Monday, January 25, 2016

In the name of diversity, a purge

The current regime at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, embarrassed over the #oscarssowhite controversy, apparently has come to the conclusion that the Academy's problem is that too many members are old. Accordingly, the Academy has abolished automatic lifetime membership except for those members who have received Oscar nominations. Everyone else will have their membership reviewed every ten years, the main criterion for renewal being whether you've remained active in the industry over that period. So it looks like no more screeners for some people, and others will say those people have it coming, the assumption being that those people have not taken proper advantage of those screeners to sample a wider range of movies. The Academy's hunch is that age, rather than race, determines whether people are willing to give certain movies a chance. This notion makes sense if you see Straight Outta Compton as the #oscarssowhite poster child. The N.W.A. biopic has an 88% score at Rotten Tomatoes, which is better than current front-runner The Revenant and equal to Best Picture nominee The Big Short. Given that stat, and presumably others, there may be reason for protesters to suspect that Compton was denied a more just share of nominations because many Academy members simply were uninterested in a film about rappers and didn't bother to look at it. This is the crux of the issue, regardless of the backlash opinion that black talent just wasn't good enough last year. It's one thing for call-in cranks to say so, having almost certainly not seen it -- nor have I, for that matter -- and another for the Academy to send the same implicit message if members never actually gave Compton a chance. The logic of youthening the pool of nominators through attrition is that younger people of all races are probably more interested in hip-hop and less likely simply to ignore Compton than their elders. More damning yet to some protesters is the fact that Creed wasn't nominated for Best Picture, Best Writer or Director, or Best Actor, but only for sentimental-favorite Supporting Actor Sylvester Stallone, despite a gaudy 94% score on Rotten Tomatoes. I haven't seen that one either, but it's pretty clear from what I've read about it that it's something more than yet another Rocky movie, yet the Academy treats it, in effect, as nothing but that. Some have speculated that the Academy is biased against sports movies in general, the subject matter being almost the opposite of Oscar-bait, but who can say. You could at least argue that younger Academy members might pay more attention to Michael B. Jordan compared to Stallone, but that line of thinking may lead us to protests against ageism down the line.

I'm not as passionate pro or contra on this whole subject as some are because I don't recognize the Oscars as either a meritocracy or a mirror of the audience. Second-guessing the Oscars of the past is practically a hobby for some people, and for every critic who chides the Academy for picking an inferior picture to some year's masterpiece there may be another who sees the Awarding of the very same picture as elitist snobbery. There is an argument to be made for making the nominees, at least, as representative a sample as possible of quality moviemaking, even if I'm not entirely in agreement with it. Unfortunately, the #oscarssowhite debate comes at a toxic moment in racial or identity politics, and the protesters and boycotters fit the profile, in many eyes, of entitled whiners who throw tantrums (or hold riots) if they don't get their way. I'm giving the protesters what I think to be a generous benefit of the doubt when I assume that they don't want everyone to automatically praise pictures like Compton or Creed as great but simply want people to give them a chance or take them seriously when many probably aren't. The problem is that whether the Oscars are a meritocracy or not, they are a competition, and conservative people are inclined to see the results of any competition, including a preliminary round like a nomination process, as just and fair, and anyone who questions the results or the process that produced them as sore losers. The news that some people are going to lose some privileges in an attempt to get different results in the future will only enrage such conservatives further. Looking at the larger picture, beyond the trivial realm of entertainment, this election year probably wasn't an ideal time for an #oscarssowhite controversy to happen. One can only hope that consequences don't ripple too far beyond the land of fantasy into everyone's reality.


knobgobbler said...

I long ago stopped giving much attention or weight to the Oscars or other award shows, at least as any real indication of what 'good' films were out there to be seen. Some of the controversy does seem like mere tantrums by likely suspects who should know better than to expect a real overview of the state of film by 'the academy'.
The arguments I DO have a lot more sympathy for are people asking for more diversity in what films get made and who gets to take part in making them. There's a lot of money involved, of course, and no love for taking chances... but I think that's where the real issues lie, rather than some competition that's only ever been about an industry patting itself on the back.

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Anonymous said...

I should think part of what drives academy members is whether the premise of a movie is interesting enough to take the time out of one's life to view it. That being the case, I can completely understand why there was possibly a lack of viewers for the Rocky movie and the rapper movie. Speaking only for myself, I have no interest in rap music, so why would I spend money/time going to a move about rap music? Add to that that the rappers in question were (in their early days) little more than thugs themselves. The same goes for the Rocky movie. I saw and liked the original. Thought the second and third sequels so inferior I never bothered watching the rest. This one looked like just another Rocky movie with undercurrents of The Karate Kid. Members of the academy shouldn't feel compelled to spend their time watching movies that don't interest them. Perhaps the real problem here is the roles that black actors take. Perhaps they should stop taking "black" roles and (assuming they are talented) start reading for parts in films that are likely to attract academy members. Take a cue from Jamie Foxx in "The Soloist".

Samuel Wilson said...

knob, that's why I've stressed that the Academy never has been a meritocracy and that #oscarssowhite can't be criticized from a strictly meritocratic standpoint.

Anon, I was about to wag my finger at you but I reminded myself that, after a decade, I still haven't seen Brokeback Mountain. And that's why neither you nor I should be in the business of giving movie awards. It simply doesn't follow that a film I'm not interested in isn't good, unless I imagine myself the platonic ideal of the movie audience, while everyone else is the fringe. It's fair to ask everyone whether their disinterest in certain subject matter is bias rather than aesthetic preference -- and that means everyone, including all those who feel alienated when they don't see someone who looks like them on the screen, or on an awards show.

I've never seen The Soloist, but for what it's worth Jamie Foxx won his Oscar playing Ray Charles, which takes us back to my point about the Academy's obsession with biography over fiction. If period biographies weren't the most obvious Oscar bait -- though we actually have considerably less of that this year than the last few -- and if the Academy were more attentive toward films describing the integrated world we live in now, or films imagining a still-more integrated world to come, there wouldn't be such a gross divide separating Oscar bait from the experiences of many groups of people.