What the Oscars Are Looking For
The New York times did a write-up in response to the furor about #oscarssowhite. In breaks down every black performance which has been nominated, and what has been involved; for example, black actresses tend to have depicted homeless characters, black actors tend to have depicted abusive and/or imprisoned characters, etc.
Many things are going on here. The Oscars do tend to reward ‘downtrodden’ or extreme stories – someone overcoming a disease or disorder, serial killers, drug use, someone extremely disadvantaged, etc.
They also tend to reward biopics, and many of these examples are; factually, the stories involve prison time, abuse, etc, though what to include or focus on is always a tricky issue. (*Ironically, Straight Outta Compton may have missed a nod by avoiding the angle of physical abuse. That combined with showing protest against racial and brutal police tactic probably doomed it. Go figure.)
Intersectionality will note that the Academy often nominates abused and battered women, full stop; the very first depiction of a woman being raped was in Johnny Belinda (in 1948, in defiance of the Motion Picture Production Code). The only win out of 12 nominations for the film was an Oscar for Jane Wyman, the actress who played the assaulted and raped character.
But all that certainly doesn’t account for the statistics in the NTY article, and that is the key. Preponderance of evidence.
The Academy blames the studios and the studios blame the financers and the financers blame the Academy and the Academy blames the magazines and of course they’re all correct. The problem is multifactorial and self-perpetuating.
Don Cheadle is making a biopic of Miles Davis and he had to include a headlining white actor in order to raise funding. “Race” focuses on three white characters in its telling of Jesse Owens’ story (and brushes over some inconvenient truths about how our own President snubbed him as much or more than Hitler). Movies about middle eastern areas, history, and myths star almost entirely white casts. This segment summarizes pretty neatly the whitewashing problem, and this is a little more exhaustive.
Look, it’s impossible to look at the system as a whole and not realize it has a massive problem. There’s no quick and easy solution. But, if I may be so bold as to suggest a few steps.
Make noise. We may not all be Chris Rock with a chance to call Michael B. Jordan “should have been nominated” from the Academy platform. But social media is a platform which reaches not only our immediate acquaintances (who should be inundated with the facts of this problem) but can end up a singular voice loud enough to be heard, as it was this year.
Spend wisely. Go see movies with minority directors and leads, and especially those which treat those characters well. Don’t spend any money on racist or whitewashed bullshit (Gods of Egypt is failing so hard, maybe next time they’ll hire at least one or two, I dunno, not-Scots).
Make your art diverse. If you make art, you’re telling your story. But you’re also surrounding that story with hundreds of other tales, you’re collaborating with others, you’re choosing who works behind the scenes. Make sure that canvas is not bland and one-note.