Call me crazy, but from a pragmatic point of view maybe this whole #OscarsSoWhite situation isn’t so bad. Yes, it’s terrible that people of color would seem to be chronically if not systematically underrepresented by The Motion Picture Academy when it comes to the bestowing of Oscar nominations, as well as the actual Oscar award itself. But at least the reality of the bias, or at the very least the mainstream admission of a rather serious problem is undeniably out there now for all to see – if we read the volume of coverage in publications as mainstream and varied as The Los Angeles Times, TIME Magazine, and The Washington Post, to name a small but prestigious few. Certainly, as witnessed by the equal parts admiration and equal parts vilification of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, this sort of general public consensus when it comes to questions of class, race, culture and equality is anything but typical in American society.
Assuming that this inequality is the direct result of some sort of unresolved racial bias, not being able to bank on the fact that if you do a stellar job, The Academy will see fit to “see” you and reward you outside of it’s own rarefied climate of 94% white and 77% male is a very vicious form of career homicide. That this grave injury is being meted out as business as usual by one of the highest and most visible entertainment “courts” in the world is tantamount to a sort of film genocide. Any film industry, national or international in origin, gathers it’s very life force from it’s ability to be widely known and recognized. This directly drives all the necessary financing that allows any project, actor or artisan to flourish or flounder. As such, any practice that knowingly or unknowingly excludes the larger recognition of a creative source based on elements outside of the realm of talent goes way beyond the pale when it comes to a terrible restriction on what the world is freely able to consider art.
Closer to home, it’s eerily curious that much of the social media blow back from #OscarsSoWhite hasn’t centered on the constructive identification of specific members of The Academy who have the power to affect change but those outside of the scope of causality and power. Instead it seems to be peopled by many “nominally” concerned celebrities who would seem in actuality have their own very specific personal agendas and axes to grind. From Jada Pinkett-Smith and Will Smith, as well as Janet Hubert’s rebuttal of their issues with this year’s Oscar nomination snubs, all the way to the consistently mystifying musings of Stacey Dash, it would almost seem better not to listen at the risk of falling prey to their various brands of tunnel vision; quixotically to hear them is to assume that the injured party in this dilemma is almost exclusively African American – which it truly is not. To buy into this one-sided view is to be infected by the same myopia and general blindness that allowed the original problem to germinate and thrive within The Academy itself. Accordingly the “solutions” offered up by these self appointed “revolutionaries” tend to be as twice borrowed and ill-fitting as the purported degree of their civic outrage. As a quick example, boycotting The Oscars, as Pinkett-Smith along with Spike Lee, have suggested seems a bit high school reactive, if not something that would work to dubious effect. Logically, since when did it ever work to shun the popular kids who are already, in fact, shunning you? This just doesn’t seem like anything that The Academy wouldn’t simply weather – especially if we are just talking one awards show. Pinkett-Smith’s other crack idea? Separate but equal awards. Isn’t that just Jim Crow for the 21st century? Most definitely. History has unequivocally said no with regards to the merits of that solution. Interestingly enough, two very unsatisfactory solutions to a problem that Will Smith suggested pre Oscar nominations didn’t exist anyway. It makes one wonder if anything would have been said from the Smith camp if Mr. Smith had received the one Oscar nomination in what has been a fallow Oscar season for people of color. This we will never know.
As such, to truly change The Academy, it might go a long way to do something different by shining a light on specific Academy members who have the power to change the game. Make them individuals who are directly accountable versus cogs in an opaque machine. It would seem that in destroying the monolithic and anonymous nature of The Academy, something new might be achieved much more quickly. True, the president of The Motion Picture Academy is Cheryl Boone Issacs, which could be promising. She is the first African American Academy president as well as it’s third female president as of her appointment in 2013. In good form, this month in direct answer to calls for a boycott, she has wisely pledged to “make big changes” and take an active lead in making “ dramatic steps to alter the makeup of (The Academy’s) membership.” But given that this whiteout has happened two years in a row, not to mention well within Ms. Issacs’ tenure, shouldn’t there already be some plans on the books, or at least waiting in the wings to fix this very public problem? Indeed, as recently as this time last year when the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was born in direct response to the Oscar nomination snub of African American female Director Ava DuVernay for her MLK Biopic SELMA, Issacs flatly denied to New York magazine’s Vulture blog that The Academy had any problems with diversity. It was then and there that Issacs stated firmly in answer to these questions, “Not at all. Not at all,” in response to the widely held expectation that DuVernay would have been and should have been allowed to make history in 2015 as the first African American woman to ever be nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Considering this past history with Ms. Issacs and her Academy, the current lack of transparency with regards to the specifics of these “dramatic steps” doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
To remedy this, maybe the academy should have full transparency via public record with regards to individual member voting practices. In lieu of that, perhaps The Academy should institute a means by which a smaller fluctuating pool of Academy members are randomly chosen and selected to vote each year according to how they fit into a fixed but more equitable multicultural breakdown. Sure, in the beginning the same non-white Academy members would be disproportionately chosen to vote year after year over a bulk of ever changing white members due to smaller minority numbers, but wouldn’t this temporary inequity be a direct incentive for The Academy to become authentically invested in the long term outreach and identification of new and more diverse voters? Just a “dramatic” thought.
In any event, I have always been a fan of lifting the veil when it comes to myth versus reality – be it the imagined dream of The Motion Picture Academy’s capability for diversity in Oscar nominations or overall national diversity when it comes to the greater American landscape and which white and non-white Americans are best “outfitted” for premium survival at the lowest initial cost. As Ta-Nehisi Coates, MacArthur “Genius” Awardee, and future writer of the revamped Black Panther Marvel Comic book series has suggested, many who “believe themselves white” in this country, believe fervently in a suggestive but unconsciously “white” ideal of the “American Dream.” That is the myth that simply by being an American, good things and rewards are within reach if you do all that has been identified as necessary to achieve them. These good things can be as mundane as picket fences, potluck barbecues and good neighborhoods, or as grandiose as the ability to become an an Oscar nominee, or the President of the United States – provided you do the work required. However, if we look carefully at the cues, with just one of lesser ones being the climate that has given rise two years in a row to #OscarsSoWhite, it would appear that to believe this blindly is to be unaware of the world around us – and also to ignore the modern fact that even being American AND white likely isn’t enough anymore to save you from being excluded from the “in” crowd. Increasingly, poor and middle class whites don’t enjoy this “American Dream” ideal either. However, despite the fact that most non-whites in America have been reading this message between the lines of the constitution for years, not all of these newly “outed” American Dreamers have gotten the memo. It follows that some of them have responded to being ripped from this “dream” in ways that are not just explosive but violent and potentially criminal. As such, ignoring when perceived “advantages” like being white versus non-white, rich versus poor, male versus female, straight versus gay or cisgender versus transgender tip the playing field unfairly when it comes to America’s biggest rewards is not just irresponsible, but potentially deadly. The primal anger that results from some sleepwalkers deep within the mythic spell of the “American Dream” being ripped out of that dream can be the most catastrophic of tragedies for many chilling reasons. The end of that dream didn’t help Trayvon Martin when he came up against an enraged and implacable George Zimmerman. It certainly didn’t cushion the fatal blows delivered by Cleveland police officers on the very real body of Tamir Rice. It also didn’t make the final minutes of Sikh American Gurcharan Singh Gill’s life idyllic or those mysterious last waking moments of Sandra Bland peaceful. So in the names of these fallen, as well as the future names of others in danger of falling victim to what happens when we choose as a nation not to see what is directly in front of us, let’s all see #OscarsSoWhite revealed and seen for exactly what it is, as well as the hard but real steps needed to stop it from happening again. Let’s choose to be awake.