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#OscarsSoWhite Misses the Mark

01/14/2016
27mammy-master675

Gotta say, I just can’t get behind the #OscarsSoWhite thing. For a few main reasons:

First, it’s a bad use of statistics. Year to year, in a profession which is still overwhelmingly comprised of white actors, and hundreds of performances are considered for a handful of awards, there is a fairly good chance that a person of color wouldn’t be nominated even if they were randomly selected. Saying that the Academy is “regressing” without statistical rigor is really just another form of shallow horse-race politics.

Second, the focus on the race of Oscar nominees is a bad proxy fight for larger diversity issues in our storytelling entertainment. As noted above, its methodology of diagnosis is suspect – as a result, its proponents seem disingenuous to the unpersuaded, and lose credibility as a result. Why are we focusing on Oscar nominations? Other advocates such as the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA have done such great work looking at diversity in Hollywood that doesn’t rely on weak, click-baity analysis.

Third, clamoring for merely greater minority representation in media ignores the fact that the quality of that representation also matters. Hattie McDaniel may have made history by being the first black woman to win an Oscar, but she also won it playing “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind.” Octavia Spencer was amazing in The Help (and won an Oscar for it in 2011), but ultimately she was still playing “the help”. For a long time now, advocates for actors of color have been pushing not just for more roles but better roles, where minority actors aren’t simply playing stereotypes, even when they win awards for it. Focusing on having more Oscar nominations neglects this critical part of the conversation.

Fourth and finally, the #oscarssowhite focus ignores the fact that nearly every Best Picture nominee this year centers on liberal-associated issues and cultural tropes. Let’s go through the list, shall we?

  1. The Martian – the value of STEM Education (includes relatively diverse cast, albeit with many Asian characters being replaced by actors of other races)
  2. Brooklyn – the immigrant experience, pre-second-wave feminism, strong female lead
  3. The Big Short– the 2008 financial crisis and income inequality, capitalistic excess goes unpunished, white guys behaving badly
  4. Spotlight – brave journalists exposing corruption within a powerful religious institution
  5. Room – domestic violence, strong female lead, the challenges of nontraditional parenthood
  6. The Revenant – a brutal take-down of the romanticized frontiersman narrative, Native Americans aren’t the bad guys (!)
  7. Bridge of Spies – the Cold War was bad? (hey, I said nearly every nominee – also, it’s Spielberg, so you can’t expect anything too politically risky)
  8. Mad Max: Fury Road – Strong female lead(s), commodification of the female body, oppressive patriarchal society, gender equity shown as the Strong Leads Learn From Each Other

Sure, I’m exaggerating a little for comedy, but you see where I’m going with this. There’s a lot to like here if you’re a left-leaning film critic. Credit where credit is due, right?

Obviously at the end of the day I do not think that Hollywood is anywhere close to telling enough stories from the minds of storytellers of color. And even within the Oscar nominations, there are very legitimate gripes about actors of color and the films they are in being passed over (Straight Outta Compton comes to mind) – again, I’d urge everyone to read the report from the Ralph J. Bunche center.  But #OscarsSoWhite is the most reductive, least thoughtful way I can think of engaging with this problem and finding a real solution.

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