Saturday, January 16, 2016

Ok, Fine, Let's Talk about the Oscars

So if you're like me, you probably saw the list of Oscar Nominees the day it came out and noticed that the people and movies nominated are dominated by white people, in front of and behind the camera. This has a lot of people (understandably) pissed off -- take a look at the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite -- and a lot of other people arguing that the Oscars are fine just the way they are. Personally, I think the truth is nuanced and complicated, and everyone is waiting for me to write a blog post on a website that nobody reads to understand this situation.

First off, any discussion of race and ethnicity in the Oscars needs to start with a discussion of how important the Oscars actually. If you're a movie nerd like me, a thirty-year-old that quotes The Last Dragon at least once a week and had to stop himself from buying a Toothless doll, the suggestion that the Oscars are not super important is met with a pretty solid, "SHO'NUFF".


The Oscars have a tendency -- and I don't think I'm suggesting anything too off the rails here -- to nominate and celebrate a certain type of film, and if you're not one of those types, you're not likely to get nominated. You know what I mean, the melodramatic music, predictable plot, weeping and/or weight losing/gaining types of movies like Theory of Everything or the did-something-kinda-different-but-not-really type of movies like Boyhood. If you find yourself walking around a Blockbuster in 1995 and see an "Oscar Winner" on the VHS box on the shelf, you know that you're looking at the best of a certain type of movie, but still just falls under a small category of films.

On the other hand a lot of people don't have this level of knowledge when it comes to film. "What's out, what's popular, what won an Oscar" is a general guide to how people choose to see their movies. For me, and I'm sure a lot of other people, saying that something is an Oscar winner is usually more of a disincentive for me to see it. Saying that something won the Jury Prize at Sundance or played Fantastic Fest, now there's something that grabs my eye.

But again, the Oscars are still the biggest movie awards in the country, and with that comes a lot of clout with your average Joe movie-goer, who still doesn't know that Bruce Leroy catches bullets with teeth. Catches bullets with his teeth.

Ok, so the Oscars are at least semi-important to the average American, but are they racist?

Short answer: Not intentionally. I don't think there's some backdoor conspiracy to keep PoC out of the Oscars or something. The problem is that the Oscar winners get decided by what is basically a group of old, white, straight men. Take your Grandpa, multiply him by about 6,000 and ask them to go see a bunch of movies. Of course they're going to vote for Bridge of Spies.

But the thing is, this is a reason, not an excuse. If the Oscar committee is dominated by staid conservatives, then we need to start getting a little bit more diversity of tastes and backgrounds into the mix. The system for how one enters into this committee needs to change, and that's where the real problem is.

This is almost all a moot point though. There are two reasons for this. I haven't seen all the movies on the list of nominees for best picture, but I have seen Mad Max and Creed, and I'm sorry, but Creed is just not as good as Mad Max.

Take that statement for what you will. "Oh, look at this white guy who likes a movie with white people in it more than the movie starring a black guy." Sure, if you want to think that, go ahead, but Mad Max was perfection, and Creed had a clunky romantic subplot and rehashed main plot.

Don't get me wrong, I loved Creed. I loved it. But I don't think we need to go nominating movies just because they have black stars or black directors attached to them. Number one, because I don't think diversity equals quality, nor should a movie with a diverse cast or crew be exempt from criticism. And number two, because despite all the problems that exist with the Oscars, they are meant to be a celebration of film. A nomination based on the ethnicity of those making it is asking for studios to create a different kind of Oscar bait, one that promotes diversity over quality. If you take The Martian and replace Matt Damon with an equally good and darker skinned actor, do you have a better movie? Yes, but only because all the jokes about his character hating disco music would be funnier, but not by much.

But again, reasons, not excuses. The biggest problem from all of this is that there aren't enough PoC in front of and behind the camera. This is also a nuanced issue, and I lack the intellectual whatchamacallit to handle it properly, but what is most certainly a factor is the studios not offering enough roles as cast and crew to PoC, and not giving these films the same marketing they deserve. I can't prove this, but I would guess that the studio behind Creed didn't realize they had a potential Oscar-nominee on their hands, and missed the schmoozing required to ensure this film was a real contender. (HA!) Another good example would be the amount of marketing that Chi-Raq received. It has pretty good reviews and an all-star cast, but I think I saw a total of three ads for it.

The second reason that all of this is almost a moot point is -- in the words of Shakespeare -- dolla dolla bills ya'll. Oscar wins are one thing, but piles of money are another, and between the two, I think studios opt more for what sells than what wins awards. This means that, again, the Oscars are not really that important, when films like Room make $5 million, and Star Wars (starring one black actor, one female actor, and one Latino actor) make over $800 million and still counting. But more importantly, this means that we, as audiences, carry more influence than the Oscar committee.

If you're pissed off that certain films didn't receive the nomination they deserve (and, you should be, because even those nominations carry a certain degree of influence with the average American movie-goer) you can respond to this frustration with your wallets. Creed is still out in theaters, so go give that some of your money. The Danish Girl is a film about a transgender woman, so let Hollywood know that doesn't scare you by throwing money at it. If you want to support Beasts of No Nation you can...give Idris Elba a twenty, I guess? Straight Outta Compton, Concussion, Ip Man 3, The Assassin, Chi-Raq, Southpaw and Crimson Peak are all on Google Play, just waiting for your support.

In short, yes, the Oscars do matter, somewhat, but we need to stop thinking that we do. We also need to support PoC cast and crew with our monies. I can't guarantee that you'll love everything that I listed in the paragraph above, but, honestly, you're not going to love every movie by a white director with a white actor in it either, so you might as well give these a shot. If you want to see a more diverse Oscars next year, start voting with your dollars now. Sho'nuff.