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The ‘Selma’ Oscar Snubs: What It Means About Race And Gender In Hollywood

The 'Selma' Oscar Snubs: What It Means About Race And Gender In Hollywood

Crack your knuckles, take a deep breath and get ready to look for a way to be outraged —we’re going to talk about race and gender. In light of the perceived “snubbing” (a problematic concept in the first place, tending to veer toward “a pointed exclusion due to malevolent forces” and away from simply “not chosen from a wide pool of worthy candidates”) of Ava DuVernay “Selma” in certain major Oscar categories, a warning flare was shot up into the dawn sky over the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in LA last Thursday. That flare then exploded into a firestorm with the realization that all 20 acting nominees are white, and across all feature film nomination categories (including Documentary, Foreign and Animated as well as the main Best Director category), there are just two female directors on the slate, both for documentaries —Laura Poitras for “Citizenfour” and Rory Kennedy, co-director of “Last Days in Vietnam.” 

The lack of gender diversity in the major categories (short films fare better but are pretty far down the pecking order) extends to Cinematography (which is not a huge surprise, as there has never been a female Best Cinematography nominee) and Screenplay, in which neither the Original nor the Adapted fields feature a single woman. And as for the Best Director and Screenplay nominees, it’s really only Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his Mexican “Birdman” team who bring even another ethnicity to the table.

The lack of diversity was so noticeable that a few hours after the announcement, the twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite had begun to trend, Jessica Chastain used her Critics Choice Award speech to plead for those watching “to stand together against homophobic, sexist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic and racist agendas,” and a few days later the Academy’s first ever black female President Cheryl Boone Isaacs commented on the controversy.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Isaacs diplomatically praised the year’s nominees and highlighted previous efforts made by the institution to address gender and racial imbalances, but also suggested there was more work to be done as regards the demographic make up of the Academy’s electorate. And inevitably she pointed to the wider failings of the Hollywood system, from which the Academy draws its membership, as a key underlying reason those numbers are so skewed.

So let’s take a look at those numbers. The 6,028 Academy voters are 94% white, 76% male and the average age is 63. That’s the average age, meaning there are enough members in their 70s and 80s in the electorate to drag the median all the way up to two years off retirement age (without wishing to add ageism into the -ism pot, how many of the octogenarians still even work regularly? If you haven’t been on a film set since the last millennium, chances are even slimmer that you count female or non-white filmmakers among your professional acquaintances. Just a thought.)

It’s telling that “Selma” scored a nod for Best Picture —the only category for which the nominations are decided by a general membership ballot and not just those in a particular “branch.” With directors nominating the directors’ pool, writers nominating writers, etc, the politicking element is surely even more concentrated within these guild-like voting blocks, which are in many cases even less demographically representative than the overall membership. Voting then becomes an odd mixture of genuine desire to recognize outstanding achievement, high school popularity contest, and the kind of political campaign in which the clout of your supporters means more than the quality of your work.

On that basis, it’s clear how “Selma,” a film from a little-known director starring no high-profile names might have struggled within its various branches. But at the same time, it’s also clear how its important subject matter, timeliness and not-exactly powerless producer Oprah Winfrey (and DuVernay’s own background in film promotion), as well as the fact that it’s a terrific movie brought it a deserved Best Picture nomination.

But the kerfuffle that erupted after the nominations was not because a deserving film had missed out in certain categories. It was about the fact that every roll of the dice had turned up a white nominee, and in the major mixed-gender categories, almost always a male one. Within the 20 acting nominations, Gugu Mbatha-Raw was often cited as the most unfairly overlooked black actress, but since neither of her films (“Belle” and “Beyond the Lights“) blipped anywhere else on Oscar’s radar bar a song nod for ‘Lights,’ it’s safe to say that probably not too much should be read into her absence, except the general dearth of decent films featuring good roles for black female leads. Water: wet.

But David Oyelowo is a different matter — he turns in a tremendous performance as Martin Luther King (for heaven’s sake) in a Best Picture nominee that’s been garlanded with critical plaudits. Morgan Freeman playing Mandela got a nomination (in the not-very-good “Invictus” coincidentally directed by Clint Eastwood, whose box-office phenomenon “American Sniper” is widely if facilely being set up in opposition to “Selma” and did score a nomination in this very category); Will Smith playing “Ali” got a nod, but it’s easy to chalk that up to being Will Smith, one of the biggest stars in the world, plus his name is easy for white people to spell. Except… hang on… just last year, Chiwetel Ejiofor also got nominated for playing Solomon Northrup in eventual Best Picture winner “12 Years a Slave.” In this context, it does look like Oyelowo was at the very least damnably unlucky in not getting a nod, but since actors playing admired historical black figures have often been nominated before, can we really call his exclusion directly racist?

The strands become further tangled when we look specifically at DuVernay, perhaps the most glaring omission from the nomination list. Her absence is galling, not just on the grounds that she is black, but that she’s a she, and an all-male Best Director lineup is, statistically speaking, even more out of whack than one that has no black candidates. But at least anecdotally, it feels like whatever advance putative slot there might have been for a female director in this year’s lineup (check out the THR directors’ roundtable, for example) was more or less earmarked for power player Angelina Jolie. Then “Unbroken” was received less than rapturously, and that was that. This of course is wrong on many levels and is exactly the kind of tokenistic thinking that should be an anathema to all “sides” in this debate, but tokenism inevitably became part of the simplistic narrative that sprang up afterwards —after the nominations, after the hashtag, after that gleamingly white composite pic of all the acting nominees did the rounds— in the reaction, if you will, to the reaction. Suddenly to complain about the white maleness of this year’s nominees was to actively advocate for some sort of positive-discrimination-based quota system, and nothing whips white people into a froth of moral outrage quicker.

For a quick soil sample, go onto any of the blogs or articles about the “Selma” snubs and/or the whiteness of the acting lineup and read the comments (here’s WaPo, here’s HuffPo, and here’s our own Oli Lyttelton’s article on the Oscar Snubs & Surprises, and there are many more). It’s not even the bile-filled trolls who make the most depressing reading —they appear in roughly the same small numbers as the on-point, incisive commenters and so they cancel each other out (a phenomenon Jessica Chastain also mentioned in her response to the hate mail she got following her speech).

It’s the other reactions that really give pause, and can roughly be grouped under three headings: 1) the Oscars are/should be all about merit, so shut up; 2) demographically speaking, the noms aren’t actually egregiously out of sync, so shut up; and 3) it’s not the Academy being racist/sexist, it’s Hollywood and actually all of society and there’s nothing to be done about that …so shut up. The one thing people seem able to agree on no matter how disparate their views otherwise, is that we should all just shut up about this and start talking about something else.

But in general, it’s good to be suspicious of any point of view that reinforces the status quo by appealing to the lazy desire to not have to think about difficult subjects, and to challenge any attempt to shut down discourse, especially about issues as complex and vital as those that these Oscar nominations, of all the silly things in the world, have raised. So let’s look at those reactions a bit more closely.

1) “It’s all about merit”

A surprisingly prevalent response given the naiveté it betrays about the awards process, this point of view seems to assume that in, say, the Best Actor category, there are exactly five truly deserving lead performances in all the hundreds of eligible movies made in any year, and the Academy’s task is to sniff out those prize truffles amid the ordure that is every other acting performance of the year. The truth is that there are very many times as many performances that anyone could make a good case for as there are slots. And so the final five will always embody qualities outside of pure merit or talent. No one can assert definitively that Benedict Cumberbatch delivers an inarguably, objectively better performance than David Oyelowo. But we can point out that along with all the other nominees, he is a whole lot whiter.  

2) Demographics

There’s always someone who pedantically points out that actually only 12.6% of Americans are African-American and that therefore only 1 in 10 or so nominees “should” be black. By that logic, an all-white field of 20 once in 17 years is within an acceptable margin of error, especially when last year in the acting fields there were 3 black actors…blah blah blah. As tempting as this sort of baby math might be, it doesn’t ever tell a complete story —for example, the U.S. census classifies Hispanics and Latinos as white, just of a different ethnicity. So while the official stat is that 72.4% of Americans are white (and should by this ruthlessly mathematical logic happily claim nearly 3/4 of all open slots), in fact if you subtract the Latino and Hispanic population from that number (and there are no Hispanic or Latino actors in this year’s 20 acting nominees either), you get only 63.7% white. With this number in mind, the 20 Caucasian faces out of 20 this year does, in fact, seem to lie pretty far outside the realm of standard deviation.

3) Systemic Racism/Sexism

Well… this one is difficult to counter. Except to say that identifying flawed Oscar nominations as simply the visible, rotten blossoms of a culture of underrepresentation of women and minorities in which the roots extend well beyond the Academy down through the Hollywood system and further, drawing their bitter nutrients from the soil of the very society in which we live, should not be a “boom!-drop-the-mic” conversation-ender, but a beginning.

In fact, the issue is not so much that “Selma” didn’t get those two key nominations (for which there are other factors at play as well, like the late DVD screeners and late qualifying run). The real issue is that absent the personnel of “Selma,” there was no other female narrative filmmaker or non-white actor who was even an appreciable part of the conversation. “Selma” become the one basket into which a lot of diversity eggs were packed, and when it didn’t come together, there was simply nowhere else to look. That is a systemic issue, and one absolutely worth talking about.

Because it is a problem that the majority of Hollywood studio execs are white males and that Hollywood is a business that runs on a pretty conservative business model. It is a problem that black movies that make the kind of coin that can turn said businessman’s head are Tyler Perry joints and Kevin Hart-starrers that are unlikely to figure in mainstream awards conversations. However, those that therefore lambast black audiences for not turning out to see “Selma” in bigger numbers than “Ride Along” fail to see it’s the same as fallaciously criticizing white teen males for going to “Transformers: Age of Extinction” rather than seeking out, I dunno, “The Immigrant” —except no one seriously does the latter. It is a problem that true heterogeneity, and therefore a diverse film landscape, is a luxury only gifted to white audiences, the numbers being deemed simply too small to be financially viable the more “niche” the audience.

There is a problem in the perception that non-white movies and non-white movie stars don’t make money in the growing markets overseas that are becoming ever more important to a film’s bottom line. There is a problem in the assumption that the largest potential U.S. audience (i.e. a white one) will not embrace a blockbuster with a non-white lead, and that the largest group within that white audience —young males— cannot relate to a female protagonist. There is a problem that widespread social and economic inequality means that proportionally fewer non-white households have the luxury of raising their kids to be artists and and filmmakers and storytellers. There is a problem when film enthusiasts like us and blogs like ours are made so wary about wading into the shark-infested waters of race or gender that we push those issues to the sides of our plates, lay down our cutlery with a simper instead and move straight on to dessert. 

The only thing needed for the status quo to flourish is for people who are theoretically in favor of change to keep schtum, whether for fear of the knee-jerk consequences from a few trolls or because of a kind of instant fatigue at the size and scale and systemic depth of the abovementioned problems. But when a lightning-rod situation occurs and suddenly, miraculously, people are talking about these issues, it should be an opportunity to pitch in, and maybe help lay the basis for change, however far-off and slow. At the very least, we should not be trying to throttle the debate down as soon as it sparks up.

It’s not a lot, but it’s better than nothing to resolve to not not talk about these issues. To not not write op-ed pieces for fear we’ll be labelled racists or sexists or —worse still— boring, for daring to talk about race or gender. To not not try at every turn to view the industry we write about from as many points of view other than our own, and other than that of the prevailing power base, as we can.

The subject of “Selma,” Martin Luther King Jr. rather famously had a dream. Ava DuVernay also talked about dreams, though in a much less grand, more personal way. Speaking to KCRW’s “The Business,” about the struggle she faced getting her first projects off the ground, she offered this lovely piece of advice about filmmaking, one which can be applied much more broadly: “People think they have to do this big feature all at once. But your dream can happen a little bit at a time.”

It’s frustrating that as a society we have not achieved Dr. King’s dream (nor Gloria Steinem’s for that matter, with her great quote “the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off” feeling more true now than ever). And unsurprisingly, the final paragraph of a long post spurred by the goddamn Oscar nominations is not the place you’ll find some single, ginormous, magic bullet solution to all the racist and sexist ills of the world. But discussion —written, debated, read, and kept alive— by people like us, who probably feel wildly underqualified and apprehensive about broaching such monolithically huge social topics, can maybe, at least, be part of that “little bit at a time.”

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