Monday 19 March 2018

Oscars - Between a Rock and a hard place

The uproar over the decision to again nominate only white actors for this year's Oscars could prove an opportunity for change

No show: Jada Pinkett-Smith said she would be boycotting this year’s Oscars ceremony.
No show: Jada Pinkett-Smith said she would be boycotting this year’s Oscars ceremony.

Aine O'Connor

Cinema may have started out black and white but it has never really been black and white. The movie business is predominantly, overwhelmingly and remarkably white. And male. The lack of Oscar nominations for anyone but white actors this year caused much controversy in the US last week, and, while depressing, it is not surprising.

It is statistically representative of the film business and in many respects of a whole society because there is a lot more to the race issue in the US than award nominations, and the slow move towards a confrontation has been gathering speed in recent years. Standing in the unenviable spotlight cast by the current row is comedian Chris Rock, who may, or may not, be hosting the Oscars on February 28.

The election, twice, of an African-American president was hailed as the beginning of a new era in race relations in the US. It was, but not in the manner in which many hoped. Obama's time in the White House has polarised America in a way that will hopefully bring some good, but largely because it is bringing out dangerous sentiments that have been long hidden.

Racism, like prejudice of any kind, is only partly the shark fin of extremism that appears on the surface. The real threat is usually in what lies beneath. Political correctness is well-intentioned tyranny and while linguistic terms are important, they are distracting. In the debate over what words are more acceptable, less offensive, more inclusive or less loaded there is an illusion created that real change is at hand.

And behind that illusion the facts, some of them enormously obvious, are getting lost. In liberal circles in the US, and to an extent here too, the issue of racism has become so loaded with potential misunderstanding that meaningful debate has been stifled. People are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they say nothing, prejudice feels like a minority issue but as the popularity of someone like Donald Trump attests, prejudice not only exists, but arguably has flourished because liberal debate has stagnated.

Political correctness also creates the illusion that Hollywood embraces diversity. Individually, and en masse, actors and film makers generally espouse liberal values and support worthy causes, especially when they're popular. However, as a business, film-making is anything but liberal.

Television was once the poor relative of cinema but the way we watch and engage has changed radically. TV is no-one's poor relative any more, and some of the best and most highly regarded works of fact and fiction are being made for a small screen, be that TV or computer. Because the financial stakes are lower than for blockbuster films there is more ability to cater to smaller markets, and it is proving time and again that there is a great market for gender and racially diverse topics, roles, stories and actors.

The movie business has not changed in the same way at all. Most movies and almost all blockbusters feature predominantly white, predominantly male actors. A UCLA study in 2015 found that 73.4 pc of all characters in the top 100 films of 2014 were white males. 62 percent of the US population is white. A little under 50pc is male. 2015 was a hugely profitable year for the US film industry with national and global sales outstripping any other year. Most of the profits were garnered from a few huge films like Furious 7, Spectre, Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, films starring almost exclusively white men. It's easy to see that investors think that this is where the money lies, so this is where the money goes. The theory persists that female or minority led stories will not find a market. A theory proven wrong time and again when someone does take a punt on a female lead, or at least an equal lead like in The Help, Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, Mad Max: Fury Road, Pitch Perfect, or in a non-white lead like again, The Help or Straight Outta Compton or Ride Along (whose sequel has just dethroned Star Wars at the US box office). And it's not like many, many white male lead films don't tank.

Given the statistics around the films that get made, the Academy Award nominations, and that all 20 of the actors in the main categories are white, are not that surprising. Given the make-up of the Academy, it is even less so. An LA Times survey of the 6,028 Academy voters found they were 94pc white, 76pc male and the average age is 63. What is surprising is that this is the second year in a row that the nominations lack racial diversity. There was a fuss made last year so to do it again, in a year where there were several excellent potential black nominees, male ones at least, it is interesting indeed. Maybe they felt it was OK because the president of the Academy, Cheryl Boon Isaacs, is an African-American woman who said in response to the controversy, "I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion (in the nominations)." Or perhaps installing an African-American presenter, Chris Rock, for the awards show was meant to deflect or atone for the all-white nominees. Or is it the kind of tokenism that is more damaging than overt racism? Look, you're included! Can we ignore you again now?

When Rock agreed to present the awards, it was announced in October, he can have had no idea of the race controversy that would ensue. Indeed he had good reason to assume that there might be an impressively racially diverse set of nominations because Straight Outta Compton, Creed, The Hateful Eight, Concussion, Beasts of No Nation, Dope all presented potential candidates. The all-white nominations, however, landed on top of the increasingly racially charged pre-election landscape in the US, as well as factors like the very bad run of deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police, and the lead-poisoning scandal in a largely black community in Flint, Michigan. The Oscar nominations, although small in comparison, can be interpreted as symptomatic of a bigger issue, and they were.

Almost instantly the Twitter lit up with #OscarsSoWhite. Legendary film maker Spike Lee said he would not be attending the ceremony in protest. Ice Cube, producer and subject of Straight Outta Compton said he wasn't upset, joking "maybe we should have put a slave in Straight Outta Compton. I think that's where we messed up." Don Cheadle tweeted "Come check me out at #TheOscars this year. They got me parking on G level." Jada Pinkett-Smith, wife of Will Smith who might have hoped for a nomination for Concussion, announced that they would be boycotting the show in protest at the lack of racial diversity in the main categories. She called on other actors to do the same.

Janice Hubert who worked with Will Smith on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air responded with a video about how the Smiths were wrong to ask other actors to boycott, how they were self-serving and just annoyed at Will not getting nominated. George Clooney said the lack of racial diversity was a backward step but as the week progressed the voices focussed increasingly on Chris Rock, asking him to walk away from the presenting job. Performers like Fifty Cent and Tyrese Gibson said he should boycott it because there's no joke he can crack that will adequately address the situation. Spike Lee rowed back in to say his refusal to attend was personal, he was not calling for a boycott and Chris Rock is a "grown-ass man. He's just going to do what he wants to do and I support either way." And so it rumbles on.

Whatever statements are made and paths followed it is important that the main thrust of this debate not get lost. This is about more than awards, it's an opportunity for important debate and change.

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