January 16, 2015

Another white year at Oscars

People are talking about how the acclaimed movie Selma got only two Oscar nominations. Here are some thoughts on why it happened:

Oscar Voters: 94% White, 76% Men, and an Average of 63 Years Old

The Oscars’ white-guy backlash: Why academy voters retreated to their comfort zone

There's actually some good news in this year's nominations--but the academy has swamped it in white backlash

By Andrew O'HehirI think New York Daily News critic Elizabeth Weitzman was the Twitter winner on Thursday morning: “I, for one, am taking great comfort in the fact that all of this year’s Best Actress nominees are women.” Amid the understandable social media outrage and amazement (#OscarsSoWhite has been the hashtag of the day), we are dragged once again back to the question of whether the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has some moral or social responsibility to respond to larger cultural issues or foster diversity within its industry. It’s a question to which, white hetero cis-male that I am, I do not claim to know the answer. There are prominent voices within Hollywood and the academy, including Denzel Washington, who have argued that a virtual quota system should be instituted to bring academy membership–which is more than 90 percent white and about three-quarters male, with a median age around 63–in line with the general population. (As Washington and others have noted, Latinos are even more poorly represented within the academy than black people.)

Quite obviously, that is not the dominant current of opinion within the academy. You can certainly defend, in the abstract, the idea that movie awards should be entirely about the art and craft of cinema, not about who made the movies. And one can argue, from a film-lover’s point of view, that this year’s Oscar nominations have fewer ludicrous howlers than usual, and a few genuine surprises: Marion Cotillard’s best-actress nomination for the Belgian film “Two Days, One Night”; Wes Anderson’s first directing nomination, for “Grand Budapest Hotel”; the presence of “Ida” and “Leviathan” and “Timbuktu,” three tremendous works of world cinema, in the foreign-language category. But let’s be clear: Those things are not the big story today, and the academy’s interest in film as an art form has always been a secondary concern. The primary mission of the Oscars is to burnish the public image of the American film industry, and on that front the voters have screwed the proverbial pooch.

So here we are facing what feels way too much like the White Backlash Oscars, announced on the morning of Martin Luther King Jr.’s actual birthday. A year after awarding its biggest prize to a confrontational film about the most painful aspects of America’s racial history, Oscar voters appear to have retreated into their collective comfort zone. (This is not meant to impugn the excellence of “12 Years a Slave,” but conservative critics who accused Hollywood of being driven by liberal guilt had a point.) No doubt Ava DuVernay’s potent civil-rights drama “Selma,” the most obvious casualty of this retreat–it garnered a best-picture nomination, but DuVernay and star David Oyelowo were both spurned–was undermined in part by the controversy over its depiction of Lyndon B. Johnson. But I feel like the LBJ issue was used as a mask for issue fatigue, an unexpressed and not-quite-conscious feeling that We gave it to a “black movie” last year, dammit.

This retreat into whiteness and maleness was not an intentional decision, in any ordinary sense of that word. There is no overt racist or misogynist conspiracy within the academy, just a whole lot of cluelessness and insularity. But the effect is likely to be extremely damaging, and as I said earlier it’s also likely to overwhelm the positive nuggets to be found in the nooks and crannies of this year’s nominations. If Oscar voters want to claim that they’re all about cinematic quality and above petty considerations of cultural politics, it might help if they didn’t swoon, year after year, for mediocre inspirational pictures dosed with obvious Oscar sauce.
Hollywood’s political ignorance: What Cosby, “Selma” & Hebdo reveal about white liberal consciousness

The causes celebrities feel comfortable backing--and those they do not--speak volumes. And it's not pretty

By Brittney Cooper
I had tuned in to the Globes among other reasons, because Ava DuVernay’s film “Selma,” a historical drama about the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, was up for four awards including best song, best picture, best director and best actor in a drama. John Legend and rapper Common took home the award for their song “Glory.” Common, ever the spoken word artist, declared in his remarks, “I am the hopeful black woman who was denied her right to vote. I am the caring white supporter killed on the front lines of freedom. I am the unarmed black kid who maybe needed a hand, but was instead given a bullet. I am the two fallen police officers slain in the line of duty. … Selma has awakened my humanity. Selma is now.”

Common clearly took a lesson from the book of Kanye West when he refused to say the words that felt as if they were hanging from the tip of his tongue: “Black lives matter.” I was struck by the audacity of inclusion in Common’s remarks and reminded that this is precisely the kind of racial discourse that we don’t need. But it is the kind of racial discourse in which liberal black folks are forced to publicly engage in order that they might not seem antagonistic to white people. Even when we want to say, Black lives matter, we talk about the lives of other people of color, and about white lives, too. We include everybody, because accusations of exclusion often make white folks less willing to listen to our critiques. Of course, all lives matter. But only some lives—black lives—are consistently treated as if they don’t.

Moreover, white people are not held to the same standard of radical inclusivity. As I watched multiple white celebrities don the stage and stand in solidarity with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack and other innocent bystanders, I marveled at the privilege that they had of being specific. Even though some people of color were casualties of the attacks in Paris, by and large this was an attack on white French satirists whose bread and butter was the routine disrespect of the Muslim community. Attacks on largely white victims received a huge and committed show of solidarity, while the Black Lives Matter Movement that has consumed our news cycle for the last four months was apparently not even worthy of mention.

That this happened on the same night that “Selma,” a film that has come under much fire for its refusal to tell a white savior narrative favoring LBJ, received no awards, perhaps matters, too.

It would be impolitic to say that “Selma” received no awards because of white liberal racism. I don’t particularly believe that. But I do wonder if America is really ready for a world in which black people are entrusted to narrate their own freedom stories and freedom dreams. Can white Americans deal with not being at the center of the black freedom narrative? Why is it the expectation that our history would favor our most ardent villains? Can white people really stand knowing that in the broader black narrative of the civil rights movement, we are not especially enamored of white heroes?
The dubious upside of Selma’s Oscar snub: Hollywood can’t continue to ignore its own race issues

Ava DuVernay, Russell Simmons and Reginald Hudlin weigh in on race and Hollywood

By Erin Keane
Director Ava DuVernay says she knew back in December that she wouldn’t be the first African American woman nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for “Selma,” which is up for the Best Picture award. In a story published yesterday, Entertainment Weekly reports the director chalked it up to simple Academy math, and it turns out she might be right. The Academy is overwhelmingly white (94 percent) and male (77 percent). While we might want to think of artistic awards as strictly merit-based, race and gender may very well have worked against DuVernay—several Academy voters indicated to EW that DuVernay’s unequivocal response to criticisms of her portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as reluctant on civil rights “came off as strident and defensive.” In a majority culture that can paint outspoken African American artists with the “angry black woman” brush, and that only just awarded a woman the best director statue in 2009 (Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker”), a lack of representation allows one side to dominate the conversation and dismisses what they don’t want to hear.

The conversation would be different if an African American woman helming a Best Picture nominee wasn’t already such a rare occurrence. In a new interview with Variety, venerable hip-hop (and now film and TV with his Def Pictures) producer Russell Simmons criticized Hollywood’s “deafening” lack of racial integration: “The segregation in Hollywood is incredible.” He also blasted well-meaning Hollywood liberals who see themselves as more progressive than they are when it comes to understanding African-American culture and how that cultural blindness can stifle minority talent from rising to the tops of their fields.
Comment:  For more on casting issues, see Diverse TV Shows Get Higher Ratings and Director: Native Actors Lack "Charisma."

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