Perhaps you heard something about this year’s Oscar nominations privileging white people. Certainly that’s the gist of articles like this and this and this and this and this. The critique of Hollywood and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as white-normative is accurate. It’s also lazy, myopic, and nearly context-free.
Why would context matter? Well, for the same reason that the better critics of the NYPD, racial profiling, and police brutality tend to include words like “Being a cop is a hard job” in their advocacy. (I’m thinking of the Times’ Charles Blow and the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, for two.) It’s the same reason that a feminist critique of, say, sexual harassment policies throughout American colleges might acknowledge that some universities are doing well. Rhetorically, if you just want to be a gadfly, well, great. But if you want to persuade people, it helps to give them some kind of pathway to agreeing with you, or what’s sometimes called an in.
Again, it’s true to say that Hollywood has a diversity problem. But yelling “neener-neener” and piling on #oscarssowhite is a very limited way of addressing that problem. It’s certainly not how Martin Luther King approached his audiences. He was careful – too careful, in the views of some radicals – to give all of his listeners an in, some manner of appealing to “the better angels of their nature.” I’m not sure that if he had lived to 2015 – he’d be 86 now – that he would love the internet’s so-called “perpetual outrage machine,” where any presented group now has to be tagged as TOO WHITE!! What’s next, a given symphony orchestra? The board at a local bank? The U.S. water polo team? Are we going to start sifting through celebrity wedding-party photos? And when we’re done with them, how about non-celebrities? How many groups of people need to be reduced to how white they are?
After the dust settled on Friday, a few saner voices came to the fore. One of them was Variety’s Tim Gray, who says “misplaced outrage” focused on AMPAS’ too-white, too-old membership, asking, “Does that automatically make them narrow-minded and out of touch?” He cites some recent winners that aren’t exactly safe choices, and I’ll add to Gray that last year, winners in top categories included (different) people of color winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, Best Editing, and Best Cinematography. Proper journalism would have said “therefore it’s all the more disheartening” or something, instead of encouraging its readers to see AMPAS as the modern equivalent of the Free Masons.
Gray asks why the controversy has focused so acutely on one film, Selma, instead of the great many other films that might have been cited. (Disclaimer: I loved Selma; I thought it was an outstanding film. And I bet – real cash money – that it would get nominated for Best Director and Best Actor and Best Screenplay.) Gray’s point was that you don’t see too many people talking about any of the other 323 films eligible for Oscar, like Get on Up or Beyond the Lights. Gray asks: if some branches of the Academy didn’t like one single film, Selma, does that say that the Academy is racist? I’ll add: there were roughly 300 rookies brought onto NFL teams for tryouts. Can we say that the NFL (obviously an organization with problems) is homophobic based on not giving a starting position to the one openly gay player, Michael Sam? Or is it possible that the hundreds of NFL decision-makers just didn’t like enough other things about him?
Another relatively sane voice belongs to David Carr at the New York Times. Carr cites the many vicissitudes of Selma’s process: Paramount was apparently late with screeners (miscalculating that it had a better chance with Interstellar) and apparently caught flat-footed by the LBJ-defenders. He writes “the snub is not some overt racial conspiracy at work.” He points out that Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the president of the academy and a black woman, and quite aware of the problem. He quotes her: “We are making great strides, and I personally wish it was moving quicker, but I think the commitment is there and we will continue to make progress.” Carr’s larger point is that yes, the relative snub matters, but after all is said and done, we will still have a great film called Selma, and that matters more than any little gold trinkets. He’s right.
Another voice of reason, Pete Hammond at Deadline, asks: when the Screen Actors Guild released just as white a list of nominees a few weeks ago, did anyone object? “Not a peep as far as I could tell.” The major guilds – SAG, the Writers Guild, the Directors Guild, the Producers Guild – had all basically ignored Selma, so there’s no small irony in the fact that AMPAS, which usually falls in line with the guilds (obviously there’s a lot of overlap in memberships), actually recognized the film Selma with a Best Picture nod but is being lambasted as though the voters utterly ignored it. Could the Oscars do better with diversity? Absolutely, Hammond says, but “Short of a crazy idea like imposing quotas, what can you do?” The Oscars aren’t Star Wars or Saturday Night Live, where if you yell on the internet loud enough, you might guilt the one responsible person, J.J. Abrams/Lorne Michaels, into hiring black people. In those cases, Abrams and Michaels maintained some control over the auditions, ultimately not being asked to hire any particular person; the internet preserved their in. In the case of Selma, the internet and the above-linked authors seemed to say: if you didn’t like this particular film, you’re probably racist.
AMPAS will always be a weird, exclusive body; you might as well try to dictate the choices of Swarthmore College. However, Hollywood needs to do better at hiring and promoting women and people of color. We need WAY more films about women and blacks and Asians and Latinos and Muslims and Native Americans and gays and disabled people so that diversity doesn’t come down to Selma or nothing.
Gray, Carr, and Hammond, and I are all white men, but that doesn’t necessarily make us wrong. And I don’t think the “TOO WHITE!!”-yelling, #oscarssowhite-tweeting critics were wrong – merely, as I said, lazy, myopic, and context-free. Their understanding of recent Oscar history suggests the attention span of a fruit fly. So we shouldn’t be surprised if the exact same journalists, a month from now, report to us that (if predictions hold) the four acting winners – Patricia Arquette, J.K. Simmons, Julianne Moore, and Michael Keaton – range in age from 46 to 63, and we should then be thrilled at one of the oldest groups of four acting winners in Oscar history. (Nor should we be surprised if they celebrate the re-inventor of the elastic shot, Emmanuel Lubeski (a.k.a. El Chivo), winning Best Cinematography two years in a row.) #oscarssowhite, by default, defines diversity in exactly one way, skin color, while intentionally minimizing other forms of diversity, for example based on age, national origin, or sexuality. Bemoaning the “all-white” slate of 20 acting nominees while ignoring the steps forward on ageism is kind of like reporting that a given company pollutes, while ignoring what the company spends on fighting pollution. It’s not wrong, it’s just not thorough journalism.
Furthermore, #oscarssowhite suggests that in terms of content, the Academy is only concerned with heroes that reify white heterosexual patriarchal ableist privilege. Of the eight films nominated for Best Picture, only American Sniper might remotely be seen this way. Selma is Selma. The Imitation Game lionizes a gay man on the autism spectrum. The Theory of Everything is about a severely disabled man and a woman who loves him…it’s as much her story as his, complicating the arguments of critics who claim that all of this year’s Best Picture nominees are male stories. The two leads in Whiplash are obsessed with creating/being the next Charlie Parker, a black man, and/or Buddy Rich, a Jew. Boyhood shines a rarely-seen light on America’s working class. The Latino-directed Birdman is about a white man, yes, but in our current superhero-tentpole-oriented climate, its impulses are ruthlessly deconstructive, asking both how we got here and what we’ll be doing after it’s over…ultimately it tears apart The Great Man Theory of History. Finally, The Grand Budapest Hotel…well, okay, fine, that was a little too white-male, its Lobby Boy notwithstanding.
One last context. Imagine a metric that judged all the Fortune 500 companies in terms of salaries and executive status for women and persons of color, benefits for gay spouses, affirmative action at all levels of hiring. How do you think Sony, Fox, Warners, Paramount, Disney, and Universal are going to do compared to the other 494 companies? Will they be in the Top 10%? The Top 2%? Little secret: they’re going to do very well. Now, does that mean the studios don’t have a diversity problem? Nooooooo. It’s just context. (If an article did a lengthy takedown of homophobia in a given Disney film, I would also expect that article to mention, at least in passing, that Disney has led the world’s companies in terms of same-sex benefits.) “All the more disappointing” is fine. “Never heard of this context” is not fine. Now get back to your paid journotainment jobs and try to do two minutes of research before your next story. The moral arc of the Academy Awards still bends toward justice a lot quicker than almost anything you could compare it to.