Any discredit to the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag movement needs to take a serious look over the last decade of Best Picture Nominees. I, without a single reservation, agree that there is a desperate need for diversity in the film and media industry. The blame for the lack of inclusion of minority representation gets passed around to each filmmaker, writer, producer, or person of influence who we initially feel will make a difference in our generation to showcase many forms of creative talent. The Oscars last year was filled was marked with speeches calling for equality that made viewers tear up for the attention these celebrities were using towards bringing awareness towards causes that meant something to them. As each year passes, we forget and then are again reminded come awards season that there is a serious issue underlying the entertainment industry we quickly consume.
We have a smattering of films that strike audiences and critics alike each year that showcase particular niche areas of diverse interests. Films like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, Babel and Precious showcase a range of culturally diverse characters to stand out among competing releases driven by white male chauvinists. We identify actors and actresses who convey a sense of struggle on-screen yet fail to remember that strong dramatic emotions are relevant to allowing mass audiences identify with many of the characters on-screen. Slumdog Millionaire and Precious both still reiterate stereotypes that these minorities live in the “ghetto”, are impoverished, and at the mercy of the backhand of society. Babel features many different cultures and ethnicities, yet the film circles around the effects of a white couple on a foreign tour being harmed by supposedly uneducated and rural Moroccans.
Last year’s Best Actor nominations provoked outrage when David Oyelowo did not receive recognition for his portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma along with the absent Best Director nomination for Ava DuVernay. In the years before movies featuring black actors and actresses easily fell into two categories the Academy found distinguished—films about slavery and the civil rights movement. 12 Years A Slave, Django Unchained, and The Help demonstrate black individuals overcoming the odds in the face of diversity. 12 Years A Slave visualized blatantly the horrors and tragedy that has been a shameful chapter in American history, making sure we understood the atrocities suffered to mark the influence our past has had on contemporary culture. Django Unchained allowed a violent rewrite of the stereotypical experience of slavery. The Help, though lovely it may be, only skimmed the surface of the harrowing journey faced towards gaining equal and civil rights in society. Even if these films are marketed as “triumphs of the human spirit”, audiences become passive seeing the only the films featuring a black man or woman overcoming the odds as Oscar bait instead of having any contemporary black films receive nominations.
The argument goes that there may not be any films featuring prominent black or Latino actors that deserve to be nominated for such a prestigious award. Where are these films, though? In the same way I wouldn’t expect How To Be Single to receive a Best Actress nod for Dakota Johnson, I would not endorse Kevin Hart for his role as Best Supporting Actor in Ride Along 2. Where are the films of credibility that present cinematic excellence featuring minorities in roles that challenge expectations? Carol has Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara playing lovers but in the same way we gild films about the civil rights movement outlets for black actors to shine, anything can be nominated for Best Picture, especially if the taboo subject matter is under the guise of a period piece (the same example goes for The Danish Girl). In the advanced screening of Room that I attended a few months ago, audience members were horrified that Brie Larson’s character was still breastfeeding her son at the age of five and allowing him to wear his hair long in the room where their captor’s have hidden them away from the world for the past five years. I was annoyed and completely astounded that there would be such vehement stigmas attached to a story that involved a woman giving birth to the child of her kidnapper and rapist, then having to raise this child in such horribly adverse circumstances. The focus should have been on how well she managed her strength and her resolve to hope that they would one day escape. If this is the prejudice faced by a woman held against her will in a closet, how will white American audiences react towards films that highlight black or Latino culture outside of their preconceived ideas of what kind of world minorities in film should inhabit?
One reason the #OscarsSoWhite boycott has seen such quick advancements in its demands and changes reflected in the Academy’s new voter guidelines comes from the celebrity endorsement that the lack of diversity in Hollywood has gone far enough. Jada Pinkett Smith kicked off the boycott by declaring any disappointed in the Academy’s nominations should refrain, as her family would be doing, from watching the show live on Feb. 28, 2016. Her husband Will Smith took to Good Morning America! to make a statement following Jada’s lead that the current racial bias do not reflect Hollywood at its best in a country where “diversity is the great American superpower.” Spike Lee, making it clear that he is not participating in the boycott but will not be attending as he holds no interest in the festivities themselves, says that the work, regardless of what the Academy decides is of value, still needs to be done. He claims these are the films that will stand the test of time; the films that rarely are nominated or actually win when face-to-face with more pleasing fare. Lee gave the example of Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy which came out and was nominated the same year as Do the Right Thing. Do the Right Thing, Lee correctly states, is now being taught and shown in film classes worldwide. Driving Miss Daisy has faded into the collective past as a film that may be good, but doesn’t deserve as focused viewing.
You can burst out laughing in Spotlight when Stanley Tucci and Mark Ruffalo sit in a deli claiming that they are respectively Armenian and Portuguese. You can try to rationalize that The Martian is a diverse collection of today’s finest actors who all seem desperate to save a white male botanist—costing NASA billions of dollars. What each explanation tries to convey sounds more and more like an excuse.We are giving starring roles to actors and actresses who could not be more publicized or average in their performances as we try to defend the reasons we are unable to try different casting techniques. The money we put into the film industry needs to showcase the humanity we surround ourselves with reflecting the race, gender, or sexual preference of characters as real as the people outside our door. Until we can achieve a fraction of equal representation in the media, maybe we should think twice before we put our Friday night movie money into films that blatantly discriminate.
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