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Black Heritage 2016: Oscars So Political

Wesley Snipes, Samuel Jackson, Denzel Washington, and Spike Lee
Just so white

Last year, during the 2015 Academy Awards Governors Awards ceremony, famed African-American director Spike Lee accepted an Honorary Award both for his critically lauded and beloved films and for, as two-time Academy Award winner (and six-time nominee) Denzel Washington remarks, putting "more African-Americans to work in [the movie] business than anyone else in the history of this business." He was introduced by his friends Washington, Wesley Snipes, and one-time Academy Award nominee Samuel Jackson. After his obligatory thanks and kind words, he discussed his life growing up as a kid in Brooklyn, being a "D+" student in college, facing unemployment during economic hardship, and how he pulled himself up from his bootstraps to become the filmmaker he is today. He somehow segued from this inspirational story into a diatribe about how Hollywood is racist against "his people," that there isn't enough diversity in the film industry, and how the president of the Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs (who is herself an African-American), has been doing her best to fix this alleged problem.

This year, he has been making waves about the Academy itself, decrying the fact that, this year, there are no African-American nominees in the four major acting categories or in the directing category. Jada Pinkett Smith--clearly annoyed that her husband, Will Smith, didn't get nominated for Concussion--has joined in the charge, along with tens of thousands of Twitterers under the hashtag "#OscarsSoWhite."

12 Years a Slave
I guess this was just the product of white guilt, right?

I have no interest in reinforcing the kind of quota thinking that started this nonsense, but let's check the record, shall we? Since 2005, six African-American men have been nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (including Will Smith) with one of them, Forest Whitaker, winning the award; three African-American women have been nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role; three African-American men have been nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role; seven African-American (or pure African, in the case of 2013's winner, Lupita Nyong'o) women have been nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, with four of them winning the award; and two African-American men have been nominated for Best Director.

There are 50 total nominees in each category during this span of time, which means that, of 250 nominees, 21 were African-American. That's 8.4%. According to the latest census numbers, African-Americans make up 13.2% of the population, which boils down to a 4.8% difference. So, technically, perhaps Lee and Smith have a case, and perhaps there is still a ways to go to reach statistical parity. I can appreciate it being a sensitive issue for millions of African-Americans, but I just can't see Lee being legitimately angry about the Academy's racism just a few months after being given a special award by the Academy or agree that Will Smith is the victim of racism when he has already been nominated in the past.

The Smiths at the Oscars
Look at how unfairly the Academy treats the Smith family!

But even more than that, I scoff at the very idea of thinking in terms of statistical allocations of disparate groups. When you start judging industries based on how many of each subset of society are included in them, you are not judging people by the content of their character. I get that we don't live in a perfect society where nobody is racist and nobody is discriminated against for stupid reasons, but I just don't see how you can hope to get there when you continuously reinforce our superficial differences by divvying us up into tribes.

Besides, it's a Pandora's box. How many Asian-Americans have been nominated? How many Muslims or Jews? How many left-handed, transgendered redheads? No matter where you stand on "#OscarsSoWhite," you have to acknowledge this is a slippery slope to utter madness.

And before we get completely carried away with ourselves here, let's remember that the Academy Awards have always been political, not truly merit-based. It's a select (and mostly secret) group of industry bigwigs who decide amongst themselves who wins their favor. It's impossible to quantitatively assign merit to any artform, but the idea that the Academy's nominations are sacrosanct gospel before which all of film must genuflect is preposterous. Every year, there are dozens--if not hundreds--of actors, actresses, directors, writers, set designers, editors, visual effects teams, and more who deserve recognition but fail to gain the attention of the Academy. There are movies that will stand the test of time and be remembered and studied for generations that have gotten the cold shoulder and nary a single nomination (such as Heat, Breathless, The Shining, The Searchers, and Touch of Evil).

The Searchers
Possibly the greatest and most influential Western ever made: zero nominations

Indeed, as I've gotten older, I've found the Academy Awards to be less and less relevant and more of a spectacle comprised of a bunch of wealthy elitists blowing themselves on stage. A much better measure of a movie's worth can be found in its box office, its longevity, its legacy, and/or how much it is copied by future filmmakers. Whether or not the director has a small golden statue of a naked, faceless man on his mantle is of no consequence, and I see no reason why we should all be grabbing our pitchforks and torches because too many of those glorified tchotchkes are going to white people.

Honestly, petty controversies like this are why we still have a race problem in this country. Sure, there are legitimate issues of race that we can have meaningful discussions about--like how extreme policing quotas and tight budgets have fostered something that looks and smells an awful lot like racism--but the 88th Annual Academy Awards is not among them. I admire Spike Lee, but on this, he comes across as a spoiled brat whining that the free ice cream he was just given doesn't have enough rainbow sprinkles on it.

-e. magill 2/25/2016

  • Black Heritage 2017: The Lives that Matter
  • Black Heritage 2015: The Identity Politic