The Oscars, Their Whiteness & Their Utter Contempt for Us All: An Exercise in Overanalysis

Oscars So White
Greyscale is in one menu, Hue and Saturation are in two others. Ponder this.

It’s Oscar time again. Which means it’s time for everyone to break into their pre-existing camps and start hating each other. In marketing terms, controversy is a “guaranteed buy” for my fellow Americans, especially in an Election Year™ as depressing as this one’s sure to be. This year the controversy comes with its own Twitter hashtag, same as last year, because that’s just the age we live in. But at least this hashtag has the benefit of expressing a true statement: #OscarsSoWhite

Yes. Yes, they are. Like the exoticized servant girl said to her white savior, “It is known, Khaleesi.” But we only seem to remember it in early January, when the nominees are finally released and the whole stinking system gears up for another churn of the grinding wheel.

The #Oscars are #So #White because nearly everything in #America is #So #White; from the production companies that finance the films to the three-letter talent agencies where they get their workforce to the schools where they all fish for unpaid interns. And as much as…certain people…bitch and moan about Affirmative Action, it’s done remarkably little for our cultural industries. That may have something to do with the culture industry’s location in some of the most expensive cities on Earth, but I’m not an economist.

I’m a film critic, but I’m freelance. (“Best thing for a kid your age!”) So I’m once again in the position of having seen exactly one of this year’s contenders. I probably won’t get to see many more before yet another Summer Movie Season descends upon us all like a planet-killing asteroid. Since I can’t comment on any of their merits-as-movies, let’s skip to the part of the “think piece,” or “hot take,” or whatever we’re calling essays now, where the author waves a fig leaf in the direction of some “constructive” solution. Given what we’re working against, and the massive prison we’re all in, the only reasonable solution I can think of would take at least twenty years, involve millions of dollars, and no less than two small squads of highly trained ninja assassins.

Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the people who pick each year’s crop of Oscar contenders and, eventually, vote on who wins – are, according to the last publicly available survey we have (which is barely three years old at press time), 94% white, 77% dudes, and their average age (average age, mind) is 63.

Knowing this, their annual selections (and eventual winners) make a bit more sense. Old white dudes like to watch movies about the things they did when they were young white dudes. Things like going outdoors (Revenant, Martian), driving cars (Mad Max: Fury Road), playing spies (Bridge of same) and writing Pulitzer Prize-winning articles about kid-fiddling Catholic priests (Spotlight). Don’t ask me how Room made the cut. All I know is, it premiered at the Telluride film festival and it’s produced (in part) by a company called Film4…just like 12 Years a Slave.

But I’m sure that’s just an amazing coincidence. The Academy isn’t stupid – or, at least, they aren’t that fucking stupid. I know we’d all like to picture them all sitting around a boardroom, saying bloodless, stupid, racist things like, “We nominated Selma and gave it to 12 Years a Slave not even three years ago! What more do these people want?” That’s too clean an image. It explains too much. The system does not require such things. If it could eliminate humans entirely, it would. It’s as much on auto-pilot as the algorithms that pay your bills, which is why it feels like so little ever changes. You’re using human tactics to fight a machine.

The best way to fight a machine is to disassemble it, which means we’d have to sneak someone (or, even better, a small army of someones) into CAA or William Morris, and keep them there long enough for them to amass some real power. The ninja assassins are for strategic removal of especially-annoying office rivals without recourse to the LAPD/mob, who charge too much. However, to even get that far we’d have to throw a whole collection of poor, unfortunate souls into the gaping pit that’s become the University of California system. I won’t order anyone to do that, so volunteers will be appreciated. Who wants to join what my parent’s generation called “the Good Ol’ Boy Network?” Don’t answer that – this is America™, so I already know the answer is “everyone.” How do you think the Good Ol’ Boy Network’s survived so long?

Spike Lee said it better than I could…which is almost too bad, because a good chunk of you have probably already thought some version of: “Spike Lee? Fuck him! I’m going to automatically think the opposite of whatever he thinks, just on general principal!”:

“It goes further than the Academy Awards. It has to go back to the gatekeepers. The people who have the green-light vote…We’re not in the room. The executives, when they have these green-light meetings quarterly where they look at the scripts, they look who’s in it and they decide what we’re making and what we’re not making.”

The rest of this is going to be a good ol’ fashioned Jeremiad, so excuse me while I climb up on my high horse and tell you all what you should do with your lives. For example: stop watching the Oscars. They’re crap. They’ve been crap for my whole life and there’s no reason to expect that to change anytime soon. You’d have better odds of your porn star of choice becoming your next sexy room mate.

Because we’re all aware of this (even if only on an unconscious level) the Oscars have become a horrific cross between the Superbowl and the political primary season they coincide with every four years. People’s reactions to them have become as predictable as their reactions to the Next Big Political Controversy, and all the more exhausting for it. One one side, you have the truly vapid magazine press, talking about about outfits and shoes. On the other, the equally-vapid-in-its-own-way film press, which falls headfirst into the “who’s up/who’s down” horse race aspect of the story, having assimilated all the worst habits of our brothers and sisters on the campaign trail. A few brave souls dare to wring their hands over the Moral Question of the Day…but by now I think we all know that Moral Question will be conveniently forgotten in just over a month. By then, the armchair Frederick Wertheims will arise to tell us why the success of the latest superhero movie means we all secretly lust for a fascist police state. Don’t laugh: a whole crop of those accompanies nearly every superhero movie release now…and this year, Dawn of Justice is coming. To properly capture the mood of…some…of my colleagues, read that last bit in your best Sean-Bean-as-Ned-Stark impression.

I was going to wait until I put this out in the open...but fuck it: it's January.
I was going to wait to show this off…but fuck it: it’s January.

But we were talking about the Oscars: a corrupt and venial institution that serves very little purpose beyond giving we poor peasants a chance to gawk at the upper crust. It also gives the fat middle of that crust (who still think they’re the middle class, no matter how many condos or T-Rex skulls they own) an excuse to party in the dead of winter.

Unfortunately, as a marketing tool (the system’s preferred way of looking at everything), an Oscar might as well be a license to throw your film down one of Winston Smith’s memory holes. Spike made another excellent point in the above interview when he reminded everyone that his second-best film (Do the Right Thing) lost out, in its time, to Driving Miss Daisy…which no one now remembers. With good reason. How many of you own copies of last year’s Best Picture, Birdman? Downloads don’t count: that’s cheating. How many of you remember The King’s Speech? Or The Artist? Because I don’t. Did you actually watch 12 Years a Slave? All the way through? If so, congratulations: you’ve done more than some of the Academy members who voted for it. You’ve certainly shown it more respect.

If you love Fury Road (or Creed, or Concussion, or whatever) so much, why would you want to consign it to such a fate? Forgotten, save as a series of articles cluttering up your cell phone apps and an answer to a trivia question. Hell, it’s worse than being forgotten: it’s never having been experienced in the first place. For a piece of art, regardless of its medium, that’s tantamount to nonexistence.

Because guess what else gets lost amid this by-now-annual sturm und drang? Discussion of the films in question. That stops all together…assuming it even began. But I’m sure that’s just another amazing coincidence.

I guess that will be up to me, as usual. In the meantime: I applaud the Smith family’s decision to boycott this farcical excuse in envy-manufacturing and irrational jingoism. I applaud Spike Lee’s decision to go watch his beloved Knicks eat shit at Madison Square Garden. I suggest you all follow their lead, for as the Fresh Prince goes, so goes America. If you’re reading this, you probably weren’t invited to the party, but there’s still something you can do, and it’s the same thing some of us have already been doing for over a decade now:

Stop watching the Oscars. You’re better than they are. And stop reading articles about them. Including this one. Lucky for you, it’s over…

Almost. Just as I was polishing this up, the Academy announced an “historic action to increase diversity”…at 2pm on a Friday. The traditional time to announce news you’d like to bury over the weekend, since all the journalists worth their job title are already getting drunk by then. In this – and in the actual character of their “historic action” – the Academy’s behaving exactly like I’d expect a feckless bureaucracy to behave. Whenever institutions of this size and scale announce a “historic action” it’s their equivalent of proclaiming, “Let them eat cake!”

“Beginning later this year, each new member’s voting status will last 10 years, and will be renewed if that new member has been active in motion pictures during that decade. In addition, members will receive lifetime voting rights after three ten-year terms; or if they have won or been nominated for an Academy Award…Those who do not qualify for active status will be moved to emeritus status. Emeritus members do not pay dues but enjoy all the privileges of membership, except voting.”

Previously, nomination was enough to get you life-time voting rights. This is probably why the average age of Academy members veers so far north.

“In order to immediately increase diversity on the Board of Governors, the Academy will establish three new governor seats that will be nominated by the President for three-year terms and confirmed by the Board.”

Wow. Three whole governor’s seats. Our cups runeth over.

“This will not affect voting for this year’s Oscars.”

Oh. So why do this at all?

“The Board’s goal is to commit to doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.”

I see. So, in four years, we can all look forward to the Academy being 88% white and 54% dudes. How will we ever deal with such a generous gift horse? I plan to look it square in the mouth and hopefully find out how long we have until it keels over from a gum infection.

This is the kind of stop-gap measure every large organization trots out when they panic. It does absolutely nothing to address the issue over half my colleagues are up in arms about…but it promises it will…eventually. Some time in the next Presidential term. Notice there’s not one mention of age anywhere in that glorified press release? Will the average Academy member still be old enough to draw a Social Security check? Will they still be rich enough to buy the rest of us ten times over without even having to touch their off-shore accounts? Because if so, don’t expect the Oscars to change.

Hell, Ava DuVernay could lead a bloodless coup right now, declare herself Academy president, pack the Board of Governors like FDR packed the Supreme Court, and retroactively give Gladiator‘s Best Picture award to something deserving, like Bamboozled…and I’d still have my doubts. After the Academy announced it’s historic action™, the director of Selma tweeted “Shame is a helluva motivator,” and she’s right…when you’re dealing with human beings, which we’re not. But even then, it’s a crap-shoot. It’s just as likely shame will motivate your hypothetical human to do something stupid.

Now, guilt, on the hand…there’s a real motivator. Because at least guilt admits some kind of fault on the part of the guilty. Guilt says, “I did a bad thing that hurt people. I’m not gonna do it again.” Shame says, “These people think I did a bad thing. I’m going to do something to convince them otherwise because I’m not really a bad person…right?” That nagging insecurity – that little “right?” at the end – is what makes the shameful dangerous. It makes them angry, which makes them stupid, and eventually drives them to lash out. In fact, 9 times out of 10, the shamed’s transparent attempts to convince everyone else of their righteous goodness are designed to fail, specifically to justify the eventual lashing out. “We gave it to 12 Years a Slave, what more do these people want?” becomes “We’re forming a committee!” becomes “Ah, fuck it. We’ve done all we could. There’s just no pleasing some people.”

Actually, we’d all be very pleased if we were given actual power instead of actual power’s table scraps…but the system cannot realize this without destroying itself completely. So “There’s just no pleasing some people,” becomes “Fuck all them haters” and the shamed break free of their shame. Free enough, at any rate, to start shaming other people, which is the only freedom left to us that’s still free…as long as you have an internet connection.

But we (we film critics, I mean, be we freelance or be we pro) aren’t really supposed to care about any of this. We’re supposed to re-post their press release, nod sagely, congratulate the Academy for their high minds and big hearts, and then go back to recounting the horse race like good little court stenographers. Will this, at last, be the year poor ol’ Leo finally wins? Who’s going to be nearly-naked on the red carpet? How near-to-naked will they get? Who’s going to slut-shame them for it, and who are we all going to get to plain-ol’-shame in return? Will it be a seventeen-year-old film critic with frosted-flake hair and a famous dad? Oh please, oh please, oh please. I love it when all the things I hate are squeezed into one convenient, person-shaped package.

Like I said: stop watching this crap. It’s not even good crap. It’s the kind of crap that’ll swallow your soul.

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4 thoughts on “The Oscars, Their Whiteness & Their Utter Contempt for Us All: An Exercise in Overanalysis”

  1. It’s been quite awhile since your last post, and I have to say it was worth the wait. Well done Sir!
    Personally, I stopped watching the Oscars for good in’94 (it was intermittent at best before then) when Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction lost to Forrest FUCKING Gump. And I just know that Mad Max was a pity nomination for all us genre nerds – even though its because of us that blockbuster movies make all the money. This state of affairs depresses but does not surprise me after I read research that did psych profiles of large organization and found that 90-95% would be classified as sociopaths if they were human….
    Yes, Hannibal Lecter runs Hollywood.
    Jesus wept.

    1. If Mad Max is a pity-nomination for any genre nerd, it’s probably George Miller. Dude’s pushing 71 and somehow managed to escape the hellish fate of directing more Happy Feet movies. Like Agent K said: “Boss, that’s gotta be tough enough.”

      I remember ’94. My household hadn’t seen Shawshank at the time, but my parents took Forrest Fucking Gump‘s win as a personal insult to their entire generation. I’m not that hardcore about it, but I understand. Spike Lee forgot to mention that, not only is Driving Miss Daisy not the Best Picture of 1989, it wasn’t even the Best Morgan Freeman Picture of 1989. Dude should’ve won for Glory, but he had to wait 16 more years…until he got a Best Supporting nod for a Clint Eastwood movie. Makes no sense if we assume things win Oscars based on their actual artistic merits. But once we start viewing the Oscars in terms of Hollywood’s internal politics, a little sense starts to leak back into the mess.

      1. And to bring this back around to the bland whiteness of the Oscars: between Forrest Fucking Gump and Back to the Future, it proves that Zemeckis is a bloody racist (unknowingly or not) that wants to take away the accomplishments of Black America and give it to a couple of incompetent white guys aaaand the Hollywood establishment is A-OK with that.
        On top of that we can look wayyy back to see that nothing ever changes in Hollywood regarding internal politics and boring winners eg. Citizen Kane losing to How Green Is My Valley.

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