A seemingly prophetic tweet from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Twitter account prior to this morning’s Oscar nominations announcement.
Early this morning, the 2015 Oscar nominations came out, revealing that Hollywood is still very much a monochromatic playground. Nods for Best Actor? All white. Best Actress? All white. Supporting Actress and Actor? White white white white white. Two exceptions in the major categories: a Best Picture nod for the Martin Luther King, Jr. drama, “Selma,” and a Best Director nomination for Alejandro G. Iñárritu for “Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).”
And the outrage came, almost on cue. The Internet was flooded with not undeserved opprobrium over the race factor in this year’s Academy Awards race, much of it in 142 characters or less. Even the Academy seemed to know it was coming.
But this conversation is starting to sound redundant. It’s starting to sound like an obligatory annual reaction at the shocking (not shocking) news that a lot of white men run a lot of things and that this is a surprise to anyone. This is like going outside and pointing to a tree you don’t like and saying, “I see a tree, and I hate that tree!” Well, so what? The tree – its roots, branches, leaves – is going to be there whether you hate it or not.
The Academy may have an African-American female president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs appointed in 2013 – probably more widely known today as the “Dick Poop lady” – but it’s still a largely homogeneous organization at last count. Again, this isn’t news to anyone, or at least it shouldn’t be.
To accuse the Academy of being purposely racist and snubbing diversity is too simple. It’s too easy and whittles down the larger, structural issue about who gets to tell what stories in Hollywood and why into a collective, angry mantra.
Chris Rock addresses this structural problem with such elegance and pithiness in his essay for The Hollywood Reporter that I will only try to sum it up here: basically, minorities deserve to tell their stories but probably have to find other ways outside of the big studio system to do so. And when it comes to the color that Hollywood really cares about, it’s the color green.
One of the most maddening things about awards season is that if you strip away the marketing, the campaigning, the political side of who gets nominated and who doesn’t, awards season – in theory – comes down to honoring the best stories told. Or more accurately, the best of the stories deemed important enough to be told in the first place. Because if you get an Oscar nomination, you – and the story you crafted or acted or depicted or shaped – are important. Let’s not even talk about what happens if you win!
What frustrates me the most about “lack of diversity in Hollywood” conversations – and I’ve had many on this blog and in real life – is that the question that largely goes unanswered is, “Why is diversity important in the first place?” The “rah rah yay diversity” triumphs are meaningless unless we know why diversity matters at all; otherwise, we’re heralding the response to a question that has yet to be clearly asked. Even worse, we leave open the possibility that diversity only comes as a form of appeasement, to satisfy a politically correct quota. Some would call this “tokenism.” And quite frankly, unless I am in the Academy (I am not), it doesn’t really matter how I feel about who gets nominated or doesn’t; I don’t have a vote. Of course, this only compounds the frustration.
So, why is diversity important? Because it’s a reflection of the world we live in. Because there are rich, wonderful stories to be mined and told and portrayed by actors of various backgrounds to be appreciated by audiences of various backgrounds. Because minority audiences deserve to be depicted as normal with normal feelings and wants and desires, not just as “types” or caricatures or one-line cracking tokens. Because these stories, too, are important in the same way the stories of an abusive jazz music instructor and a computer genius who cracked the Nazi code are important. And, if we’re going by Hollywood’s standards, because it’s good business.
Back to the Oscars. I see one of two ways minorities in Hollywood can “fix” the race problem. The first way is for filmmakers and actors of color to disregard the awards show entirely, deem it meaningless and reflective of such narrow taste that whether someone gets nominated or not is inconsequential. You can say the Oscars don’t mean anything, and take their power away. To quote Paul Rudd’s sage character in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “When life gives you lemons, say, “F*** the lemons and bail!””
This, of course, would never happen, and nor would I want it to. Joaquin Phoenix notwithstanding, no actor or filmmaker or producer – of color or not – will ever go, “Oscar nomination for me? WHATEVER!” And even Joaquin showed up to the Golden Globes.
The other way is to change the conversation.
Today, the day of the announcement of the nominations for the 87th Annual Academy Awards, seems like a good juncture to pivot the conversation of diversity and the Oscars from one of reaction to one of action, from one of “why” to “how”: to not ask why there isn’t more diversity among this year’s nominees, but how filmmakers, screenwriters and actors of color can make the Academy care enough about our stories. Yes, this sounds a little too optimistic – even for my own taste – and a little naive. Like Rock suggests in his essay, diversity isn’t something that just happens because it’s natural and the right thing to include; it needs to be demanded. It needs to be made important. I am not quite sure how that will be accomplished, but I’m not cynical enough (yet) to think that it can’t be.
I would like to think that Benedict Cumberbatch was nominated for his performance in “The Imitation Game” because it was a beautiful performance. And it was. He is, undeniably, talented. He was also nominated because he had the opportunity to tell the story about a gay British code-cracker who played an integral role in helping to defeat the Nazis in World War II that other people – writers, producers, directors, studio execs – decided was important enough to tell.
Which isn’t to say David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo were undeserving of nominations as well, but to descend into Twitter-rage over why these fine actors weren’t recognized doesn’t do anything about a problem other than highlight that it’s a problem. We already know that. The question is, what are we going to do about it?