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January 23, 2015

The Oscars get bleached, but it's not a surprise

The announcement of and ensuing controversy over this year’s Academy Award nominations presents an interesting critical conundrum. It can be difficult to identify individual actions and decisions as parts of wider trends, and yet we know that these wider trends only exist as accumulations of individual actions. This is why most of society’s large systemic problems can be so hard to address. They are too large to take on as a whole, but many of their individual pieces can be too ambiguous to judge.

There is no one Academy Award nomination where we can definitively say that race played a factor in its selection; no one white actor who we can definitely say was less deserving than an alternate person of color. But the larger trend is clear: 20 acting nominations filled by 20 white actors and actresses (the first such occurrence since 1998), not to mention the predominantly white nominations in most of the non-acting categories.

People will hem and haw about how awards of merit such as the Academy Awards should always place considerations of quality before considerations like diversity. And in a vacuum, that thought has some validity. However much they like to parade themselves as banner men of social progress, the Academy’s voters have no obligation to reward the work of anyone other than those they choose, whatever the recipients’ backgrounds.

But the backlash to the backlash misses the mark in my mind. The takeaway from these nominations is not that we should impose some affirmative action–like quota on minority nominees. It’s that we shouldn’t have to, and the fact that this is still a problem reflects very poorly on the way the film industry promotes and circulates its own products.

What I mean is that we don’t have to look very far before finding worthy nominees of all colors and creeds. The controversy has really focused on the perceived snub (I’ll drop the “perceived,” it was a straight snub) of Ava DuVernay’s Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma from the Best Director and Best Actor categories for DuVernay and David Oyelowo respectively. DuVernay would have been the first black woman ever nominated as a director, and it would have been well-deserved. Selma is a breathtaking film, as our own Paul Dillon eloquently attested in his review last week.

But the focus on Selma also takes away from an excellent crop of diverse perspectives in film making we saw last year. Critics raved about the performance of Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the under billed Beyond the Lights, and rising star Rosario Dawson’s turn in Chris Rock’s Top Five. Either could have shaken up what is frankly a very stale Best Actress race. I was shocked not to see Rock’s work not recognized in the Best Original Screenplay category; Top Five might have been the funniest film of last year.

I could go on, but just as it is fallacious to shoot down white nominees who are “less deserving” than their peers, it is also unproductive to cherry-pick certain persons of color whose work might be “more deserving.” The problem, if we are to call it that, cannot be solved on a case-by-case basis. The fact that 12 Years a Slave was awarded Best Picture last year does not in any way make up for this year’s results any more than a predominantly black film winning big next year would.

And we are all somewhat complicit in this. I am writing this column now, but in a few weeks' time I will be writing my Oscar winner predictions, and then my post-ceremony wrap-up and analysis. And most likely I will only mention this controversy as an aside, if at all. I’ll be caught up in the minutia and politics of the awards while ignoring the larger and far more important politics that surround them. And so will the rest of the critical establishment. I can’t say for sure if this is some moral failing on our part. After all, as some writers have pointed out, the Academy Awards are hardly the central battleground for racial issues in our country, even if they receive a disproportionate amount of attention for their failings in that regard.

I don’t think something like this will happen again, not because the Academy will see the error of its ways or somehow eradicate its internal racism, but simply because this is a public embarrassment the likes of which the Academy has not seen before. Like all institutions in the motion picture business, the Academy .is obsessed with its own image. And the last image it wants to project is 94 percent white, 76 percent male, and an average age of 63. Unfortunately, these numbers are not an image—they’re a reality.

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