A whitewashed awards season

by Hunter Harris / Beacon Staff • January 20, 2016

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Hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite only recognize a truth that has persisted for nearly a century
Hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite only recognize a truth that has persisted for nearly a century

When I was 17, I wanted an Oscar the way some girls wanted boyfriends. The luster of those golden statuettes twinkled in my daydreams, and half-humorous excerpts of future acceptance speeches made their way into my notebooks. I talked about awards season the way some people talked about sports or Harry Potter—I plotted and watched and critiqued and strategized as if this world somehow included or applied to me. I explained the introduction of the preferential ballot in exquisite detail to anyone who would listen. Everything about it was maddening and mesmerizing: the split votes and the snubs, the token British critical darling, the annual frontrunner that seemed to be such a sure thing in October, but by December was never to be seen again. 

Eventually Oscar season was all-consuming until it wasn’t. I became less and less concerned with capital-b Big and capital-i Important films, ones that usually privileged capital-m Masculinity. The Oscar-winners that were once at the top of my “to watch” list fell to the bottom. I was ready to be seen, that is, to stop stringing together male characters to reflect my own identity.

Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences look a little like those large, utterly random portraits in Emerson’s Iwasaki library: white, male, and over 60. A March 2014 story in The Atlantic crunched the numbers and found that indeed the Academy was whiter than the state of Utah. These are people who chose The King’s Speech over The Social Network, who decided Crash was a not only a good movie but a legitimate examination of racial politics. Listen to the advice of DJ Khaled and don’t play yourself: Hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite only recognize a truth that has persisted for nearly a century. The Oscars and hyper-“traditional” awards shows like them were meant for and created by white men.

This awards show is just that—an awards show. The Oscars hemorrhage ratings every year; their relevance is waning. The Academy’s awards, golden statuettes I once thought were handed down from God or Coppola or both, exist as an annual reminder of the narrow conception of minority identities that are allowed beyond Hollywood’s gatepost: women within Freud’s Madonna or whore framework, black Americans as slaves or savages, the desperate poor, the invisible Asian. I want the Oscars to grow and expand, but I can’t wait for them. I can’t care.

This week, Jada Pinkett Smith (who comes from a cadre of minority artists: mother to Jaden and Willow, wife to Will) announced her family would boycott the Oscars. “Begging for acknowledgement or even asking [to be nominated] diminishes dignity," Smith said in a video released online. "It diminishes power and we are a dignified people and we are powerful. And let's not forget it. So let's let the Academy do them with all grace and love and let's do us differently.” Do The Right Thing director Spike Lee echoed her sentiment, opting to skip the showcase sponsored by the very people that gave him an honorary Oscar.

This is one way to do it, but I’m not sure it’s the most effective. This institution proved its values with its exclusion of artists of color, just as it has proved its limited conception of womanhood and sexuality decades over. If the Academy (or anyone else) took seriously Will Smith’s talent, he would have been nominated for Concussion. If the election of a black woman, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, as the Academy’s president hasn’t stopped ancient white men from honoring other ancient white men, the absence of the Smiths or the Lees is an easy enough slight to shrug off.

Three film critics from The New York Times reflected on this year’s particular whiteness. Chief critic A.O. Scott effectively noted that it is a symptom of larger exclusions: “[The whiteness] of this year’s field of nominees exposes not only the myopia of the nominating body but also the deep structural biases of the industry that feeds it. The Oscars have, since the century began, done a reasonably good job of recognizing black talent, belatedly making up for decades of neglect. 12 Years a Slave won best picture.” Complaints about Hollywood’s exclusion are valid and necessary, but another substantial problem gets less press: Mainstream Hollywood is familiar with only a specific idea of blackness, a “black movie” for “black audiences.” But only for the simplistic is diversity only registered in numbers or quotas—minority characters ought to be allowed the full range of life as white, straight, male ones do, the ability to be conniving and capricious, assured and affectionate, vulnerable and resentful.