I look forward to awards season with an unfailing enthusiasm. During these bleak midwinter months, Hollywood really dazzles in its bestowal of awards unto itself. I seriously cannot get enough of it.
Yet there is a little weakening of spirit as we face that grand finale, ABC’s live Oscar telecast this Sunday at 8 pm ET. First of all, in following all other major industry honors, yet-to-be-determined Academy Award winners are far more predictive than speculative.
“Oscars: No Surprises Here” could very well be a fitting slogan if the last few years provide any indication. (Though one could argue this year’s Best Picture race is no sure bet).
While lack of surprise is an issue, lack of diversity is a far more contested, deep-seated problem. The lily-white slate of Oscar nominees has put into question how both the Academy and the movie-going audience determine merits of honor.
In a year of relentless racial conflict, the lack of recognition for people of color has left a bad taste in the mouths of many. The most controversial snub goes to Ava DuVernay, the director of Best Picture contender Selma, who was projected to be the first African American female Best Director nominee.
For what it’s worth, DuVernay is not the first director to be denied the honor of a nomination while her film competes for top prize. Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster American Sniper is nominated this year though Eastwood is not. In 2012, Argo won Best Picture while actor director Ben Affleck failed to receive a nomination -- marking the fourth time in Academy Award history where the director of a Best Picture winner was snubbed in this manner.
It is unfortunate that as an African American woman in a profession dominated by white males DuVernay will not receive the recognition many thought she should and/or would. Actor David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, also missed out on an assumed nomination in the Best Actor category.
If Selma’s Best Picture nomination attests to the merits of its director and lead actor, then yes, DuVernay and Oyelowo were indeed worthy of nominations. That does not mean, however, that either one is deserving by virtue of their race alone. The root of the issue is that the pool of eligible nominees is not diverse. I imagine that DuVernay and Oyelowo would want recognition based on the quality of their work, not a box check towards a racially diverse list of nominees.
The takeaway from this debate should not be that the Academy is racist (make of that what you will) but that the state of entertainment remains all too white. Over a decade ago the industry seemed to be moving in the right direction. In 2002, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington both were honored with Oscars in the lead acting categories. (Monster's Ball and Training Day, the films for which Berry and Washington respectively won, featured diverse casts and themes.)
But our most recent movie history suggests otherwise. The last three African American winners in the Best Supporting Actress category won for films with heavily African American casts, invariably themed around the contemptible history of race relations in America. Mo'Nique won for Precious in 2009, Octavia Spencer for The Help in 2011 and Lupita Nyong'o last year for 12 Years a Slave.
Are the only Oscar-worthy roles for African Americans those that are inherently imbedded in racial subjugation? Did Hattie McDaniel unknowingly set the standard when she became the first African American to win an Oscar -- for her role as a slave in Gone With the Wind?
This is not to say that these stories should not be told (they absolutely should), but that diversity refers to content, race, gender and ideas. We ought to celebrate that. One or two token films a year is not sufficient.
As DuVerney said in an interview with Democracy Now!: “Why was Selma the only film that was even in the running with people of color for the award? ... I mean, why are there not -- not just black, brown people? Asian people, indigenous people, representations that are more than just one voice, just one face, just one gaze?”
Awards and honors are by nature polarizing. The sad fact is not everyone can come away on Sunday night an Oscar winner. We should take it upon ourselves to encourage diversity in the film industry at the entry level so some years from now winners and losers will be naturally reflective of the diverse society we live in. That’s one surprise I believe possible.
Charlotte Lipman is Member Services Coordinator for MyersBizNet. She works to provide MyersBizNet member companies with the resources to achieve their business goals. Charlotte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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