Monday, December 26, 2016

Is #OscarsSoWhite going to open up a new can of worms in 2016's award season?

How can you not be for more diversity?" a friend recently asked me on a message board when I was explaining my opposition to the #OscarsSoWhite movement that has exploded over the last two awards season cycles.

Perhaps I am no longer on the side of liberal progress and no longer care about racial representation in film. Or perhaps, it's not an either-or dichotomy. I recognize the value of racial representation AND I thought the #Oscarssowhite movement the past two years has been counterproductive to that cause.

Why? Because the twitter movement was simply counterfactual. In the 21st century, roughly 12% of acting nominees were Black and the proportion of African-Americans to the rest of the population according to the census is also 12%. If discrimination exists in Hollywood, I agree with Oscar winner Spike Lee (who got an honorary Oscar last year by a supposedly racist organization) who said it happens in casting rooms and at studios and to blame the Oscars is a misdirect. The #oscarssowhite movement has largely damaged its credibility by being proudly counterfactual, by lacking nuance in its analysis (if you want to see such a nuanced article, click here for an extremely thorough and reasonable explanation for why no black films were nominated in 2015), by having no definition of its goals, by going after the wrong targets, and by a lack of appreciation for the progress that has been made.

In the midst of one of these conversations, an activist asked me: "Do you expect us to be happy with the crumbs you get?" If you're going to accuse a person or organization of racist behavior, I expect an honest and thorough assessment of whether those are indeed crumbs. If these activists can't recognize intermediate steps of progress, what incentive is there to placate them? This is an awards body that has helped jump-start the careers of such minorities as Taraji P Henson, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Terrence Howard, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Demian Bichir, Sophie Okonedo and Jennifer Hudson by awarding them with honors when box office receipts and other awards bodies weren't. If you look at the BAFTAs, for example, none of these people (except Jennifer Hudson) were nominated. Fun fact: Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman have been nominated 11 times by the Oscars and neither of them were nominated once by the BAFTAs.

This year, the Oscars will likely be far more inclusive of films with black narratives and many people of color look to make their way into the nominations. I am legitimately happy. I saw "Hidden Figures" and loved it and this week I eagerly plan on seeing "Fences." However, if you think that's not going to open up a whole new can of worms, think again:

1. Is the directorial race this year going to be framed as some be-all account of racial politics? Are Kenneth Lonergan and Damien Chazelle going to have a chance to compete freely against Barry Jenkins or will the social justice movement try to reframe it as a case of justice instead of artistic choice, insisting that votes for Lonergan and Chazelle are simply votes for an oppressive patriarchy. Last year, the movement was upset by the lack of black directors. I fear that even one or two directors won't be seen as an improvement but a further cause for protest if they don't win.

2. Similarly, Jeff Nichols made a well-crafted tale but if his film ends up performing better in the Oscar race than the other black-themed films -- Hidden Figures, Fences, and Loving -- then will activists cry foul at the fact that Nichols has no right to tell a story of people whose race he isn't a member of? Has there even been much discussion of the theory that art and cross-cultural learning is mostly predicated on stepping outside your own experiences and exploring someone else's story?

2b. Or maybe the backlash will try to resurrect the narrative that black stories are only told by white film makers ignoring the recent BP nominations of Lee Daniels, Ana Duverney and Steve McQueen. This is more of a hypothetical because because the acting and directing for Loving didn't rate as highly among critics anyway, so it looks like that minefield will be avoided.

3. However, the flipside of this is that Loving's lead Ruth Negga is far from a lock in her category and could be bumped out while three out of five Oscar nominated best supporting actresses will be black if projections hold up. This really has more to do with variable definitions of lead (and category fraud) than anything substantial, but are we going to be subjected to another barrage of essays about how Hollywood hates black as lead women?

4. Likewise in the acting races, between four and seven of the twenty acting nominations are projected go to black actors with South Asian actor Dev Patel a near lock to add to the diversity mix as well in the supporting category. That is an impressive number and I am nothing but happy for many of these actors that I love. Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson are actresses who I have waited quite a while to see them get a second nomination. However, the ethnic mix of acting performances is random, combined with a lot of other factors (like, for example, who gave the best performance, didn't that used to count for something?) and most importantly cyclical. If the number dips down to one or two again next year, are we setting ourselves up for another cycle of twitter slacktivism next year? The problem with Oscars So White's undefined goals manifests itself in situations like this.

5. Did #OscarsSoWhite really make this happen? (this is an open-ended question because I do not know the answer)Suppose #oscarssowhite made a lot of noise last year, did that specifically lead to these films being greenlit? I would assume that they were made before the protests happened last year anyway.

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