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Friday, February 20, 2015

Do The Oscars Have A Race Problem?

Soon after the Academy Award nominations were announced, the hashtag #OscarSoWhite started trending on Twitter. It was not difficult see why. All 20 of the acting nominees were white, all 5 directors were either White or Hispanic, and 7 out of the 8 Best Picture nominees featured a predominantly White cast. So what gives? What’s with all of the white-washing?

The first discussion topic regarding race at the 2015 Oscars starts at Selma. Selma is a film directed by a black woman, written by a white man, starring a black man, in a cast that’s predominantly black. Selma was nominated for Best Picture, but other than that, its only other nomination came in the Best Original Song category. People cry out that Ava DuVernay failed to receive a Best Director nomination and the Selma’s star David Oyelowo failed to receive a Best Actor nomination. For some reason, people aren’t clamoring that Paul Webb, the film’s screenwriter, deserved a nomination, but that’s for another topic I guess. Anyways, if DuVernay and Oyelowo earn a nomination, is there discussion about race and the Oscars over? That seems to be the next logical step in people’s arguments, right?

I think the real question people need to ask themselves, and one that doesn’t seem to be asked, is why is Selma the only film that could stop the Oscars from being dominated by whities? Why does the lack of nominations for one film automatically mean that the Oscars are predominantly white nominees? Selma absolutely messed up their Oscar campaign, and that’s the large majority of the reason why they only received two nominations, but what about the other films that existed in 2015? Why aren’t there Black actors, actresses, directors, and screenwriters earning Oscar nominations? That’s because outside of Selma, there was no other options. I looked at my Top 14 films of 2014 as well as my initial top 10 of 2014 which is 17 films in total (16 because I included one documentary). Outside of Selma, the only film directed by someone who wasn’t white was Snowpiercer (directed by a South Korean), none of them starred a Black male or female, and only one film (Guardians of the Galaxy) had a Black actor as the second lead. There are two films that were released in 2014 that even had somewhat of an Oscar buzz around it that could have made the nominations less white- Get On Up and Beyond The Lights. Get On Up is the James Brown biopic starring, written, and directed by a Black man, but it also looks like a Ray rip-off and not very good. I haven’t read a single piece yet by ANYONE claiming Get On Up got snubbed. The other film is Beyond The Lights starring a young woman named Gugu Mbatha-Raw who could have possibly earned a Best Actress nomination, but considering you’ve never heard of the film, there’s no chance Oscar voters have heard of the film either. Maybe you can make an argument about 2014’s Annie, but it also has a 5.0 on IMDB and a 33 on Metacritic.

Films for great Black performers don’t seem to exist anymore. Since Forest Whittaker’s Oscar win, he’s forced to play Main Cop Number One in films like Repo Men, Taken 3, and The Last Stand. He did star in a prestige film, The Butler, that frankly the film itself wasn’t very good and it's lack of nominations was justified (for the most part). Mo’Nique has been blackballed since her win. Viola Davis has to go to TV if she doesn’t want to play the crying Mom of the lead. Lupita Nyong'o did get a role in Star War, but only after the outrage of her not being on the first official cast list.

The real question isn’t “Do The Oscars Have A Race Problem” but rather “Why Does Hollywood Have A Race Problem?”. The Academy can only vote on films that exist and are seen by them, and if Hollywood or film financiers and producers aren’t making films starring and created by Black people, then they can’t earn an Oscar nomination. African-American filmmakers and artists exist, but Hollywood is refusing to consider them. There’s a great Vulture article about how Hollywood studios are snatching up all of the great white directors who made a splash at Sundance, but aren’t even giving Black directors the time of day. What’s worse, the prestige roles that Blacks are dominating are still pretty racist and highlight Hollywood’s race problem. Steve McQueen and Lupita Nyong’o won Oscars regarding a film about slavery, Michael B. Jordan was in an incredible film last year called Fruitvale Station written and directed by Ryan Coogler (a Black man) but it’s also a film highlighting the race relation problems in America thanks to a senseless shooting of a Black man by a White police officer. Selma, Ray, The Last King of Scotland, and Ali are (essentially) biopics about a famous African-American. Dreamgirls is a film about the rise of Motown (that also has plenty of white corollaries). Django Unchained is about slavery (and also only the white people from that film earned nominations). The Help is about race relations in the 1960’s. Catch my drift?

There’s no reason that prestige films can’t at least star Black people. There’s no race inherent in recent Best Picture nominees Whiplash, Her, Nebraska, Amour, The Descendants, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Unfortunately, we’re pretty far from that at this point. We can’t even suggest that a Black man play fictional characters like James Bond or Spider-Man or a stormtrooper without taking to Twitter and being racist assholes so having more prestige films star Blacks that aren’t inherently about a Black historical problem/figure seems like a long way off. Films are a reflection of culture, and we still have problems regarding race relations amongst ourselves. News stories in 2014 were either dominated by a white police officer killing an unarmed Black man or Ebola which had its own racist implications attached to them. We live in a world where white people taking things is considered survival whereas Black people taking things is considered looting.

At least television is starting to reflect more positively towards Blacks. Shonda Rhimes, a black female, is probably one of the those most powerful people in television thanks to the massive success of her three hits shows (two of which have a Black female as the lead). Black-ish is the first show that’s a hit for ABC airing after Modern Family. Empire is not only the most successful new show currently on television, it keeps getting bigger and more popular every single week- something that never happens in television. It shouldn’t be a shock that shows aimed towards a Black audience are popular, because, you know, Black people watch TV as well. Let’s hope the recent success of these shows translates into films.

I believe there’s at least latent racism when it comes to The Academy just because this is an organization that is 94% white. They can try to be as liberal as they want, but until you bring in fresh and different perspectives, their biases and experiences are always going to affect their results- just like the rest of us. I also don’t think you can overlook wins like a Best Picture win for 12 Years A Slave, Best Supporting Actress wins for Lupita Nyong'o, Mo’Nique, and Octavia Spencer,  Best Actor wins for Jamie Foxx, Forest Whittaker, and Denzel Washington, Halle Berry’s surprising Best Actress win, and Lee Daniels’ super-surprising Best Original Screenplay win for Precious (over Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards), but obviously The Academy can’t rest on the past either and needs to be keep moving forward. The real issue lies with those who finance and produce films. Until there’s a drastic change in the way Black performers are used in the film or until more and better opportunities are given to Black artists, The Academy is always going to be perceived negative when it comes to race and films. I’m glad people are angry at the lack of diversity about the 2015 Oscar nominees, but their anger is misdirected. Let’s hope Hollywood hears your pleas. But you know, probably not.


I want to get back to Selma for a second. I reject the notion that Selma's snubs equals Academy racism as I just pointed out there's a broader issue at large. However, since Selma in particular in being analyzed, let's talk about Selma. Its director Ava DuVernay absolutely deserved a nomination considering how well director and surprisingly engaging the film is and considering she did such a better job than current nominees Morten Tyldum and Bennett Miller. Paul Webb deserved a nomination for writing a creative script the same way Graham Moore deserved a nomination for writing The Imitation Game. David Oyelowo absolutely does NOT deserve an Oscar nomination, and any suggestion that he does is because of the color of his skin and not because of the quality of his performance. This year's pool of Best Actor is probably the deepest its ever been and if there's one person who truly deserves to be pissed it's Jake Gyllenhaal for in amazing work in Nightcraweler. That doesn't include Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Miles Teller (Whiplash), Tom Hardy (Locke), Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year), or Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner). David Oyewolo is good in the film, but he's not Gotta-Nominate-Him-Spectacular either. 



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