Friday, January 22, 2016

A Visiting & Revisiting Special: Should There Be a Boycott of the 2016 Academy Awards?

This is the second part of a discussion between me and my partner Rik over on The Cinema 4 Pylon. Please head over there to read the first part at:

4. Do you believe a threatened African-American artistic boycott of the 88th Academy Awards in February will be effective in solving the problem of racial diversity within the Academy? Or does it need to be much broader in scope to have any real effect?

Aaron: Do I think it will solve the problem? No, definitely not. Do I think it will help to bring attention and to the problem and the need to fix it? I will answer with a resounding yes. Already the publicity has convinced most rational people that this is a real issue. As I said earlier, Hollywood will only really follow the money; it has no real political or social leanings of its own, no matter what George Clooney wants to think. Hollywood can lead the charge on issues of social justice, and it definitely has in the past, but only once it’s been proven to be profitable. I don’t mean to sound cynical about the Dream Factory, but I think it helps explain why the entertainment industry can be this weird mix of progressive ideology and regressive social viewpoints.

As it stands, I think this situation has been a total embarrassment for the Academy, and there’s really no way they can just ignore this. Last year, when Selma star David Oyelowo was snubbed for Best Actor, the Academy could at least say ‘Yeah, but the film was nominated for Best Picture, so it’s not like we’re ignoring you.’ They could hide behind that attitude even when Selma lost to a movie about a middle-aged white guy grappling with his insecurities. But this year, with so many great performances and films helmed by and featuring people of color, how is it none of them got nominated? It boggles the mind that Straight Outta Compton only got recognized for its screenplay, because it is otherwise the exact sort of movie the Academy loves to gush over: popular, crowd-pleasing, and based on a true story. It hits all of the expected and required beats so perfectly that its lack of inclusion can almost only be read as racist.

And don’t get me started on Creed (which, full disclosure, I have not yet seen). A widely acclaimed, profitable movie written and directed by a black man, about a black man, and the only nomination in the film is for the old white guy that helps him out. This is sort of to be expected, though, because if there’s one thing Hollywood loves more than money, it’s patting themselves on the back, and Stallone’s character in Creed must have hit that sweet spot of white liberal guilt that allowed Academy voters to vicariously feel like the good guy, helping the disaffected black youth. A similar phenomenon was likely at play when The Blind Side and The Help were massive hits awarded with Academy recognition. People want a social issue that they can be the hero of, and so they see Sylvester Stallone helping this kid out, and think to themselves ‘Man, I’d love to be that guy, and prove we aren’t all racist assholes.’ This should not be read as me stating that Stallone doesn’t deserve the Oscar nomination; everything I hear is that he’s quite good in the film, and of course he was nominated for the original Rocky way back when. But to single him out in a film that is getting a lot of acclaim for both its star, Michael B. Jordan, and its co-writer/director, Ryan Coogler, seems a bit odd.

Rik: As we were putting this piece together, Academy president Cheryl Boon Isaacs came out with a statement lamenting the lack of diversity in her organization. Isaacs, who is black, is the only non-white member of the 43-member executive branch, and she put out the statement in response to both Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett-Smith, who both stated they would not be attending the Oscars this year because of the lack of diversity in the nominations. Isaacs said the Academy was instituting a five-year plan, with a goal of 2020, to drastically expand the membership of the Academy to make it more racially and gender diverse.

I personally wish that someone besides Jada Pinkett-Smith had been the first to really speak up about this issue, because she is married to someone whom it is widely believed should have received an Oscar nomination this year. Lee himself had his own horse in the race with Chi-Raq. While their announcements were certainly heard, they could potentially just be perceived as so many sour grapes. On the other side, Lee also just received an Honorary Oscar in November for his lifetime of film work, and so his absence from the February ceremony when they call his name will be noticed greatly.

No call for a wider boycott has actually been put out, but what if it did? I am not sure it will be all that effective without Hollywood itself changing massively in the types of films it puts out and how it hires minorities across the board. But if a boycott did occur, it would have to include far more than just African-Americans or Asian-Americans or women... it would need to be as diverse as the intended goal. Isaacs said the Academy's goal was 2020, and that seems to have been said to buy them some time, but will people be accepting of this type of a “wait and see” response? The only real way to get the Academy's notice is to hit them where it hurts the most: a full-scale boycott of the broadcast itself, and that might including hitting potential advertisers in the pocketbook as well. Otherwise, it will be sound and fury. And then, the only option would be to wait for five years to see if anything has happened.

And I somewhat agree on your point about Stallone’s nomination possibly fulfilling a form of white liberal guilt on the part of the members who voted for it, but from my side, I just see it as another example of a Supporting Actor award nomination (or even win) being used to recognize a longtime member for his successful career in Hollywood.

5. Will you skip watching the Oscars this year in recognition of a possible boycott, or can you not keep away?

Rik: I guess the question that we should have asked if “Would you support such a boycott?” My answer would be no, even though I am as desirous of an outcome of wider diversity in the industry as the rest. I just don’t think it is the solution to the problem.

As for skipping the Oscars? Not a friggin’ chance. Can't happen; won't happen. Unless the response is so big that they have to cancel the broadcast, I will be watching the Oscars this year. I would gladly boycott sponsors of the show, but their commercials don't affect us anyway since we purposefully watch the film on a delay so we can zip past most of the ads. Can’t boycott something if you don’t even know they are sponsoring something. (I suppose a list would get compiled, so maybe then…)

I haven't purposefully skipped the Oscars since I was a kid, so why would I start now? It's one of the few ceremonies that I continue to celebrate, even if I readily admit that I don't usually agree with most of the nominations or winners. For me, it is the last bastion of old Hollywood that most of the world gets to see, and I don't want it to go away. They just need to be more inclusive across the board.

Aaron: Yeah, you pretty much answered for me; I will definitely be watching the ceremony. At this point there is no way the issue won’t be addressed, either by a presenter, a winner, or host Chris Rock, and I’m looking forward to that. But then, I’d just be watching the awards anyway. While I realize the awards show is flawed, it’s always been that way. The movies that get nominated and awarded are never the ones I want, and the award is next to meaningless to anybody not in that room. It’s Hollywood congratulating itself for a few hours, and selling advertising space while doing so. This year the scandal gives the show the opportunity to be relevant and meaningful for the first time… maybe ever.

I see there have been some calls for Chris Rock to join the boycott and step down from his role as host this year, and I dearly hope he does not listen. If he leaves the show, sure, the parade of white stars and producers will paint an ugly portrait of racism in Hollywood, but it will also deprive the show of the one voice that could honestly address the situation from the viewpoint of someone affected by it. If we see Brad Pitt get up there and talk about diversity in Hollywood, or George Clooney talk about how Hollywood should lead the charge on these issues, it’s going to feel just as masturbatory as the rest of the ceremony. If Chris Rock is up there speaking, or if Spike Lee actually was allowed on stage, it would be an opportunity to actually speak out and affect some change.

In the end I think my thoughts echo those of Viola Davis, who said “The problem is not with the Oscars, the problem is with the Hollywood movie-making system.” The Academy Awards are a reflection of the year for the Hollywood studios; it doesn’t fully reflect the face of what is really going on in American cinema. A lot of the most vibrant and diverse works being produced will never make it onto a ballot, partially because a lot of those films, and the artists working on them, are non-union and therefore have no voice in the voting process.

Take the 2015 film Tangerine, which is miles away from the type of fare the Oscars usually reward, and is therefore nowhere to be seen in the list of nominees. Tangerine follows the story of two transgender women as they scour West Hollywood for the pimp who has wronged one of them, and was one of the most energetic and vibrant films I saw last year. The film was shot for around $100,000, and on an iPhone no less (though you wouldn’t notice it if you didn’t know that information beforehand), which was necessitated by the fact that no studio in Hollywood would have dared fund the film. Like I said, not the type of film the Academy would normally praise, and yet that speaks to the blinkered existence in which the Academy lives.

So, you have a vibrant film scene happening under the radar in Hollywood, a scene that is inclusive of all comers, and more representative of what most people experience in the world around them. The fact that these films, and filmmakers, are excluded from awards recognition is not really the fault of the Oscars, outside of the fact that union membership seems to be an unofficial requirement of becoming a voting member. In order for the Academy Awards to recognize more diverse works, they need to urge their members to look outside of the big studio output, or the big studios need to start making a more diverse product. Right now it’s a little bit like a feedback loop; the studios continue making whitewashed tentpole movies and crowd-pleasing dramas, because that’s what audiences and awards shows like. The awards shows like those whitewashed crowd-pleasers because that’s the only thing being made, and on and on and on it will go until someone decides to make a change. I believe the decision to expand Academy membership and recruit new members is the right one, but it remains to be seen if it will be enough. I’ll tell you one thing, I am actually more interested in seeing this year’s Oscars than I have been in quite awhile.

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