Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Academy Awards and #OscarsSoWhite

The Academy Awards will be broadcast on television tonight. For the past few years I’ve ignored the ceremony because, as actor George C. Scott once said, the Oscars are a “meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons” that is “barbarous and innately corrupt.” But this year’s Academy Awards ceremony begs to be commented upon, if only for the controversy that has erupted around it.

For the second year in a row all of the nominees in the Academy’s acting categories are white. This has inspired the social media hashtag #oscarssowhite and the outrage has led to many think pieces and commentaries decrying the lack of diversity at the Oscars and in Hollywood as a whole. Several high profile actors and filmmakers are boycotting the ceremony and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs (who is black) released a statement saying she was “heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion.”

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the most important thing to say about the Academy Awards—and the entire Hollywood award circuit—is this: it is stupid and meaningless. The Oscars began as nothing more than a private dinner party in which industry figures recognized each other’s work. But eighty-eight years later it’s become a grotesque spectacle of self-congratulation and the obsession over these golden statuettes has literally become idolatrous with the value of an Oscar grossly overstated by the press, by Hollywood, and by the Academy itself.

But just because the Oscars are a fashion show masquerading as art appreciation doesn’t mean we should ignore these critiques of the industry. In fact the slate of all-white Oscar nominees visualizes a very real problem plaguing Hollywood. According to a 2015 study by UCLA, eighty-three percent of lead roles are played by white actors, eighty-two percent of motion pictures are directed by white filmmakers, and eighty-eight percent of produced screenplays are credited to white writers.

Not only does this data lay bare the industry’s problems with diversity, it also exposes the shortsightedness of the #oscarssowhite meme. The lack of diverse nominees is not a cause but a symptom. Filmmakers, like all storytellers, spin yarns about characters who are just like them. It’s a completely natural thing to do. Storytellers always begin from their own point of reference. And wading into someone else’s cultural experience is fraught with pitfalls that can result in embarrassing or even offensive results.

If we want to see greater diversity among Academy Award nominees then there has to be greater diversity among the people in front of the camera. And if we want greater diversity of people in front of the camera then there has to be greater diversity among the people behind the camera. That primarily means writers, directors, and producers but in the case of Hollywood studios it also means executives who green light these movies.

If you think Hollywood will be shamed into changing its ways because of your pithy Tweets and outraged Facebook posts, please remember that this is the industry that keeps employing Adam Sandler. Shame and show business are frequently mutually exclusive. However, Hollywood will change when it is compelled to. Like any other industry, it will follow the incentives of the marketplace. The 2015 box office gives some reason to hope with the success of Straight Outta Compton, Furious 7, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Creed.

If, as a viewer, you are concerned about the lack of diversity in American movies there is a very simple thing you can do. When a movie features a diverse cast, go see it. Box office has always been the greatest incentive for Hollywood to make more of something. I don’t mean to suggest that you should deliberately see a bad film because it has a cast of color. We don’t need any more terrible movies starring black comedians in drag. But Hollywood’s exclusion of minority actors isn’t a white supremacist plot. It’s a result of a business model that sticks with familiar formulas and an industry-wide set of assumptions about who goes to the movies and what they want to see.

In many parts of the country motion pictures featuring diverse casts may not get to the local theater. Don’t get mad at the management. If the theater is part of a national or multistate chain the manager probably has little say in what plays there. But let the theater staff know that you’d like to see a greater diversity of films and follow up with letters to the corporate office.

But given how few people of color—and for that matter how few women—are working as writers and directors, the industry and the culture will have to make a concerted effort to recruit talent from excluded communities into the filmmaking process. Some have suggested hauling studio executives before the United States Congress to make them atone. That’s not especially constructive (and more than a little hypocritical) and the Academy’s pledge to shake up its membership does not address the root of this problem.

I would instead suggest the creation of outreach programs to cultivate interest and talent in moviemaking. This is something the Academy could sponsor in conjunction with high schools, libraries, and community organizations. Start with putting cameras and moviemaking equipment in the hands of young people in diverse communities. As it is, mobile phone technology has advanced to the point that most people have a camera in their pocket. Then teach these young people how to edit their footage and how to use sound. Pretty soon they’ll be making short films that could play at school and community film festivals.

In conjunction with community outreach, offer paths and financial support for minority students to attend post-secondary film production programs. And not just USC and NYU but state schools and community colleges which may be better suited to train students in the practical industrial skills that will land them their first job as a production assistant. That will bring people from diverse backgrounds into the factory floor of the movie industry and from there they can gain the experience and the skills to make their own films whether it’s within the Hollywood system or the independent scene.

And there’s no reason to wait for Hollywood to get its act together. The major studios have always been well behind the rest of the culture. But the whole nature of the movie industry is changing and the traditional production and distribution models –which have contributed to the marginalization of women and people of color—is becoming obsolete. With filmmaking tools becoming democratized and new distribution models making content more accessible than ever, filmmakers can bypass the studio system altogether and still reach an audience. Their films may not achieve summer tentpole box office but most Best Picture nominees don’t make that kind of money either.

Here is the rub: this is a long term project. It will take a generation, at least, before any change really becomes apparent in Hollywood. And even if there is a concerted effort to recruit aspiring filmmakers of diverse backgrounds into the industry there is no guarantee they will ascend in the corporate studio system. Maybe Hollywood is too structurally racist for that. But if we create a whole movement of grassroots independent filmmakers who have the tools and the knowledge to create powerful, relevant, and innovative work that tells the stories of otherwise marginalized people, that’s worth more than its weight in Oscar gold.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Black History Month on Sounds of Cinema

The Sounds of Cinema episode airing on February 28th will recognize Black History Month with a look at movies that dramatize aspects of African American history or feature notable performances by black actors.

The program will also feature a commentary on the #oscarssowhite controversy.

Sounds of Cinema can be heard every Sunday morning at 9am CST on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, Minnesota and at 11am CST on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, Minnesota.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Flashback Post: That Time I Wrote About Diversity and the Oscars

Back in 2006 I was a contributor to Static, a monthly arts and culture magazine published in Mankato, Minnesota. In the February 2006 issue I wrote the following column in response to the Oscar nominations. At that time Brokeback Mountain was nominated for several awards and was regarded as a breakthrough for diversity in Hollywood. The backlash against the 2016 Academy Award nominations and Halle Berry's recent comments on her 2002 Oscar win made me want to revisit and re-share the column I wrote a decade ago.

The original column is reprinted below as it appeared in 2006:

Comin' Round the Mountain 
Static magazine, February 2006

On January 16th, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association awarded Brokeback Mountain a number of Golden Globes, including Best Picture (Drama), Best Director, and Best Screenplay. In the week following the show, Brokeback’s box office surged past other films in much wider releases. With the combination of critical recognition and financial success, Brokeback’s place among nominees—and winners—at the 2006 Academy Awards is all but assured. While Brokeback Mountain deserves everything that it has coming to it, the amount of critical praise for this film feels like overcompensation on Hollywood’s part.

It is no secret that the award season is largely about politics. Consider the Best Picture awards of the past few years. 2005 Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby, a film that paled in quality to many other nominees, was awarded to Clint Eastwood after his 2004 nominee, the superior Mystic River, was passed over for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The award for The Return of the King, the satisfying but somewhat clunky finale to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, appeared as compensation for the previous two installments, especially The Two Towers, and Peter Jackson’s accomplishment with the series as a whole. None of the best picture nominees of the last three years were terrible films and one should resist the conspiracy theorist’s temptation to account for this with insidious plans made by powerful figures sitting around a boardroom table. But nonetheless, these patterns exist.

In 2002 the Academy gave three awards to African Americans: Denzel Washington received a Best Actor statuette for Training Day, Halle Berry was awarded Best Actress for Monster’s Ball, and Sidney Poitier was given an honorary Oscar “For his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style and intelligence.” Halle Berry’s acceptance speech revealed something about the underlying agenda of the award. A teary-eyed Berry proclaimed that she accepted the Oscar “for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.” The awards were not merely for these actor’s performances; they were public displays of self-conscious diversity appreciation. To put it another way, the 2002 ceremony was a way for the Academy to say, “See, we don’t have a problem with black people. We’re giving them awards!” 

The real measure of whether Hollywood’s door of has been opened to minorities is in the product.  And in the years since Berry, Washington, and Poitier were given awards little has changed in the industry. African Americans continue to be underrepresented in Hollywood films and their roles continue to be split between a few wise mentor figures (Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne) and a lot of gangsta rapping idiots (almost any film featuring a black musician). While occasionally a film may contradict this element or play with the stereotypes, such as 2005’s Hustle and Flow, it is never enough to turn the tide.

Now, in 2006, Hollywood is patting itself on the back again by recognizing Brokeback Mountain, showering it with praise and awards. For the most part the praise of this film is deserved, although I do believe that other films released in 2005 (namely Munich, Crash, and Capote) were better. And, to be fair, Brokeback Mountain does represent some level of progress. The film does not rely on the flaming, Bird Cage-like stereotypes and, aside from the fate of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, the film rises above most conventions associated with gay love stories. The cinematography is gorgeous and the performances are solid. This is a well-made film and its positive reception by critics and audiences is encouraging.

However, the enthusiasm for Brokeback Mountain is eerily reminiscent of the Academy’s 2002’s handout to African Americans. Despite its characterization as a liberal hotbed, Hollywood, or at least its product, does have issues with homosexuality. The past twenty-five years have seen dramatic shifts in the public regard for the gay community but it remains an estranged other. Many films and other mass media stories featuring homosexual characters still rely on stereotyped characterizations; consider The Bird Cage, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, In and Out, and Will and Grace. These are not the negative, predatory characterizations of homosexuals that dominated the culture in the past; instead they are comic fools. And while Hollywood’s regard for the subject is keeping in step with American culture, to see Brokeback Mountain as representing a major turn in Hollywood’s relationship with the homosexual community is premature. Without a significant change in their output, whatever recognition the Academy might bestow on Brokeback Mountain may ultimately come off as an act of unwarranted and undeserved self-congratulation. But then again, that’s what the award circuit is all about.