The Oscars, #OscarsSoWhite and the Academy’s Real Problem
Growing up, the world seemed to stop for the Oscars. My mother avidly watched, eyeing the dresses and glamour yet complaining when the speeches ran long. The Academy Awards can be just as big of a business as the movie industry itself, with on average $10 million spent on each best picture campaign coming from a major studio. It creates jobs and fuels our local economy. For Los Angeles, the Oscars are important.
I’m going to offer my full disclosure before I go forward: My life has crossed paths so many times with the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences that I might as well have my own little gold statue. My father helped build technical systems in the Kodak (now Dolby) Theater, home of the Oscars, and worked extensively with the Academy over the years. I have gone to special Academy events with him in the past. A friend of mine worked on the Oscars telecast several years back for ABC. And this year, I worked on campaigns for quite a few films, both independent and studio-based, many of which are currently nominated for Oscars and SAG awards (due to respect, even though I did not sign an nondisclosure agreement, I will not reveal those movies here).
Even before this year, though, my Oscars’ love was extensive. I used to be able to predict the winners so well that I would win almost every Oscar pool I was active in. It was a personal fixation every year, desperately reading the trades and newspapers from December to March before the ceremony switched to February. It was all about looking at the odds, seeing the critics awards and figuring out which films would come out on top. And then there were the movies afterwards — I loved going to see them all. It made me excited to see different pieces of art, whether or not I agreed that they should have won in their respective categories that year.
So it’s with this that I come to the Oscars debate: It is a tale of childhood love and following with dreams and desires of affiliating with the big dance. It’s with love and respect for the Academy and the pure pleasure that comes with watching amazing films. I have loved working the campaigns this year. It was thrilling running around like a madwoman under tight deadlines, working long hours and keeping track of every little detail. It gave me the most amazing sense of career satisfaction that I have ever had.
And yet, even when I was working on the campaigns, I saw the problems. And not just with racism. The problem is much bigger than that.
It started when I worked on a campaign for a best actress contender. Going through the different campaigns from various studios and productions houses, my odds-calculating mind saw a pattern, because I was working on campaigns that also included best actor contenders. I will illustrate the problem with the current best actor nominees:
- Matt Damon, The Martian: An astronaut trapped in space trying to make his way home.
- Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant: An explorer who gets mauled by a bear, left for dead, and travels to seek revenge.
- Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs: The name basically says it all. No elaboration required.
Compare these with the women nominated for best actress:
- Cate Blanchett, Carol: A ’50s housewife hiding a lesbian affair.
- Brie Larson, Room: A rape victim/mom trying to escape her captor with her son.
- Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years: A wife questioning her long marriage.
Apparently, we as women don’t get to be recognized for being in space, pioneers, or for doing anything other than being wives and/or mothers. That is, unless we’re big stars (see: Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady or even Jennifer Lawrence in this year’s Joy).
And from there, my questioning stemmed out to include other issues. Yes, last year was #OscarsSoWhite, but as I was monitoring the critics’ awards this year, it had to be different. Creed not only made over $100 million but was also a warmly received film that just so happened to have black actors. Will Smith in Concussion should have pulled in a nomination, particularly because he wasn’t actually playing himself in a role for a change. Straight Outta Compton was receiving plenty of end-of-year recognition. And Beasts of No Nation was difficult to watch yet spectacularly filmed, not to mention had a truly extraordinary performance by Idris Elba.
Yet Oscar morning came, and all of them were shut out except for an award here and there, including for Sylvester Stallone, a white actor for Creed. And then I thought back to all the different black actors who were recognized with Oscars by the Academy in recent years: Monique’s poor, drug-addicted mother. Lupita Nyong’o and her plantation slave. Octavia Spencer’s servant. Victims. Helpless. Subservient. Stereotypes. That’s not the limit to African-American stories, or to even to women’s stories. There are millions of them out there, waiting be told.
And you know what? The most interesting part is that, if you really look at the situation, this isn’t the Academy’s fault. In fact, I really do believe they’re doing their best to try to diversify and keep up with the times. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who leads the Academy, and her response to #OscarsSoWhite proves that she’s not exactly happy with it.
Instead, I blame the voters: The 94 percent white, 76 percent male voters that make up the Academy voters block, the majority of which are actors, according to a 2013 study from the Los Angeles Times. Not to mention their average age of around 63. So basically, old white men are trying to judge new, diverse, globally based art. And I’m terribly sorry, but one Latino director isn’t going to solve your problems here.
A recent article from Entertainment Weekly about Straight Outta Compton demonstrates this discrepancy best. It should have been a lock for best picture given its blockbuster status (made over $161 million at the box office, a miracle for an August release) and its critical acclaim (88 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). Yet the reason that it didn’t make it to the big dance was exceedingly simple: The voters didn’t watch it. It was “too young” for them. And given its heavy subject matter, I wouldn’t be surprised if they also didn’t watch Beasts of No Nation. Others can complain that they can’t nominate someone just because they’re black; however, if you opt out of watching those films entirely, you have no excuse.
The problem is the voters of the Academy are out of touch with who Hollywood is now and who their watchers are. Beyond Creed and Straight Out of Compton‘s success, some of the top blockbusters of last year were female focused, from the diversely-cast new Star Wars and the last Hunger Games film to even Oscar nominated Mad Max: Fury Road (my Oscar-oriented mind is still trying to figure out that one, despite the love I have for the film). Yet except for the latter, Oscar recognition is almost nowhere to be found except in technical and less-ballyhooed categories.
For some odd reason, the Academy is holding on to some fantasy of the past in its nominations and glory. This long-lost Hollywood dream even includes Steven Spielberg and his latest film in the nominations. Spielberg, who was once too popcorn-based of a filmmaker to garner wins for his genius work in the 1970s and ‘80s while the Academy was too busy recognizing “legendary” films such as Out of Africa, Terms of Endearment and Driving Miss Daisy. There is a reason that I used to joke that the Oscars might as well be the, “Oops, we f&*ked up” awards. How else do you explain Leonardo DiCaprio not winning an Oscar up until this point?
Yet there’s a bigger problem beyond the Academy’s voters, and it’s a general Hollywood issue. We need to see more diversity both in front and behind the camera. More female directors, black screenwriters, Asian cinematographers and Latino P.A.s, not to mention actors of all shapes, sizes and colors. The Academy rules state that anyone who is nominated for an Oscar immediately qualifies for membership, so therefore it would make sense to put forward diversity in the beginning stages of filming by putting it in your cast and crew. Allow them to break in early, and they will be creating the films of the future and defining Hollywood for years to come. Then the Academy will catch up.
The Oscars, and in turn Hollywood and us as filmgoers, deserve better than this. Idris Elba recently addressed the BBC regarding its issues with television diversity. He stated that that the problem is partially in the beginnings of projects, where casting has been reduced to stereotypes where it’s not a white male and where the imagination has been limited. It’s a statement echoed by Viola Davis, and I agree. It’s the stories we tell that make all the difference, and I’m hopeful to see a change where we see a diverse audience at the Oscars instead of what we have for this year.
If we start addressing the problems when they start as seeds, the trees that grow out of them will be more beautiful than anything we can imagine. And we won’t need hashtags to address all these issues in the years to come.