How do you solve a problem like the Oscars?
“Female filmmakers and actors of color increasingly sidelined,” is how the New York Times put it in the run-up to nominations. That prediction was confirmed earlier this month when a number of worthy names were noticeably missing from the list of contenders.
This year is the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony. In that history, only five women — all white — have been nominated for a best director Oscar. Ever. This year there are zero. And it’s not because of a lack of notable films.
Despite a concerted effort by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to add more people of color and white women to its membership in recent years, they still remain a vastly smaller segment of voters (32% women, 16% people of color) compared to white men.
Sometimes the media is complicit in reinforcing the status quo. The New York Post recently published a story (“Academy members viciously reveal why Lopez, Sandler, Murphy got snubbed from Oscars”) that failed to challenge any of the nonsensical assertions from its quoted (and in most cases anonymous) sources.
One Academy member told the paper that the expertly shot “Hustlers” was “a little too rough around the edges” and therefore not an Oscar movie. And yet the equally “rough around the edges” story told in “Wolf of Wall Street” — a multi-nominee in 2014 including best picture — clearly was an Oscar movie, whatever that even means?
Or consider this explanation for the snub of “Dolemite is My Name” star Eddie Murphy: “Some voters disliked how hard he seemed to be campaigning for a nomination, including hosting ‘Saturday Night Live,’ after giving his old show the cold shoulder for 35 years.”
Openly campaigning during awards season is nothing new. It’s remarked upon all the time. But Eddie Murphy returning to host “SNL” — the show that launched his career — is a bridge too far? You know who else hosted “SNL” in late 2019? Scarlett Johansson, who was nominated not just one but twice this year, for “Marriage Story” and “Jojo Rabbit.”
These excuses are ridiculous and we in the media shouldn’t validate them.
So what’s the way forward?
There’s a petition on change.org started by pop culture writer Kayleigh Donaldson calling for Academy president David Rubin to “publicly announce a plan to fix the Oscars diversity problem” and to announce that plan at this year’s ceremony.
“Someone at Change reached out to me,” Donaldson said when contacted earlier this week, “and asked if I’d be interested in doing something more direct in opposition to the Academy’s consistent shutting out of women directors and I thought a petition would be more tangible than me constantly screaming about it on Twitter!
“2019 was such a brilliant year for women directors,” she added, “not only in that they made amazing films but that they worked on critically and commercially successful films that were part of the awards conversation and perfectly fit the often smothering mold that the Academy and the film industry at large demands of ‘prestige cinema.’”
And yet, “it still wasn’t good enough. The goalposts are always moved further and further away, and it stung to see how pathetically predictable yet another all-male best director line-up was.”
So what kind of solution does she have in mind?
“I know that asking for specific aims on a topic like this can be tricky,” she said.
“I admit that I don’t have a detailed plan for their future. But I also think it’s sad that such institutions and the people within them don’t have one either, especially when they have all the resources at their fingertips. These (people) are supposed to be the best and brightest in their field, representing the group that positions itself as the peak of Hollywood glamour, history, and importance, so surely they’re not entirely devoid of ideas … (and) I do firmly believe that making the people involved fully confront the issue and commit to change on the record will have a tangible impact. And it will also force the industry around it, from actors to producers to publicists and journalists and beyond, to confront their own biases and make important shifts that will ripple throughout.”
What if instead of hoping for change, it’s time to reject the Oscars altogether?
That’s an idea writer Nylah Burton explores in a column she wrote for the digital publication Wear Your Voice:
“I say divestment is the best option,” she writes. “If the Oscar’s discernment has proven to be basically useless, then stop assigning worth to the awards they give out. Refuse to submit your work to the Academy for consideration. Promote other, more equitable film festivals and award shows. Or work together and start your own.”
She doesn’t just mean don’t submit work for Oscar consideration — don’t participate at all, and that includes being a presenter or announcing nominations in the future. “The Oscars wants to stay white, and straight. So let them,” she writes.
Consider the kinds of roles women of color are typically nominated for — “Harriet” star Cynthia Erivo is the only non-white nominee in the acting categories this year — and which parts are overlooked.
Lupita Nyong’o playing double roles that are two sides of the same coin in the “Us”? No nomination. Alfre Woodard as a prison warden in grappling with the emotional toll of overseeing yet another execution in “Clemency”? No nomination. Jennifer Lopez as a charismatic exotic dancer who turns the tables on her clients in “Hustlers”? No nomination. The list goes on.
“An award nomination seems to depend on whether the role is deserving of white pity,” according to Beatrice Loayza writing in the Guardian, pointing out a blatant trend: “That the same types of roles — slaves, nannies and maids — continue to be the magic ticket to the red carpet feels particularly ugly considering the range of parts played by white nominees.”
“I think those movies make white people feel good because they feel so far removed from it,” Burton said by phone. “Like, ‘That happened way back, and isn’t is so inspiring that now the person who shares my cubicle is black?’
“It’s not a crime to be inspired or see those films and be moved by them,” she said. “But I do think they’re celebrated more because they allow people to feel like racism is a thing of the past.”
Maybe, she added, “it’s hard (for white audiences) to recognize when a black person is giving a good performance if it doesn’t revolve around their oppression or their struggle — maybe it’s difficult for them to even identify with it because the way they’ve been taught to identify with black people centers around either our oppression or some stereotype of us. Or our relationship to white people. Or our relationship to each other, like Tyler Perry films, that portray us in ways that white people are comfortable with.”
I was curious if Burton thinks enough people could really be convinced to divest from the Oscars.
“Probably not,” she said. “It’s a hard decision and I get that. And I can’t even say if I were a filmmaker or an actor that I would even have the strength to make that decision.
“There’s a significant benefit to being involved with the Oscars that can’t be understated. We can say ‘You should divest’ but in reality that could harm people’s careers. The hostility that they might face from the rest of the industry, that’s a lot to risk. I think it’s scary to take a stand this concrete and shocking, and not everyone feels they can do it. And it would take a lot of organizing and who’s going to organize it? Who’s going to convince people to do it?
“Also there might be a lot of people who don’t actually see it as a big problem — that they’re so desensitized to it that they think everything is fine.
“But for me, from the outside looking in, it just seems like this is a way to make a powerful statement: I’m not going to submit my film for nomination. Don’t enable it, is basically what I’m saying. And it would almost give those films (that were snubbed) even more recognition if they stood together that way. Like: This is something we’re not going to do.”
The Oscars retain their credibility and legitimacy precisely because we — Hollywood as a whole, but also the media and audiences — continue to participate.
Or as Donaldson noted: “It’s tough to kick down the Academy’s sheen of prestige and being Hollywood king-makers,” calling the situation a Catch-22. “Participating in a broken system that doesn’t care about you is exhausting and demoralizing. But a lot of people also don’t want to step outside of that system when their voices of protest are needed more than ever.”
There have been Oscar boycotts on an individual level through the years. Marlon Brando in 1973. And Will Smith in 2016.
But imagine if enough Hollywood players with clout and status refused to attend? What if a substantial group publicly rejected the Oscars the way the Oscars have long rejected marginalized communities?
It might be the most powerful way to push for meaningful change.