyweight champion of the world that was actually loved by the white public it was clear that they were at least trying their best.
That was followed by a smattering of quality black actors and actresses winning, and it seemed like Hollywood had come around, but just because white people are wearing a new set of shoes doesn’t mean they aren’t going to keep tripping over their big feet.
In 2001 Denzel Washington and Halle Barry won Best Actor and Best Actress respectively (and obviously), thereby making it the first time in history that minorities took the top two spots. The general buzz around Hollywood was “it was time for this to happen.” Look, it doesn’t take much to see the latent diffusion of guilt in that statement. I take nothing away from either of them, as I saw both movies and they deserved the awards. That being said, I think it would have been a bit more polite for white people to say “congratulations” rather than “they’re finally so well spoken that it’s time for black people to take the top two spots.”
I have to say though, my favorite comment of all came from Janet Hubert when she said, “People are dying. Our boys are being shot left and right. People are starving. People are trying to pay bills. And you’re talking about some [expletive] actors and Oscars. It just ain’t that deep.”
That is a factual statement. And if you wanted to see movies about those issues, “Straight Outta Compton” and “Beasts of No Nation” are two excellent films covering all of those topics rather profoundly. It’s just hard to expect old white people to have as deep an appreciation of a movie about the origins of rap as their younger and more ethnically diverse friends might.
That right there is what this is really all about. Racial diversity, at least in this context, is not so much about the quality of the films or the availability of rolls as it is about racial diversity amongst the Academy’s voters. If you don’t have a voting base representative of the diversity in society, then there are going to be a lot of arguments not being heard about the comparative merits of ethnically diverse films.
I don’t think this boycott is about anyone playing the race card or trying to force ethnic actors and films into a spotlight they might not deserve. It’s about giving the Academy a good scrubbing so minorities can trust that they are being well-served and represented in the voting process.
Oh, and if someone could tell me if they actually don’t show up that would be great. I won’t be watching.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

It’s the industry

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Once upon a time, boycotts targeted systemic change. Our leaders were political strategists with their eyes on the larger prize. Within such movements, there were certainly factions, opposing voices battling for control and command of execution of intermediate steps that would define the cause and help to achieve the end result. Now, it seems, we find ourselves wandering in the desert and when a mirage appears, we race off, expending what little precious energy we have, in pursuit of wasted potential.
I’m talking about the swiftly shifting cultural and social media battleground that is the Academy Awards and the talk of African American boycotts, based on the lack of nominations, for the second consecutive year, for people of color. Last year, the hashtag (#OscarsSoWhite) took off, buzzing from Black Twitter into the social media mainstream, but in light of the rise of Black Lives Matter, this year a burgeoning movement seems ready to take hold. Television has proven to be ahead of the curve when it comes to diversification, teeming with multi-cultural perspectives and faces, and many of its stars have noted that, while they are thankful for these opportunities, they should not have had to settle for these small screen offerings. The question seemed to be, would the industry take note.
But we should not have taken the Academy Award nominations as the answer. In truth, they weren’t supposed to be a response to that query because they arrived before anyone barely had time to acknowledge the latest posing of the question. The problem is not new; we have simply experienced what seems like a monumental about-face in the past decade. The Oscars were so white for so long, but we have forgotten, like when sickness seizes control over the body, we lose sense of what it felt like to be healthy; all we know is the experience of aches and pains.
That is what the past ten years have been, for the Academy and the industry as a whole.
And now, this talk of boycotts sounds like a remedy, because how could the Academy not recognize the work of so many deserving performers like Will Smith in “Concussion” and Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation” or films like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Creed,” skillfully rendered and box office success stories both in the United States and on the international scene. Why is it that the only nominations for such films went to the writers (Andrea Berloff, Jonathan Herman, S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus) of “Compton” and the supporting performance of Sylvester Stallone for “Creed” and not any of the people of color who were the focus of those projects? Where was the love for Jason Mitchell who jumped off the screen as Easy-E in “Compton”?
Discussion of snubs start every year, as soon as the nominations presentation ends, and right off the bat, I zeroed in on the omissions of Michael Keaton (“Spotlight”) and Paul Dano (“Love & Mercy”). “Spotlight” has been the presumptive favorite since its release, and was stuffed to the gills with sterling performances to go along with its hot button topicality (Oscar bait), so Keaton could certainly cry foul. Dano, as the young Brian Wilson, embodied the musical genius as well as the slowly crumbling psyche of the greatest Beach Boy in a series of heartbreaking moments. Their slights, to my mind though, showcase the shortsightedness of the #OscarsSoWhite boycott.
Keaton enjoyed the spotlight, if you will, last year thanks to his Best Actor nomination for “Birdman” and now finds himself on quite a roll, as the comeback kid. Next up for him is the lead in John Lee Hancock’s biopic about Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s. He spent years in obscurity, but he’s back in the fold. Dano, since breaking out in “Little Miss Sunshine,” has hooked up with Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood”), Kelly Reichardt (“Meek’s Cutoff”), Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”), and most recently Paolo Sorrentino (“Youth”) and he’s committed to Joon Ho Bong’s new project “Okja” with Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton.
Boycotting the Oscars will not address the lack of opportunities for performers of color to tackle more challenging, Oscar-worthy work. To be considered for an Academy Award, Idris Elba needs to have projects that require him to do more than merely be “Idris Elba.” Will refusing to walk the red carpet and sitting in a seat while Chris Rock jokes about the whitewashing taking place guarantee that Mitchell has access to the top tier directors that Dano has?
People clamoring for people of color to stay home on Feb. 28 need to recognize that the real concern should be that only a handful of films were even remotely worthy of consideration in the first place. That’s not the fault of the Academy. It’s bigger than the Academy. It’s the industry, Jake.
Changing voting policies or diversifying the Academy could have minimal impact, but these are short-term fixes. Why not open up casting and the green-lighting process for more diverse material? Why can’t those with privilege make a more concerted effort to overcome their colorblindness?
And the reality is that performers of color aren’t the only ones that should be taking action. At some point, it requires audiences of color (and people of conscience across the board) to boycott the movies. We talk about this in other arenas, and it is even more valid and powerful here. Vote with your dollars, people.
It is time for all of us to keep our eyes on the prize.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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