prejudice (n) 1. preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience (From the Latin prae, “in advance,” + judicium, “judgment”)
That word, prejudice, perfectly describes much of the backlash against the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for its nominating White people almost exclusively for Oscars this year, because it was a foregone conclusion that the Academy was going to faces charges of racism if Selma, the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic nominated for Best Picture, didn’t receive a boatload of nominations, and that it will be every year that non-Whites aren’t among the nominees for the top prizes. For many there is a simple, prefabricated equation: no nominees of color = racism.
Of course, they may be right. We know that the Academy is disproportionately male (77%) and White (94%!), with a median age of 62. And while it’s a form of prejudice—as in racism—to presume that old Mr. Charlie will always favor “his own kind,” it doesn’t stretch the imagination to conjecture that a lack of diversity among the Academy members might indeed feed into a lack of diversity in the films they favor.
Then again, it isn’t like the Academy simply refuses to recognize the work of non-Whites. The same Academy that this year is getting called on the carpet for not recognizing enough non-Whites last year gave 12 Years a Slave Best Picture and John Ridley the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Steve McQueen was nominated for his direction, with the award going to Alphonso Cuarón for Gravity. In the acting categories, while Lupita Nyong’o won Best Supporting Actress, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Barkhad Abdi also garnered nominations, which means three of the 20 acting nominations, or 15%, went to Blacks, which is proportional to the percentage of Black faces in American society.
And get this: aside from Nyong’o’s, none of the winners deserved their statuettes. Dallas Buyers Club and especially Her are better than 12 Years a Slave, Richard Linklater and company’s adaptation of characters from his earlier Before… films for Before Midnight is more compelling than Ridley’s work, and Cuarón’s directorial turn in that piece of shit Gravity is laughable.
This, of course, is a matter of taste (even if I feel I can make a near-objective case for what garbage Gravity is), and that’s part of the point: De gustibus non est disputandum. There is no disputing about taste. Who’s to say who is worthy of being nominated and winning awards and who isn’t? Well, when we’re talking about the Academy Awards, it’s the Academy, stupid.
Does the Academy have stupid taste? To my mind the answer is and always has been “yes!” You can find travesties of taste almost anywhere you look in the Academy’s history, travesties that have nothing to do with ethnicity. My favorite is 1990, when the Academy not only awarded Best Picture to Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas, but even gave Kevin Costner the Best Director Oscar over Martin Scorsese, despite the latter’s having turned in what may be the single greatest work by a director in cinema history. Was it because the Academy is biased against Italians? No: it’s because they have shitty taste.
Sure, sometimes they get it right. In 2007 No Country for Old Men deservedly raked in the awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay, while Daniel Day-Lewis got Best Actor (in a fantastic field!) for his work in There Will Be Blood, another stone-cold masterpiece that garnered Best Picture and Best Director nominations. Hell, they even got Best Documentary right by giving it to Taxi to the Dark Side. Okay, so they bit the big one by giving Best Animated Feature to Ratatoullie over Persepolis. But hey, you can’t win ‘em all.
Usually their choices are terrible almost all the way across the board, and on occasion those terrible choices include snubbing deserving White men. Remember when The Hurt Locker got Best Picture, Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow), and Best Original Screenplay (Mark Boal)? Well, James Cameron was right—not about Avatar‘s being more deserving than The Hurt Locker, but that the awards went to the wrong film. The film year was 2009, the year of Quentin Tarantino’s glorious Inglorious Basterds, which outclassed The Hurt Locker in all three categories so clearly that one could argue that the only reason The Hurt Locker, a rather pedestrian film, won anything at all was that director Kathryn Bigelow is female, especially considering all the hype around her gender in relation to the film at the time.
But that didn’t stop people crying “sexism!” three years later when Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty—another pedestrian film—was shut out. Is Zero Dark Thirty better work than Argo, which won Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay? Maybe. But it wasn’t in the same league as Michael Haneke’s Amour (or Beasts of the Southern Wild, for that matter). Haneke also got robbed on the Best Director front when the Academy gave the award to Ang Lee for The Life of Pi. (The two Andersons, Wes and Paul Thomas, got jobbed even worse, because Moonrise Kingdom and The Master are magical, yet the only nomination between them was a Best Original Screenplay nod to the former.)
The point of this little side trip into Academy injustice is that in many areas of life—such as the Academy—sometimes the inferior is favored over the superior, and sometimes it happens for reasons that have nothing to do with racism.
Sometimes they do, though. A very probable example occurred in 1992, when Al Pacino when Best Actor for his ridiculously exaggerated performance in the silly Scent of a Woman over Denzel Washington’s pitch-perfect tour de force in Malcolm X. Not that the Academy has been unwilling to cast their ballots for Washington: he’s got two Oscars sitting on his mantle and four additional nominations, including for Malcolm X. But could racism or other negative feelings vis-à-vis Malcolm X have kept Washington from an Oscar he so obviously deserved? It doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.
MLK is less likely to be the target of such White ambivalence. But might Selma’s portrayal of LBJ as more nuanced than a simple civil-rights hero have struck a nerve at the Academy? Again, it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. But that doesn’t mean it’s why David Oyelowo didn’t make the cut.
Of course, to make a fair determination—subjective as it may be—of what three to ten films, performances, etc., should get award consideration in a given year, one must actually see all of the films released during that twelvemonth. That’s a lot of time at the cine. In 2013, for example, the British Film Institute counted 698 films opened in theaters.
Have I seen all of the 600+ films that came out last year? Don’t be silly! Have I seen all of the Oscar nominees? Not even close. Did I at least see Selma? I did not. So am I in a position to know whether the Academy’s nominations, along with the concomitant omissions, are good ones? Obviously not. But neither are most of the people complaining. Rather, they see Selma‘s cast snubbed while White faces fill most of the nominee slots and figure there must be something wrong here.
There may in fact be something wrong here. But most of the people saying so—in social media, for example, where the topic has blown up—have no idea what they’re talking about. You can’t judge a book by its cover, even when that book might look dubious at first glance. Yes, the Academy is damn near all White, which seems pretty hard to defend. But we can’t presume that, were the demographics of the Academy the same as American society at large, the 2014 Academy Award nominees would look different—and we can’t presume that if they did, it would be deservedly so. Winnowing 600+ films and all the performances therein down to the top few is a matter of taste, and it’s far from statistically impossible—especially in a society that is 63% White, which is certainly reflected in the casting of film (maybe overly reflected, but that’s another issue)—that one might end up with an all-White list of nominees for reasons that have nothing to do with prejudice.
That doesn’t mean that’s what happened in 2014. I certainly don’t know. But a lot of the people complaining don’t know, either. That, in itself, is a problem, even if it’s not the only one plaguing this year’s Oscar buzz.
Love and formic acid,
(Image: detail from “85th Oscars” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:85th_Oscars.jpg#mediaviewer/File:85th_Oscars.jpg)