Monday, January 18, 2016

Q. Are Oscar nominations given on a merit system or a quota system?

A. The correct answer is neither, and it's probably because it isn't done the first way that people are agitating now, for all intents and purposes, for it to be done the second way. I refer to the #oscarsowhite controversy and the indignation felt over the failure or refusal of Academy members for the second year in a row to nominate any people of color for acting awards. Outrage is expressed on behalf of Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler, the star and director of Creed; on behalf of Idris Elba, who was once considered a front-runner for a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his turn as the warlord in Beasts of No Nation; on behalf of the cast and director of Straight Outta Compton, the N.W.A. biopic. Some of the outraged arguments implicitly dismiss any argument for merit; Creed and Compton ought to have been recognized more than they were, it is said, because they were popular films. By that standard expect similar anger a year from now when Ride Along 2, this weekend's box-office champion, is denied its rightful share of nominations. If popularity were the decisive criterion, of course, we should have also seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World among the Best Picture nominees. But the fact that we don't see them doesn't mean that either film failed an objective merit test. We know that Academy members are subject to very aggressive salesmanship that unlevels the playing field for all a year's films or performers. We know, or at least suspect, that personal factors figure in the granting or denial of nominations by category peers, and in backlash voting by the Academy at large. Argo is the classic case, that modestly entertaining picture winning over some superior opposition to avenge a perceived slight of director Ben Affleck. Something similar might happen this year to allow Ridley Scott to claim an Oscar as a producer of The Martian that he has never received as a director of anything. No democratic system of voting can be truly meritocratic so long as voters aren't obliged to grade according to mandatory criteria. For that reason, there's no point in criticizing the #oscarsowhite agitators for contemplating some crime against artistic merit. They'd actually offend me more if they actually believed themselves to be establishing a meritocracy. They whine about not getting one out of 20 nominations as if the Academy had ruled that no person of color had given any of the 20 best performances in English-language film this year. No such ruling has been made. What was implied was that no person of color had given any of the top five performances in any of the four categories. That may still offend people, but it's not as offensive as the overall complaint suggests. Who really was omitted unfairly? I might say Idris Elba, who was the best thing about Beasts of No Nation, but  I could probably name some white actors, given time, whom I might also deem unfairly excluded. Samuel L. Jackson was as fine in The Hateful Eight as he usually is for Quentin Tarantino but the actor-director team didn't really break new ground this time, and Jackson may actually be the one element in Eight that is inferior to Django Unchained. I have not seen Creed, though given all the strong reviews I may yet on second-run, and I have absolutely no interest in Straight Outta Compton. Does that make me a racist? Does it make someone a racist if they find a lily-white nominations list unacceptable? Where's their sense of common humanity? Why are they so repelled by whiteness? See, everyone can play that game in a democracy. But I think it is racist, albeit not in a truly bigoted or hateful way, to demand representation on such blatant terms, even if no one to my knowledge is asking for a literal quota of nominations. The agitators, of course, hope to deflect such charges by blaming whites for some failure of imagination or fellow-feeling that seems to exclude minority experiences from the realm of concern from which "quality" films are made or that defines "quality" itself. I'll meet them part-way on this. If there is a conceptual handicap in the movie business that may exclude people of color or other minorities from the realm of prestige -- as opposed to an increasingly diverse TV business -- it is Hollywood's current obsession with history and biography. The further back moviemakers look, the less integrated a world they'll see and a less integrated cast of characters they'll employ, unless they want to do something like Hamilton, the acclaimed and audacious hip-hop musical about the first Secretary of the Treasury, in a medium less tolerant of such self-conscious artifice than the Broadway stage. The Academy's preoccupation with the impersonation of real people has been unfair to actors of all races, unless you think Eddie Redmayne's impersonation of Stephen Hawking really was superior to Michael Keaton's embodiment of an original character in Birdman last year. But overcoming this preoccupation may benefit minorities more obviously than their white counterparts, simply because people who look at the present (or the future) creatively are likely to imagine a more integrated world with more opportunities for people of all races to shine. The #oscarsowhite agitators may agree with me that Academy members live too much in the past, but I'm afraid we probably mean two different things. But if I get my way, they may well get theirs -- not that I expect to be thanked for it.

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