Do “Black Oscars Matter?”
Twisting what’s become a current popular political slogan — do “Black Oscars Matter?”
I believe the answer is — yes. The Academy Awards are widely perceived as one of society’s most important cultural benchmarks of racial equality, particularly on Black and White issues. Along with its consortium in politics and sports — including who occupies the Oval Office and Black starting quarterbacks in the National Football League (undeniably two major arenas where Blacks have broken down old barriers) — those we chose to recognize as icons in the entertainment industry may indicate some lingering collective biases.
Controversy erupted again last week when this year’s Academy Award nominations were announced. For the second consecutive year, no Blacks were nominated in any of the so-called major categories. Some Black activists and advocacy groups expressed outrage at what was perceived as not merely an oversight but an affront. A few celebrities even pledged to boycott the Oscars. Instead of discussing the most deserving nominees and celebrating artistic achievement in cinema, the movie industry’s alleged racial inequities have now taken center stage and captured much of the media’s attention. Clearly, this is not what Hollywood had in mind for the entertainment industry’s premier showcase event.
Do the protesters have a point? I believe the answer is — a little bit yes, but mostly no.
Let’s begin with a fact. The movie industry is far more racially sensitive than mainstream society, almost to the point of sometimes being unrealistic. The manner in which movies are scripted, how they are cast, and the way they’re shot have become overly sensitive to fears of negative stereotyping and the way minorities (especially people of color) are portrayed. In essence, they’ve become, for lack of a better term, “politically correct.” Even we, who champion Hollywood’s alleged liberalism, celebrate this practice as a positive.
Consider the good versus bad guys. Many film heroes which are generic when it comes to race (meaning the role an be played by anyone) do go to Black actors. The abundantly long and critically and commercially successful careers of Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson, Eddie Murphy, Don Cheadle, Sidney Portier, Danny Glover, Forest Whitaker, James Earl Jones, and many others are a testament to a prevailing sense of cinematic equality. Yet when it comes to casting bad guys — the thieves, muggers, rapists, and other scumbags — these despicable roles are likely to be White, rather than Black. This overt sensitivity towards race is a good thing, in my view. Art can and often does serve as a cultural beacon.
Contrast the general manner in which Hollywood’s positively portrays of Blacks and Black culture (often as victims — and rightfully so) with the way White southerners are often portrayed on film. Indeed, there’s no shortage of juicy roles for movie villains if you can talk and act like a redneck. As for demagoguery, virtually all the rich and powerful bad guys in the movies are White males. Oh well, perhaps art does indeed imitate life to some degree.
Hollywood also tends to be apologetic when it comes to race. Look at the two racially-themed films which have been awarded “Best Picture” within the past decade. The 2013 winner “12 Years a Slave” addressed one of the ugliest chapters in our nation’s long history. Yet, many members of the Academy who said they cast ballots for the movie admitted to not even seeing it. The 2005 winner “Crash,” a multi-faceted film about about race in modern America, also seemed to skate across the finish line without proper laurels. That year, any of the other four “Best Picture” nominees, including “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote,” “Good Night, Good Luck,” and “Munich” would have made far better choices. Even “Captain Phillips,” nominated in several Oscar categories a few years ago, cast a sympathetic light on the motives of Somali pirates.
Reviewing some of the other major categories since 2000: Three Blacks have won “Best Actor” for males — including Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, and Forest Whitaker (all were deserving). Only one has won “Best Actor” for females — Halley Berry (a questionable choice, at best). But that void has been more than compensated for in the “Best Supporting Actor” category for females which was packed with Black winners — including Lupita Nyong’o, Octavia Spencer, Mo’Nique, and Jennifer Hudson (4 within the just the past 9 years). “Best Supporting Actor” for males included only one Black winner — Morgan Freeman (although Cuba Gooding, Jr. also won just a few years earlier). By my count, within the last 15 years that’s 9 Black winners in the leading and supporting acting categories. Given there are four awards each year, that’s 9 of 60 which amounts to about 15 percent of all winners. Although the Academy recognizes no particular nation, nor geographical region, Blacks make up about 12 percent of the total U.S. population. So, what’s the problem? Blacks are doing slightly better as percentages to the general population.
Where the Black inequity argument is strongest is lies directing, producing, and within the executive ranks. Move makers don’t reflect the rest of the country, at all. Clearly, Blacks are grossly underrepresented when it comes to power and finance. So too are many other groups. Especially women. Embarrassingly so. Overwhelmingly male and disproportionately Jewish, this is clearly an old-boys network worthy of considerable criticisms. This is where the protest should be targeted, which is outside the movie studio executive offices, not at the Dolby Center.
If a racial problem exists, it’s borne not in prejudice but in greed. Studios are in business, not to make films, but to make money. Bravery and boldness have been sacrificed as corporate board rooms shackled to stockholders have usurped the entire decision-making process when it comes to which films get made and what goes into the creative process. Movies are marketed like mayonnaise and auto insurance and what sells tickets at the local cineplex is all that matters. Nothing else. For all the enormous progress we’ve made in recent decades, moviegoers still pretty much want to see people who look like themselves who they can identify with on the big screen. There are exceptions, of course (I’d like to call out many of the films by Harvey Weinstein at Miramax, who often produces films based on content and social relevance rather than box office appeal). But commercial value and opportunities for franchising are almost always the switch that flips on the green light in Hollywood.
The racial divide is even more pronounced when it comes to corporate considerations of foreign markets and worldwide distribution. Half of Hollywood’s profits now come from overseas releases and sales, with the Asian market growing the most rapidly. It’s a sad fact that many people from other parts of the world don’t want to see so-called “Black movies.” So, they become reduced to niche domestic products. Outrage needs to be channeled not so much at awards shows but at longstanding business practices and deeply-embedded cultural biases. That’s where the problem lies, big time.
Blacks also suffer when it comes to historical recreations, which makes up a substantial percentage of the movies and performances which get recognized by the Academy. A sad fact of human history is that Whites have enjoyed preposterous advantages in every aspect of life. Accordingly, they have dominated the ranks of our greatest cultural icons. To put matters bluntly, there aren’t many roles for Blacks in films such as “Spotlight” or “The Revenant” or “Bridge of Spies.” Sorry, but a movie isn’t going to be believable if it casts Black actors as cabinet officials in “Lincoln” or French peasants in “Les Miserables.” It won’t happen. To some degree, given the omission of equal opportunities over the centuries, Blacks have become victims of history in far more ways then we might realize.
Yet Blacks are hardly the only group of people being left out and insulted when it comes to lack of recognition. As I’ve demonstrated earlier, that case appears to be weak when we looks at some actual evidence. If any racial or ethnic groups have a legitimate beef with the Academy Awards, it’s Asians and Latinos. Yes, a few have emerged among Oscar-winning directors (notably Ang Lee and Alejandro Iñárritu). Yet, their influence remains underrepresented in Hollywood. Then, there are people of Middle Eastern descent, which might as well forget about inclusion. Muslims haven’t had a true champion within their ranks since Omar Sharif. That was a half a century ago. In some ways, we haven’t come far.
The call for boycotts could backfire. I believe they might even be counterproductive to a greater cause. There does exist a sort of “racial fatigue” with many people, even among those progressives who are generally sympathetic to such issues. Black activism has so many truly valid points to make on matters of economic and judicial inequity which merits our collective outrage and calls of measures of correction. I fail to see how Spike Lee and Al Shapton jumping in front of microphones and calling for boycotts of the Oscars is going to bridge any racial divides.
Far worse, the recent controversy fuels possible skepticism towards future Oscar nominees and winners. Next time a worthy Black actor or director receives a nomination or steps onto the stage to collect a golden statue, will there be murmurs that he or she is there because of race? Who would want that? Who would possibly want to win an Oscar under such a cloud? Do we really want affirmative action on matters of artistic merit? Hey, I’m a big believer in affirmative action when it comes to making political amends to correct historical disparities. I even supported hiring and education quotas. But not when it comes to peer recognition and award presentations. We do not want anything akin to a “Best Black Actor” or a “Best Black Director.” We already have events like the NAACP awards, anyway.
These protests, however well-intended, are badly misguided. That outrage needs to be targeted at multi-national corporations which dictate entirely what goes on in Hollywood. We also should be more proactive supporting films which seek to educate and inform viewers, particularly which are distributed to other parts of the world. The messaging can even be subtle, like casting a Black lead actor in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” certain to be the biggest blockbuster of all time. That was clearly a decision that took some careful consideration, with what I believe are positive ramifications, such as a little boy growing up somewhere in a backwater place who sees a Black man as a super hero. That’s good thing. We need more of that.
Yes, Black Oscars do matter. But all this bickering about Hollywood’s alleged racism is entirely self-defeating. It is also much ado (mostly) about nothing. I shall watch the Oscars enthusiastically, just as I do every year. And next year, I hope the best nominees are chosen, regardless and certainly not because of race.
That would be an even worse travesty and insult.