By Cassie Bell
We hear about ‘Oscar’ every year. But who is he/she really?
If you think it’s the 35 centimetre, four kilogram, 24-carat gold statuette handed to winners at the Academy Awards, then you’re as mistaken as Bill Murray was when he signed up to voice a fat, ginger cat, thinking Garfield: The Movie was written by the Coen Brothers.
Contrary to popular belief, Oscar is a wealthy, middle-aged white man in the film industry, who wears Birkenstocks and drinks Rosé, and re-does hi-fives when they’re not good enough the first time. He’s a little drunk and a bit lame, but his arch support is unparalleled.
Hell, he’s Leonardo Di Caprio! He’s Ridley Scott, John Williams, Christian Bale and Quentin Tarantino. He’s Bill Murray and the Coen Brothers. He embodies many great humans who have contributed many great things to the colossal glitter-spew they call Hollywood.
A problem arises, when the Academy Award contenders are almost exclusively viewed, judged and voted for by guys like Oscar, resulting in an awards ceremony that looks less like a celebration of the industry’s best and more like the launch party of the new Toyota Prius. Particularly when all 20 acting nominees are white… for the second year in a row.
At first, it seems remarkable that not a single person of colour is included in a list of 40 actors. When you consider the demographics of the voters and outcome of previous award ceremonies, however, this year’s whitewashed candidature is suddenly more predictable than the ending of Titanic. (Spoiler alert: The boat sinks). In its 87-year run, the Academy has awarded gold statues to just 14 African-American actors. A grand total of 32 African-American winners, out of 2,900 candidates since 1929.
While the numbers are alarming, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the Academy is trying to be racist. Nor are the nominations necessarily fuelled by hatred, prejudice or intolerance to people of colour. It means that the film industry itself is too homogenous – from the scripting and casting, to the audiences, critics and the accolade gatekeepers. The Hollywood Machine churns out carbon-copy cinema, which lacks diversification at every stage of assembly, a likely consequence of a “why fix something that isn’t broken” attitude of those who have it pretty cushy in the industry.
This year, there were two films in particular featuring a predominantly African-American cast that generated Oscar buzz, after gaining impressive numbers at the box office. The hip-hop biopic Straight Outta Compton, which follows rap group N.W.A as they navigate the pressures of the mainstream music industry, was snubbed by the Academy, receiving no nominations despite widespread critical acclaim.
The sports drama Creed was also tipped to be nominated and, unlike Compton, was actually acknowledged by the Academy. The pseudo-sequel to Rocky Balboa (2006) sees a young boxer try to forge his own career in the wake of his legendary father “Apollo Creed”.
Michael B. Johnson (lead role), Ryan Coogler (writer and director) and Tessa Thompson (supporting actress) are all Black. Yet who secured the film’s one nomination? Sylvester Stallone, for Best Supporting (White) Actor. Admittedly, the ability to show emotional expression when your face is made of kinetic sand is highly impressive. Not quite as impressive, perhaps, as Johnson’s precision choreography, or Coogler’s ability to make audiences feel like they are pulsing in the ring. So why was Stallone lauded, while the others ignored? Was it because he was genuinely, the most outstanding component in the film? Yes, quite possibly. Was it because voters empathised more with the middle-aged white male character than anyone else, and thus viewed his performance as more real, more refined and more riveting? Yes, quite possibly.
Either way, as the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Academy Award-winner, Will Smith, explained in an interview on Good Morning America, the film industry is experiencing “a regressive slide towards separatism, towards racial and religious disharmony”.
“This is about children who are going sit down and watch this show, and they’re not going to see themselves represented,” he said.
“That’s not the Hollywood I want to leave behind.”
Smith, his actress wife Jada Pinkett Smith, and acclaimed director Spike Lee, announced via social media that they would be boycotting the Oscars this year. Pressure then mounted for this year’s host Chris Rock to step down from the job. He rejected the suggestion.
The Academy president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is herself African American, responded to the nominations by pledging to double the number of female and minority members of the Academy by 2020, in order to “begin the process of significantly changing [the] membership composition”.
Is this enough? In my opinion, no. Not even close. To truly engender change, we need to diversify every stage of the film production process, not just the demographic make-up of a single board. How? That’s a big question and one that should have a starring role in public discourse. But perhaps we could start by boycotting the Birkenstock.