What’s Race Got To Do With It?

Uh oh, the white supremacists at the Academy Awards have reignited racism again! Take some time out from sharpening your hashtags and see why they’re not as bad as you think.

Corey Hogan

Welcome to the 2016 Oscars race – “race” being the key word here. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month or so, you’ve probably heard about the controversy surrounding the Academy Awards for a lack of diversity in their 88th nomination picks – namely on the complete exclusion of any black candidates.

Quick recap in case you’re out of the loop: the January 14th nomination announcement of an all-white slate (save Alejandro G. Iñárritu and his Mexican team behind The Revenant) was met with immediate outrage and commentary from media outlets, celebrities and Hollywood alumni (both black and white), and, of course, the internet.

#OscarsSoWhite began to trend online, and prolific writer/director Spike Lee, along with actress Jada Pinkett-Smith (backed by husband Will Smith, among other black artists) called for a boycott of the ceremony, to a widely divisive reaction. Many showed their support, while others defended the Academy; host Chris Rock faced pressure to step down, but instead rewrote a now highly anticipated opening monologue. Some luminaries expressed concern, but noted that the problem is sourced from the oversight of minorities in filmmaking itself – can the Academy really be held responsible if black actors and directors aren’t getting enough work in the first place? Does the Academy deserve the condemning its copped, and is it truly something they should concern themselves with?

Those crying out injustices over the selections have generally suggested the same black-centric 2015 films that could have easily made the grade – Concussion, Beasts of No Nation, Creed and Straight Outta Compton. But this is a mere four films of the literally hundreds released last year; one could just as easily point out any of the other great films that the Academy also failed to recognise (Love & Mercy, 99 Homes etc.).

Perhaps the reality that there was only four films worth arguing for says that the industry’s black counterparts simply didn’t produce a great deal of exemplary output, and that even those select four, while each boasting awards-worthy aspects, certainly weren’t without their faults.

Conversely, the greater issue could stem from the tendency of Hollywood to limit themselves in the roles they fill; copping regular criticism for “white-washing” in their casting departments. Without a doubt, there should have been Egyptian actors in Exodus: Gods and Kings and Gods of Egypt, for example, but what about the quality films that the Academy actually pays attention to? More often than not the Awards are dominated by novel adaptations and biographical features; surely more than a few eyebrows would be raised if a black actor was cast as Steve Jobs or Dalton Trumbo.

The fact is that there is a meagre five slots available in each category (and between five and ten for Best Picture) – it’s designed to be competitive, and only the best of the best are voted in. The Award would hardly be as prestigious if the number of nominees in each category was expanded to give everyone a fair go, and nominating someone based on the colour of their skin is missing the point of the Awards entirely. It’s about recognising the most outstanding performances and impressive efforts of the hard working people in front of and behind the camera; their race should be completely irrelevant.

Of course, the choices are always entirely subjective, and anyone can argue for the sake of a film (Best Picture winners are usually good, but they’re rarely my favourite film of their respective years) or a person excluded from the ballots (okay, Idris Elba’s devious dictator from Beasts of No Nation probably deserved the Supporting Actor nod over Tom Hardy’s mumbling madman of The Revenant). But ultimately, majority wins, and the choices are the result of what the Academy’s voters have most commonly selected; can this reasoning and process really be argued with?

Of course it can – naysayers were quick to blame the fact that voters were comprised mostly of older white men who may not have a diverse enough taste to favour a broad enough range of films. In response to the backlash, the Academy announced that it would be making drastic changes to its membership and diversifying it in areas of gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. At surface-level, this would appear to be a step in the right direction – but perhaps it would be wiser to first reflect on who makes up the Awards’ audience, not their members.

It seems that the majority of the crowd kicking up a fuss about the diversity issue do not even plan on watching the ceremony. It’s possible that they never did in the first place, given the broadcast’s consistent low ratings; which is fair enough – why watch if you are not interested in any of the nominated films? Personally, I love the Oscars. I’ve watched it religiously for years, forever doing my best to see every nominee before the big night; it’s prime time for an enormous amount of the year’s finest films, and indulging in an Oscars drinking game is always a hoot. I might not always love everything selected, and the ceremony is never without its problems, but hell, I’d take Oscar season over Christmas any day.

So if the plan is for this whiny bunch to bury their heads in the sand and pretend the Oscars don’t exist, why ruin it for the rest of us? Sadly it’s the people who the Awards do matter to who have to suffer at the hands of this controversy – namely the actual nominees. I can’t help but feel for those up for the golden statue, particularly young first timers like Brie Larson and Saoirse Ronan – imagine how you would feel working your ass off to receive your industry’s highest honour, only to have it undermined because of the colour of your skin. Is that not the textbook definition of racism? Or is it still impossible to be racist towards white folk? Perhaps most empathetic is poor Leonardo DiCaprio – the year he’s finally touted to win after two decades of faultless performances happens to be the same year the Academy’s choices are widely criticised; the guy can’t seem to catch a break.

Funnily enough, this is only the second year in a row that the Oscars have had no black people on their roster, and yet this isn’t being seen as an overreaction. It’s been only two years since we were subjected to the white guilt of 12 Years a Slave – are we only meant to feel shame in a cinema now, instead of being entertained, or watching in awe of a breathtaking performance? On the positive side, a push for diversity in Hollywood could open up an exciting new world of fresh stories and creativity over the abundance of remakes and sequels plaguing our screens at the moment. Let’s just pray that this comes about through a more effective means than complaining or boycotting; in any competition, if you complained about being excluded (without hiding behind the diversity barrier) you’d be seen as a sore loser – no one wants that, do they?

Image sourced from image.net – Getty Images (c) 2016 

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