K&M Commentary: #OscarsSoWhite Aims in the Wrong Direction

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Another year, another Oscar controversy. Despite the frivolous nature of the whole thing I do love the Oscars. But without fail the Academy always manage to spark controversy either with their nominations or with their snubs. This year it comes in the form of diversity, or more accurately the lack of it in all of the major categories. This has given birth to a vocal Twitter protest movement called #OscarsSoWhite.

While the movement may be noble in purpose, some of the uses of it are ridiculous. Some have used it as a springboard for accusations of racism, boycotts, and all sorts of toxic rhetoric. Careless terms like “Whiteout” have been thrown around with no regard for the divisive nature of them. Some people have shown a much more intelligent but no less passionate approach to the lack of diversity. Their concerns are certainly rooted in the right place, but both responses have placed their sights on the wrong target. 

First there is no doubt that the lack of diversity among this year’s Oscar nominees is a worthy cause of concern. I’ll also say that I disagree with several of Oscar’s omissions. When listing my personal picks for the four major acting categories I chose three African Americans and one Puerto Rican who I believe gave fabulous nomination-worthy performances. There were definitely diverse performances that deserved recognition.

But here’s the problem. It could be said #OscarsSoWhite insinuates racism from the Academy. Often times fingers point to the “whiteness” of the Academy voters, a worthy topic for discussion but not an indicator of racism. Taco am is deplorable and any accusation or insinuation should be always be rooted in fact. This year’s lack of diversity in the Oscar field does not offer any factual basis for insinuations of racism.

Let’s examine that a little closer. Look at the names being mentioned as proof of an existing racial insensitivity. “Creed” seems to be film mentioned most. I loved “Creed”. The best movie surprise of the year. But does its omission from Best Picture point to a white-leaning Academy? As much as I love the film it finished just outside of my Top 10. The Academy chose 8 movies for Best Picture consideration. Therefore I (and many others) can name at least 10 films I believe to be better than “Creed”. And then there is this – I have seen seven of the eight films and there are no glaringly bad movies in the category. Therefore nothing looks intentionally biased in the Best Picture race.

What about Best Director? I love Ryan Coogler and I believe he is one of the best young voices in filmmaking. His work on “Creed” was astonishing. But does his omission from the Best Director category point to a white-leaning Academy? Just think of the other names that didn’t get nominated – Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Todd Haynes, Quentin Tarantino. Truth is this was an incredibly loaded category and good, compelling arguments could be made for each nominee and several others that didn’t make it.

What about the acting categories. Michael B. Jordan was excellent in “Creed” but does that invalidate the other tremendous performance by those nominated. Many have mentioned Samuel L. Jackson in “The Hateful Eight”, a good performance but similar to every other role he plays for Tarantino. Will Smith for “Concussion”? Remember when so many were shocked that he even got a Golden Globe nomination? There have been several criticisms of his performance particularly his odd accent. All reasonable reactions and none that point to a white lean.

What about other omitted films like “Straight Outta Compton”, what many call about 40 minutes of good movie. What about films like “Beasts of No Nation” (one of my favorites of the year), “Tangerine”, or “Chi-Raq”? All have good arguments but are they truly Oscar-type films? Does it surprise anyone to see them not receive nominations? If anything it points to an independent void in the Oscars, not an intentional racial one.

In the end you will still have folks like Spike Lee (who has already ignorantly called this year’s Oscars “Lilly White”) using the opportunity for self promotion and Jada Pinckett Smith calling for a full Oscar boycott by minorities. But neither of these approaches are aiming at the right target. Neither are looking in the right direction. They are too linear and reactionary. They failed to recognize or address where the true problem lies – HOLLYWOOD.

It’s easy to see a number of white faces and assume something nefarious is at play. It’s just as easy to look deeper for the true reason for the lack of Oscar-worthy diversity. That’s when true weighty questions arise. Are minority voices being giving the same platforms to express themselves? Are minority performers getting the same opportunities? Are minority writers getting the same considerations. Are studios putting these rich projects in the hands of minority talent? These are the questions that need to be discussed. These are the things that truly lead to diversity on Oscar night.

So no, I don’t condemn this year’s Oscars. No, I don’t see any cause to insinuate even the slightest bit of racism with this year’s nominees. No, I don’t think boycotts of this particular awards show have any merit. But I do think this year’s Oscars are simply a reflection. And just like when looking in a mirror, nothing is accomplished when pointing fingers at the reflection. True change comes when you deal with the caster of that reflection. Hollywood, I’m looking at you.

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48 thoughts on “K&M Commentary: #OscarsSoWhite Aims in the Wrong Direction

      • It’s true. If there really was racism in the academy people of color wouldn’t have won anything by now. How quickly people forget that a couple years ago 12 years a slave had a huge night at the Oscars

  1. I think there is a danger of having a person other than white win an Oscar just to prove that they are not racist. It is clear however that the judges need to reflect the actors. Directors and the people who watch the films.

    • I think the danger you mention is 100% legitimate. And wouldn’t that undermine the integrity of the award? That’s why I don’t think any of the omissions are racially motivated. You want to nominate the most deserving movies and performances. But the focus is all on Oscar and not the selection of movies Hollywood has given.

      • The Baftas have very similar nominations. I think my issue is that the judges need to be more representative of the population. Are there the same opportunities for minority and black actors? Maybe not? We have a very similar issue in football management in England and politics. But I’m sure it is not racism.

      • You’re right and I do think the Oscars are making good strides in those directions. I will say that I don’t think that would necessarily cure the issue this year. I still think there are enough better movies that Creed (which again I love) and Straight Outta Compton. But a better representation is NEVER a bad idea.

  2. Great argument, Keith. The same argument could be said with women and Asian and Hispanic voices. The industry refuses to grant opportunities, thereby create a system which is not Oscar worthy. (Unless you are Denzil Washington.) If you don’t have solid screenplays and productions, the Oscars will always be white-based. Look at 12 Years a Slave. A great film which won a lot of awards. Only one? That is, it’s the token role, the victim role that gets attention. Seems to me television has made greater strides allowing strong roles played by actors regardless of color, gender, or ethnicity. Hollywood needs to replicate that.

    • Fine points. For me the Oscars will always be predominately white until Hollywood puts these projects into the hands of good, talented minorities. And not for the sake of diversity. I want to see a Hollywood environment where the minority filmmaker absolutely is the best choice for the project. That’s a huge step, but it starts somewhere. I don’t think pointing fingers at this year’s Oscars is where it starts.

  3. I’ll quote a line from Bruce Lee:

    “It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

    In this case, putting it all on the vaunted Academy (the finger) for the inane lack of diversity in the product the major studios (the so-called heavenly glory) keep delivering to the big screens is the real problem that keeps being unaddressed. It does seem like the Academy is attempting to open up their ranks (though, probably not fast enough for the black, hispanic, asian, and women who’ve been trying for decades to make it through).

    If you look at the films like “12 Years a Slave”, “Selma”, or other films that better represent those who make up this country in film, they are being produced mostly by independent filmmakers. The majors keep with their “formula” for familiar faces, which we know the type that results in. Little or no diversity outside of a few tokens or big names. And if they don’t have some good numbers following them, even they get dropped. That’s where this argument should be concentrating on. The major studios. Putting it on the Academy misses the point and makes it interim, especially when “Awards” season comes to a close. And the box office the studios seek, like those producing and starring in most of their product, seems to be only come in one color.

    Like Cindy said, this is a great argument, Keith.

    • Very well said. For me it seems so much of this is reactionary. It’s such a quick response by many but not a thorough evaluation. I think you could make the accusation if some of the choices or omissions by the Academy this year were insanely obvious. In my view that is simply not the case. But guys like Spike Lee immediately speak out against the Oscars and make a huge public announcement about his boycott. But that does nothing to address the real problem and it does nothing to put the important questions out to the public.

  4. When it comes to the performances, it is hard to cite the whiteness of the Academy as the primary cause of a lack of nominations. The actors branch is the largest and most diverse in the organization. The opinions are influenced not only by the quality of a performance but by personal relationships and contacts from projects the actors have worked on together. Similar to the Company Voting blocks that might have dominated the results in the 30s and 40s, the fact that you have performers who have worked with many other talented members of the actors branch probably has has much to do with who gets nominated as anything.

    In the Best Picture Category, has anybody looked at the process they now use? It is a regressive system that eliminates films if they were not anyone’s first choice, even though they may have been everyone’s second choice. It is incredibly complex and the reason that you can end up with five to ten nominees. It is actuarial discrimination not racial animus.

    When it comes to the guilds,and the technical fields, everyone here has already said it, they are closed off from outsiders for the most part and as a result the status qua is perpetuated. Many fine works by talented artists of diverse backgrounds don’t get the distribution, promotion and attention they deserve. That will happen more and more as the industry of exhibition focuses on blockbusters and the industry of art gets relegated to VOD and streaming. There may be a need for a new organization or maybe we should start paying more attention to the Independent Spirit Awards. The truth is, the Oscars suck the wind out of the room, and they will always be inherently biased toward mainstream exhibition, even if they are produced by independents.

    • I think the Oscars trap themselves right in the middle. But rarely go full blast in either direction. There are some exceptions of course. The Spirit Awards are obviously biased in their own way as well.

      I love your thoughts, most of which feed my idea that many of these responses are purely reactionary and simple don’t address the meaningful concerns.

  5. Isn’t the voting process entirely democratic? If directors decide not to vote for Ryan Coogler and actors decide not to vote for Idris Elba, that seems quite difficult to solve. Inducting more people of color into the academy could help, but only if there are more Oscar-caliber movies made by and featuring people of color. If studios aren’t making more movies like Creed or Straight Outta Compton, it’s because they are afraid of losing money. But hopefully successes like these can pave the way for a more diverse playing field.

    • “but only if there are more Oscar-caliber movies made by and featuring people of color.” Exactly! For me the few movies from last year that are more diverse aren’t exactly slam-dunk nominees. But wouldn’t a bigger choice of movies from and featuring a diverse group of people offer the biggest chance for change? I think so.

    • Thanks Wendell. The Oscars are such an easy target but boycotting them this year doesn’t change anything because it doesn’t set its sights on the problem. And I think minorities shouldn’t boycott but let their presence be seen. Show that there are those with powerful and creative voices.

  6. Nice editorial Keith. I’m very split on the issue. For the most part, I think people speaking the loudest about this issue haven’t necessarily seen all the movies in contention and just shouting out the general consensus on twitter (and we all know how well-informed social media is). Plus it somewhat insinuates the idea that minorities should be nominated for Oscars as token placeholders.

    But the Oscars do fulfill the role of being old white men out of touch with contemporary society. These are the people who picked Driving Miss Daisy over an un-nominated Do The Right Thing and Crash over Brokeback Mountain. And seeing how large the field is for Oscar nominations, the lack of diversity is very disheartening to me, as it shows how inclusive awards can be.

    Ultimately though, I think that the Academy members just aren’t the strongest judges of the best of cinema, often focusing on the showiest of pictures rather than the best. The Oscars definitely need to expand their horizon beyond pompous studio pictures and middling historical dramas to focus far more on the wide scope of cinema, be it in the independent scene and especially worldwide. By doing so, they can break their narrow scope and fix many of their internal and external problems.

    • I agree with a lot of what you say. I think you can go back pretty far and question several of their choices. But they have also worked hard to include a more diverse membership. And regarding this year, I just don’t see glaring omissions that automatically point to a white-leaning Academy. I agree they should broaden their scope, but I think the problem still lies in Hollywood. There is plenty of room for a diverse range of voices. But are the opportunities being given?

      • The solution is that Hollywood should be making more diverse movies. I think making the assumption that the Oscars are racist based on the nominees is incredibly ignorant and they have made some great steps in the past few years. What I really hope for is that non-white filmmakers and actors get more access to making movies in mainstream cinema.

  7. Very nice piece, man. To be honest, I didn’t even hear anything about a race issue at the heart of this year’s Oscars and I don’t think there deserves to either. I think you’re point is very argued here. Any issues need dealt with beforehand, not after the fact. If this continually comes up then Hollywood need to look at themselves. The last thing we want is an awards ceremony nominating lesser performances or work just to keep the peace.

    • “The last thing we want is an awards ceremony nominating lesser performances or work just to keep the peace.” Exactly right. I actually commend Oscar for not doing that. I would think that would be an insult instead of an honor.

      • I couldn’t agree more. Im actually as politically correct as the next person but let’s not dilute the quality on show. That way the award will eventually mean nothing.

      • For me in order for the award to have any meaning whatsoever it has to be deserved. But again the whole thing is such a misguided reaction. The Academy has already come out with a statement this morning. They are taking the hit for Hollywood’s faults.

  8. Very insightful piece. I too believe the issue comes from the industry itself. Not really just the academy. If anything the Academy Awards is what should be a coming out party to the world for actors, directors etc. Now one thing I think could help if they didn’t nominate what seems like the same people year after year. For example Jennifer Lawrence in Joy. There weren’t too many positive reviews on that other than her performance. So you could give that spot to someone else. I think Ryan Coogler was a legit snub though. But for all minorities whether they be actors, directors, screenwriters, they need that important exposure and its up to the industry to provide that. Hopefully I didn’t ramble on too much.

    • You didn’t ramble at all. Great points. I can certainly see the argument on Coogler. I’m a huge fan of his and as I mentioned to someone else, I really believe he will be a key name in bringing change. For me the biggest snub of all was Idris Elba. It blows my mind. But I’m not bold enough to say it is due to racism. Many in Hollywood turned on the movie due to it being a Netflix picture and bypassing theaters. I think that definitely came into play (which is idiotic IMO).

  9. Great piece Keith. I agree completely. The fact of the matter is that the problem comes from within Hollywood and no the Academy is not to be blamed. Looking at it, I dont think films like Tangerine, Chi-Raq and even Straight Outta Compton deserved a lot of attention because they simply weren’t that great or awards worthy. Creed was great, but was it awards worthy? I think not. An argument could be made for Idris but I personally wouldn’t nominate him either because I feel all the five performances nominated in that category are just better. Same goes from Michael B. Jordan. I think most of the nominations are actually deserving.
    And dont even get me started on Spike Lee. What is it that doesn’t offend him?

    • You are exactly right. If the categories were filled with unworthy performances it would be entirely different. But that isn’t the case at all. There are some really strong movies in contention this year. Yet protests arise slamming the Oscars. The Academy comes out and does a damage control press release this morning but Hollywood gets another pass.

  10. You’re absolutely right. The Academy members are obviously not racists:
    1) They nominated at least 1 minority’s performance for 20 years before 2014’s boycott.
    2) I’m sure they read the news on a daily basis. If they had payed attention to the boycott and had tried to be P.C., the current nominees wouldn’t all be white.
    3) Most of the minorities and movies about minorities that people complain about didn’t get nominated for many award ceremonies, where different groups of people (race, nationality, age, etc.) vote. Are they all racist too?

  11. Well said, Keith. I tend to agree with all of what you said. I am disappointed of the lack of an omission for a film like Creed, or acting work of Idris Elba, because I legitimately feel like they warranted inclusion (only 8 of 10 spots were filled in best pic), not because they are black or fulfill a quota. They may be snubs (but we all have opinions!, so do the Oscar voting body!), but I don’t think that the Academy is racist or holding back the minority film/actor. If we were to look anywhere, I too think it should be Hollywood.

    With that said, I do believe a shift is on the horizon. Many weekend box office results in 2015 like the successes of Furious 7, SoC, even “smaller” movies like Creed and Dope show that audiences are multicultural, and studios shouldn’t be scared in going against the grain to tell stories that feature a wide range of nationalities.

    And, last thing, I can’t stand the hashtag of #OscarsSoWhite. Full of cringe and I see an image of an uninformed individual just making that statement because it is trending. Think of something more original, Internet. Again, wonderful think piece, man.

    • Thanks so much my friend. I really appreciate your thoughts on it. I just watched another news discussion about. They talked about Spike Lee, Pinkett-Smith, and David Oyelowo’s comments supporting boycotts. But it was great hearing John Singleton and George Clooney coming out and saying its Hollywood and not the Oscars that is the problem.

      I just think tarnishing the Oscars is so misguided and doesn’t address the true problem.

      Oh, and I think you’re right about a shift coming. And I said elsewhere that I think Ryan Coogler is going to be a leader in bringing change. He has one of the strongest young voices in Hollywood. Big fan of his and I think his talents are already demanding attention. Black Panther is next!

  12. I agree that the issue is Hollywood. Until the industry stops being dominated by middle-aged white men, almost all of the stories that we see being told and the characters that they centre around will be focused on white men. It’s lack of choice that leaves the Academy where it is.

    • Exactly. And now the Academy is getting pummeled for making choices from a limited field. But their choices are completely valid. I don’t agree with them all, but good argument could be made for them. Now protests are popping up that aim strictly at the Oscars. In the meantime, Hollywood gets by unscathed.

  13. Excellent piece Keith. Goodness, this whole thing is madness, and sounds like it is getting extreme. I usually try to skip reading things like that. In South Africa “racism”, “race”, and “racist” are thrown around way too often, so whenever I see anything linked to race I try to avoid it. I am so tired of it everywhere, to be honest. It genuinely sounds like the wrong people are being held accountable for what is going on at the moment.

    • You’re completely right. So many have their eyes focused on the wrong thing. Their voices are shouting about the wrong thing. A few are like Spike Lee who desperately wants his name headlining the news. Others are very concerned but can’t see past the uproar in order to focus on the conversation we should be having. It has completely flown off the rails!

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