With #oscarssowhite having become all the rage this past award season, I decided to investigate what all the hubbub was about. I saw every movie nominated in each main category before the Oscars, as I do every year. This year I wanted to find out for myself if what was being said was true or if people of color were just being “sensitive” – as many believe is oftentimes the case any time the R word (Racism) is used, suggested, skimmed around, hinted at or implied. Or, are the Oscars really so white? Now, I know “Hollywood” is “white.” We all know that. Let’s not pretend. It is and has always been white, originating at a time when non-white people had zero civil rights in this country – so of course people of color were rarely represented in the early works of Hollywood – unless it was absolutely necessary – and then only when necessary, and then only in bit parts for the most part. But just because it always has been “white” doesn’t mean it has to remain that way. Here is the short version of what I learned and my opinion.
For purposes of this article I am focusing on the films nominated in the major categories. Those categories include, according to me:
Best Actor in a Leading Role
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Best Actress in a Leading Role
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
I also saw all films nominated for Best Director, Best Cinematography, Costume, Original Score and Screenplay and Adapted Screenplay. There weren’t many more films nominated outside of the below 15, but for the purposes of this article we will discuss the above five categories most specifically.
- The Revenant
- The Martian
- Steve Jobs
- The Danish Girl
- Bridge of Spies
- The Big Short
- 45 Years
- Mad Max, Fury Road
- The Hateful Eight
Of those nominated in the Best Picture category, there were two diversely casted films– The Martian and The Revenant (to be discussed later). The Martian offered a modern representation of what “the working world” really looks like; at least what it looks like here in New York. (I cannot speak on what that picture looks like in other parts of the country.) Due to its modern-day setting this diversity is possible and plausible. With a cast of characters which included Black, Hispanic, Caucasian, Asian and Women in non-traditional roles (astronauts, engineers, advisors, etc.). This film’s choice of supporting actors was outstanding. Not only were they non-white, and some non-male, they were all talented in their craft.
I do believe, however, that Chiwetel Ejiofor should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor instead of Jeff Daniels. While Jeff is the veteran, Chiwetel’s role was the more substantial and the more important of the two, which afforded him the opportunity to do more acting and stretch his “chops” more than Daniels in this film.
This brings me to this point – Along with being so white, the Academy needs to quit with the loyalty to veterans, stop giving out life time achievement nominations for long suffering non-Academy Award winners, and give credit where it is due based on the work in front of them today from the performance being considered. No disrespect to Mr. Daniels, who did a fine job in his role, as always, but just as Chris Rock mentioned a “fraternity,” the Academy proves that is exactly what Hollywood recognition is like. If you’re in the club, you’re golden. If not, too bad for you. How else could one explain Sylvester Stallone getting a Best Supporting Actor nomination? Now I love a good Rocky movie as much as the next person, but the performance was less than stellar. We’ve seen better Rocky movies that offered more tension and excitement, and we’ve seen Stallone do better work. It is on this basis also that I did not believe Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan were necessarily “snubbed.” The movie didn’t really move me like other Rocky movies have and Jordan’s role came off, for lack of a better word, dry, in my opinion. I was much more upset that Jordan and the entire movie were overlooked for nominations for 2013’s Fruitvale Station. I understand everyone was gushing over 12 Years a Slave and a slew of other strong contenders that year. 12 Years A Slave and the other movies nominated deserved every accolade, but Fruitvale Station was a strong, well made, small budget movie that deserved some recognition, in my opinion.
Another place the Academy made a faux pas was with the way the categories were set up for The Danish Girl. Although she deservedly won for Best Supporting Actress, Alicia Vikander should not have been in that category. Eddie Redmayne was nominated for Best Actor. The roles they played were integral to one another. It was not only the story of Lily Elbe. Also and rather equally, it was the story of Gerda Wegener. Either of them could be considered the title character, “The Danish Girl,” depending on one’s perspective and perception. The role Vikander played was far too fleshed out to be considered a supporting role. She was a fully developed and explored character; nearly as deeply as her co-star, Redmayne. The only saving grace to this oversight is that it cleared the way for Brie Larson to win the Best Actress in a Leading Role award for her turn in Room, which was greatly deserved.
And speaking of Room, why, oh why, was Jacob Tremblay not nominated as a Best Supporting Actor? The young man did a great job playing a child who was raised in captivity for the first five years of his life. This cannot be an easy feat for a child in today’s technological connected world to pull off. He did an impressive job; as impressive as any child actor and/or actress who has been nominated in past years.
One movie that was woefully missed on this list and in all categories was Suffragette. I thought the movie was well done – a solid story with solid acting, directing, cinematography and costume design. This movie depicted the lives of a group of women during the early feminist movement in Great Britain in the late-19th and early-20th century fighting for the right to vote. Carey Mulligan gave a strong and credible leading performance. The story was interesting, as it not only covered the suffragist movement, but the total lack of women’s rights throughout history; some of which continue to be of issue to this day – from inequality in pay, spousal control and abuse, sexual harassment in the workplace, being seen as big mouths, bitches and/or trouble makers for standing up for ourselves and being bullied into silence by more powerful figures around them (men in general, police, government). The Academy missed the mark on this one, as this film should surely have been considered for some sort of nomination, as it provided an abundance of good work to choose from.
I cannot discuss #oscarssowhite without bringing up The Butler (2013) (0 nominations) and Selma (2014) (nominated for Best Picture; won for original song). Each caused a stir when they were thought to be overlooked in one way or another by the Academy during their respective nomination years – although that stir produced no hashtag. At the time, I thought the treatment of these two films was fair due to the fact that the cast of each was too crammed with stars and roles to adequately meet the criteria for a Best Actor/Actress or Best Supporting Actor/Actress nomination there. There were so many, many supporting roles, it made it difficult for any one performance to stand out as exceptional. Why no one at the Academy or a representative thereof could not simply have stated this as a reason for the omission of these film’s actors not being nominated at the time is beyond me. Perhaps they were afraid the truth would offend people further and hoped things would just die down. By not addressing it, they set themselves up for the #oscarssowhite campaign. Maybe next time get ahead of things and speak honestly. People understand truth.
On the same token, how I felt about those movies is how I feel about Christian Bale (or any other actor therein) being nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for The Big Short. Taking nothing away from Bale’s performance, the movie was just too chock full of characters, making it difficult to single anyone out for being outstanding in their role. He may have had more lines because he’s Christian Bale. I’m not certain. I did not count – but not so many more that he stood out from any other actor in the film. Perhaps he was nominated because he portrayed a character with Asperger’s? I don’t know. I do know that if my theory about crowded casts applies to one movie, it should apply to all.
Similarly, (referring back to the “fraternity,” and lifetime achievement awards), Leonardo DiCaprio’s nearly silent performance in The Revenant (the only other Best Picture nominee that made any attempt at diversity, and actually did a fine job of it, at that) was not the stuff best acting nominations are usually made of. Did he win the award because he was quiet during the majority of the film and a quarter or so (again, I did not count) of the lines he did speak were in the Arikara Indigenous language? I saw grunting, snotting, spitting, dragging, eating disgusting things, limping, but no real substantive acting going on. Not the acting that was raved about by the media. I thought his portrayal and the movie were highly overrated. It was an interesting film, but not a movie I would ever want to watch again. Once was enough. I thought there were better performances given among the choices, including Bryan Cranston (I was rooting for you Walter White!) in Trumbo and Matt Damon in the Martian.
Having said all of this, if I could speak to the Academy, what would I say?:
1) There is a lifetime achievement award given to one actor or actress annually for his and/or her body of work. Nominations are not meant for lifetime achievement. They are meant for single performance pieces in a film that was released in the prior year.
2) There are women and children and people of color who are deserving of nominations. It’s okay to nominate based on merit.
3) #oscarssowhite is speaking to you for a reason. You can’t help what films are presented to you, but you can help effect changes on the films that are nominated. Stop looking only at the films that are sent to your house or office for review and phoning it in. Go out into the world and explore those other films in all genres that tell stories of people of ethnicities, gender and sexual orientation, other than your own, whatever that ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation may be. See the films that do not get press recognition and find out what is going on in the world of movie production – including movies with small budgets – you just might be surprised. (Such as Dope (2015)).
So, to answer the initial question – Yes. Oscar, you are white! But worse than being white, you’re vanilla. You are boring. You are chauvinist. You are predictable. You are stuck in the past. You are in a rut.
Thankfully, quality work is its own reward, and no one needs to be awarded to enjoy and continue to perfect their craft. Lives don’t hang in the balance because someone was overlooked or won an award, and awards, or the lack thereof, do not make or break fine actors. But the public has spoken and people want to see more diversity in stories.
I won’t beat the Academy up too badly. It does not control who gets what roles in Hollywood. Those who write and cast roles have to open their minds and see past a character’s color when possible – in order to effect change. It is understandable that there were no black people in Carol, as it was set in the 50’s and was about two white women. There’s nothing to be done about that and there is nothing wrong with it either. No one is asking that artistic vision be compromised to include people of color “just because.” Although, it would have been spicy if one of the lovers in Carol would have been a black woman . . . Just kidding. Then it becomes an entirely different story; probably a much more interesting one as well. I understand that depending on the script, and when and where it takes place, diversity and inclusion is not always possible – nor should it be mandatory because damnit, white people have stories to tell too! As does every ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. No one is asking Hollywood to respond to the pressure of #oscarssowhite by randomly sticking people of color in films to pacify the masses. Please make sure that the talent is there and the role makes sense.
Evolve to a place where those who are capable and have put in the work have an opportunity to participate and the opportunity to shine. And when they produce good work, acknowledge it please. It comes down to equality and fairness. I could very well be wrong and can speak for no one but myself, but I believe that’s what is really being asked by #oscarssowhite.
Image courtesy of http://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/feb/25/oscarssowhite-right-and-wrong-academy-awards-audience#img-3