As you’ve surely heard by now, the Oscars are very racist. For the second year in a row, the acting categories at the Oscars were completely devoid of any color. Last year it strangely didn’t cause much of a stir. This year, Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett-Smith, a pair of A-listers who are not exactly dispassionate and unbiased (Spike Lee had a major film release this year which got no nominations, and one of the major “snubs” for acting was Will Smith, Jada’s husband) have launched a boycott which now threatens to change the Oscars as we know them.
I think that’s great, because the Oscars, the Academy, and the whole Hollywood culture of self-congratulation, are all garbage and belong far in our collective rear-view.
First of all, let’s remember what this is and why we care; it’s an award ceremony to crown the most deserving millionaires in a room full of gajillionaires, for their brave, and without exception, incredibly lucrative art projects. Now I’m generally among the last people to hate on someone for earning a lot of money for their work. I’m a LeBron James fan, after all. But there is something to be said about picking among the most successful pictures of the year (meaning, they already made a truckload of money) to find the ones you’re going to arbitrarily claim are the “best,” thereby backing up additional Brinks’ trucks to their doorsteps. Bear in mind, an actually “independent” film, or even just a commercially unpopular film, has never been named Best Picture at the Oscars.
During the old Hollywood era, where independent films didn’t even exist, this actually wasn’t a problem. But nowadays there are more films being made in every corner of the world, by every economic and artistic group, than ever before. By a staggering margin. Where the Academy used to sift through a few hundred films from all over the world, the number of theatrically released films now counts well into the thousands each year, and with newer methods of delivery (Netflix, Amazon, etc.) also adding movies which get released for brief theatrical runs to get Academy eligibility, that number promises to continue to swell.
We all know perfectly well the Academy members don’t actually get to watch even a fraction of the major releases, let alone all the new and innovative films being created on the fringes of the Hollywood system. Why then even give a modicum of credence to the meaningless crowing of a winner?
As I noted in the beginning, last year’s cries of racism were somewhat muted when the nominations came out, perhaps because it came right after 2014’s awards which featured 12 Years a Slave winning best picture and Lupita Nyong’o winning Best Supporting Actress. Can we take that to mean that our enlightened society was more or less okay with taking a year off from diversity since it had done such a good job the year before? Because the host last year was also Neil Patrick Harris, whereas this year it’s Chris Rock, but that didn’t buy the Academy any good will from angry throngs sick of the same white faces they see every year. Nor should it. Although wait, are people really angry because they don’t see the right colors in the people nominated? It’s time to end this thing. It’s not the type of situation that can or should be solved by false nominations for people of color. If the feeling isn’t natural from the Academy — and how could it be? They only see or care about a teeny fraction of the films the world has to offer, so undoubtedly the only films with people of color they even saw last year were Spike Lee’s Chiraq, Will Smith in Concussion, Samuel L. Jackson in Hateful Eight, the ensemble in Straight Outta Compton… and Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation.
Wait, crap, now that last one complicates things. Because Idris Elba did get jobbed by not getting nominated while Matt Damon’s rather pedestrian effort in The Martian got a nod. But what can I tell you? Is that the whole ball game? If Idris Elba had gotten nominated, would Spike Lee not be upset? Does he even have a reason to be upset?
Things get confusing when you start checking the privileges of the infinitely privileged.
Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett-Smith aren’t upset because other black people didn’t get nominated, they’re upset because they didn’t get nominated themselves. Which is a fair feeling, I guess, it’s just not that sympathetic. It would be a different story if they were upset because people of color aren’t being featured in films or aren’t making films themselves. But that’s just factually not true. Ironically, in the year when Spike Lee got his first Academy Award, for his student film in 1983, he was among far fewer minority filmmakers then he was for his next nomination, in 1990 for Do the Right Thing, or even in 1998 for 4 Little Girls, but even those were in times when there was only a tiny fraction of the faces of color we see on the screen now. Spike Lee wouldn’t get an Academy Award in a time where minorities were getting recognition and opportunities like never before, until he got his lifetime achievement award from the Academy… last year.
Yeah, in 2015 he got a lifetime achievement award for his work in film, but what have you done for me lately, right?
This is why we just shouldn’t be indulging in this ritual anymore. It’s not like we, the viewing audience, had anything to say about the awards, otherwise some of the most bold and interesting films of the year might have actually gotten nominated, and I assure you you’d see a pretty diverse nomination pool. The Academy is old and stuffy and lazy as can be, so it’s not like they got together in a cabal of ill intent and schemed against the deserving likes of Spike Lee and Will Smith. They were just lazy and didn’t see enough films. And maybe there was racism in them not seeing enough of the films with people of color. I can certainly believe that. But then it’s time to end the charade, not prop it up some more.
Concussion had one of the softest campaigns for nomination in recent memory, oh yeah, I forgot to mention the studios actually take out ads campaigning “for your consideration,” which kind of confuses things even more. Not to mention it was surrounded by lukewarm reviews and controversy as to whether or not it might have been watered down by Sony at the behest of the NFL. Meanwhile Lee’s Chiraq was just not that well received all around, and was subject to quite a bit of its own controversy in terms of sexual politics, not exactly a first for Spike Lee as any film school dropout who studied She’s Gotta Have It can attest. Straight Outta Compton was an enjoyable film that bore little resemblance to actual history and was certainly not the most overlooked film of all time.
And what’s the recourse? Boycotting the Academy Awards? If it wasn’t so cynical, I’d almost like it. I want the monstrosity to die, but that’s not the endgame of this boycott. It’s what? Getting the dusty old Academy to give awards they don’t want to give to people of color?
Shut it down. The awards ceremony is an outdated concept from a bunch of outdated people, and it’s time it went the way of all once-good things, to its end.
By Ygal Kaufman