You don’t need me to remind you of the #OscarSoWhite hashtag branded on pretty much every film debate over the last week, resulting from the complete lack of non-white Oscar nominees in the acting categories. There’s something rotten not just in the state of Denmark. I gathered a couple of friends to have a chat on the back of all this controversy, Steve Schweighofer and Desirae Embree, and in our limited time together touched on the tip of this great big iceberg. Read on and please join the debate in the comments section.
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(Steve and Desirae join me)
Desirae: I love the idea of an informal round-table type thing.
Robin: Good stuff. So what I want to bring to the round table today is the issue of the #OscarSoWhite hashtag – but I guess we can touch on women and sexuality and whatever else as we come across perhaps.
Steve: #Oscarsowhite covers a lot.
Robin: I know.
Steve: HuffPost said it should be #Oscarsodumb.
Robin: Let’s start then by briefly stating what that hashtag means and the thoughts that stem from its use.
Desirae: Sure. You want to do that, Robin?
Robin: Well it is pretty clear it’s a statement about the lack of non-white acting nominees from AMPAS from last year. And the same thing just happened this year. Twitter of course is an instant worldwide expression platform, perfect for this sort of message.
Steve: But AMPAS is only the symptom – they’re led by the nose, being told what they would like.
Desirae: A symptom of what, though?
Robin: A symptom of the issue, the lack of non-white recognition. I was going to ask, as it seems to be the case that it is the Oscars taking the pounding here. But it goes way way further back than that, right?
Steve: The industry is essentially closed off, in North America at least. If it wasn’t, Idris Elba would have appeared on more pundits lists at the beginning of the season.
Desirae: Yeah, I think this is the reason why people really emphasized #OscarSoWhite instead of #OscarSoDumb. I agree with Steve that it’s a symptom, but I think it’s a much larger issue than just the nature of the industry. There’s a history of the devaluation of Black cultural products in North America that informs a lot of this frustration.
Steve: Is there an Oscar-winning role, non-biographical, that could NOT have been played by a non-white actor? I don’t think so.
Steve: It’s who is doing the hiring, making the films, financing them, etc. Oscar is just the prize at the end of the game.
Desirae: Yeah, nepotism / in-group favoritism is absolutely a thing, and that’s something that the Academy actually acknowledged in their statement the other day.
Steve: I think AMPAS realizes the issue, but cannot do anything about it.
Desirae: Why do you think they can’t do anything about it? I’m not sure up on industry stuff like this so I’m excited to hear ya’lls take on it.
Steve: They cannot start limiting membership without creating conflict; they cannot influence the studios. Changing nomination rules would be catastrophic.
Robin: There is talk of course of the Academy building on the 6,000 members with younger people from the industry, more people of color, grow the culture of the voters – and that is happening. Very very slowly.
Desirae: Yeah there’s precedent for that right, Robin?
Robin: There is yes, and they need a much larger, fresher body of voters for a better consensus, but the roles available are a huge part too as Steve said. 12,000 voters are just more voters picking the limited roles for non-whites.
Steve: What’s need are more non-white actors hired for plum roles now being given to white actors. Pretty simple. Huge push-back on that – consider the Twitter rumor about Elba playing Bond.
Robin: Absolutely. Was going to mention that.
Desirae: Good point, Steve. One of the things I pointed out about Carol is the tendency of certain stories to register as niche or “marked” in a racialized or gendered way. I think that goes into the way that we cast these stories and also think about them when it comes to Best Of lists. Which stories are “universal,” etc. Certain kinds of whiteness need to really be brought out into the light as NOT universal. The Revenant is not a universal story, at least, not anymore than Carol.
Steve: Ah – but The Revenant gave more work in front of and behind the camera to First Nations people than any film since Dances with Wolves.
Desirae: Right, but it’s a Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle.
Steve: True, but waiting to have a presence in a major film every 26 years is a problem, too.
Robin: Every year the Oscars huddle around a group of films, maybe 50 at best, from the 600+ released in America – their vision is so short-sighted, that is part of the issue. And of those, there were hardly any non-white roles in comparison to the white roles that were deemed worthy of award recognition. This year it seems those in contention were not worthy. There were not many to chose from to start with – there’s the problem.
Desirae: So you’re saying the scope of the films considered needs to be broadened, Robin? I agree with that. I was bummed to see Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous get zero nods on *any* best of list I read.
Steve: The scope needs to be broadened, I agree, but isn’t it easier to hire Angela Bassett for one of Meryl’s roles once in awhile? Also, the limits they put on foreign language films with regards to nomination qualifications is really restrictive.
Robin: Well my own Film Honors, publishing soon, I’m naming a shortlist of 6 in each category for my best of the year, and without spoiling it my 24 actors are far from all white. Those are my choices, and I even now question them a little in light of this whole issue, that some might think I included say Jason Mitchell or Idris Elba because Oscar didn’t. Not so. Even with limited non-white options there were several cracking roles film lovers were talking about. But I can be pretentious / broad-minded depending on how you look at it, my end of year lists tend to represent world cinema much more than the Oscars and most awards groups.
Steve: When we look back on all the so-called snubs of the past 5 – 10 years, I’m guessing a large number of them are not white.
Robin: True. The law of averages make it so.
Desirae: Okay, so I have two questions for you both based on your last few comments. First is, Robin, given your points about your year end lists naturally more broad, inclusive, and merit-based, do you think there’s a place for indie crit to take over the role of larger award-bestowing institutions?
Robin: Well, nothing is ever going to take over the American Oscars in quite that way, though they have certainly embraced indie movies as that chunk of cinema has flourished over the years. But nowhere near enough. It is easier for them of course to acknowledge indies or non-drama genres for instance as they are already there, embracing the non-white roles, and even films made by women as another example branch, are not as widely available – the Oscars will never be as worldly as the likes of us by definition. My yearly honors in certain categories includes American films Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Diary of a Teenage Girl, but they had no chance with Oscars. So narrow is their view with this.
Desirae: And what do ya’ll make of the online reaction to the casting of a Black woman as Hermione Granger in the new Harry Potter play? I feel that is dealing head-on with a lot of what we’re talking about here, re: the ability of roles to go to either black or white actors.
Steve: I wasn’t aware of the Potter issue – was this in Britain?
Desirae: Yes, I believe so. (LINK) JK Rowling has actually come out to defend the casting choice, noting that race isn’t made explicit in the books. It’s sort of an amazing test case.
Robin: Yeah the issue of color is an issue as soon as you mention it. Regardless of whether or not Emma Watson is white.
Steve: It’s a rubbish argument. Look at the magic that happened when they adapted the Wizard of Oz / The Wiz. Unless race is made explicit by the script, casting should be wide-open to all ethnicities as each brings its own subtext to the role.
Robin: It should, it should, but it is not.
Steve: And there’s the problem – it’s not.
Robin: #Oscarsowhite is a kind of scapegoat for the industry then. For the opportunities to get into the industry. Going way back to those non-white kids watching the Oscars and believing they’ve no chance of getting there. I’m taking it quite far there, but it’s valid to go that far back. Same with a girl wanting to grow up and make movies. That must be a daunting prospect, more so than a boy with the same dream. Right?
Steve: The Oscar-coven has to start embracing more cultures and media if it plans to survive. Any dick with a phone can make a film now and post it, and then get more views than The Martian. Oscar has to open up – a lot – if it plans to stick around for another generation; otherwise, there might be a film in the running someday called The Irrelevant. Sorry.
Robin: Quickly then, why were Michael B Jordan and Idris Elba and Benicio Del Toro not nominated?
Robin: I can understand Will Smith, for instance, as Concussion was not great.
Steve: The forces of nature wanted me to have a bad morning? Seriously – a mystery. Del Toro should have been there (as should they all) and has been there before. I don’t understand what happened.
Robin: They’ll just say AMPAS didn’t respond to a Netflix offering for Beasts of No Nation, that’s what they have been saying. Is that a load of shit too? And they clearly liked Sicario.
Steve: I heard that too, this morning – it was a concerted effort to prevent non-theatrical films to be considered. Yes, shame Sicario didn’t make Best Picture or Director.
Desirae: I mean, they could have made history by accepting Beasts of No Nation and also given an amazing performance its recognition.
Robin: And poor Ryan Cooglar. I know there are only 5 spots, but his omission for this and Fruitvale Station, regardless of how likely they were to make it anyway given the competition, still sends a solid example. This guy could be gold.
Desirae: I think he already is gold. And his remarks at the #MLKnow event yesterday I think ought to make the industry very uncomfortable in terms of their ongoing relevance in American film culture.
Steve: Coogler is a great filmmaker. It becomes a huge question mark when one is ignored constantly.
Desirae: But I think this is the promise of the internet and independent news media outlets. He isn’t being ignored by culture at large. He’s being ignored by those parts of the industry that refuse to modernize.
Steve: What do you two think of the boycott?
Desirae: I support the artists doing it. I think it would send a hell of a message is the Oscars actually were all white this year. But it’s not really my place to say whether it’s what folks should or shouldn’t do.
Steve: Oscar thinks (or would like to) it represents culture at large, but doesn’t even come close.
Robin: At first I thought about the boycott that it won’t solve anything, it will just make it worse. But drastic measures and all that. I’d support it. The Oscars, that ought very very much to be representing the industry, is a joke these days in that regard. Nowhere near close. How many foreign language films and animated films now should be vying for Best Picture, but the idea is just laughed at. Even by bloggers and so-called experts. They have a lot of work to do.
Steve: A lovely commentator (white) in a lovely frock was speaking to the issue on a major news network over here this morning about the planned boycott. She said they shouldn’t boycott because it would be “professional suicide.” I damn near choked on my soup – how do you exclude the already excluded? I hope Chris Rock walks on stage and quits on the spot. Why always be the server but never invited to dinner?
Robin: Never looked forward to Chris Rock so much.
Desirae: Yeah Steve, that was Jada Pinkett Smith’s point. Asking for respect is dehumanizing. I don’t know how much of the #MLKnow event you two were able to catch yesterday, but it was really beautiful and timely. So many Black actors and comedians and filmmakers coming together to make a point without making the point, you know.
Robin: And I have to mention last year, a great film about a great part of American history, by a great filmmaker, a black woman no less, gets well and truly shafted. No pun intended. So what about fucking Selma?!
Steve: Yeah, but Ava’s tough. I think her stock actually went up as a result, as it should. Same for Coogler, or anybody else waiting for the call that never comes.
Desirae: Ms. Duvernay’s fans got Mattel to make her a Barbie. Oscars better watch out. We’re legion, at this point.
Robin: It’s still shameful. AMPAS still have a duty to represent the industry, but they don’t. Many influences with Oscar voters were more concerned with how LBJ was portrayed in Selma at one point, and some farce about screeners not being sent out.
Steve: Yeah – people are saying JPS is dissing because of sour grapes over Will, but it goes beyond that. I feel that things have gotten worse since the day when Denzel and Halle both won. Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be more exclusion than anytime since the 1960s.
Robin: The fact we still talk about it, we have to, really is a sad state of affairs.
Steve: Yeah – takes the fun right out of it.
Robin: But the movies we personally love is always going to be far more important that what the consensus throws our way. The Oscars still bug us even when we claim we do not care.
Steve: It’s an institution that needs to take a hard look at itself. If it plans to continue to be the mountaintop of accomplishment for the industry, it has to do its part to make sure they represent all of that industry and to try and make that industry evolve.
Robin: Right. And it is a two-way street, industry needs to pave the way for that cultural landscape without agenda. Let’s wrap this up with some final thoughts.
Steve: To paraphrase what Ryan (Adams) said to me once – I wouldn’t want my favorite film tossed into the Best Picture cauldron. It’s only asking for abuse and misrepresentation by loggerheads and cretins.
Steve: Final thoughts? I’m putting together a little something describing who should win or shouldn’t win, using Oscar’s own historical criteria. Maybe I’ll finish it. I will not be boycotting because I love to hoot at them when they screw up. Unfortunately, the issue has become more than a parlor game. Its just not funny anymore.
Robin: I feel that.
Steve: Take care.
Robin: Thanks Steve. Good stuff.
Desirae: My final thoughts: I don’t think that we can talk about this as an issue isolated to the film industry. I think that it’s part of a much larger structure of discrimination and devaluation of Black cultural products (especially in North America), and so conversations that center the Oscars without also taking into account the current political climate are going to miss part of the picture. Other minority demographics face similar difficulties, but this year it just really seemed to be Black Hollywood that got robbed.
Robin: Yeah, there’s no way we can sum that up in two hours.
Desirae: No, not at all. Thanks for letting me participate!
Robin: And thank you for doing so.
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Steve can be found between work shifts and power naps on Twitter – he has also penned some great contributions on this site. Desirae has also invaluably contributed for the site, but also writes for Pop Matters, she is also found on Twitter when not drowning in Academia.
On the whole #OscarSoWhite debate, what are your thoughts on this whole sorry state?