If you have been following the blogs in the wake of the Oscar nomination announcements, you should be well aware that this is the first time no person of color has been nominated in any acting category since 1998. Combined with Dr. Brittney Cooper’s trending essay on Salon.com, taking the recent Golden Globe production to task for failing to speak out about violence against black men and women, this has again put into focus the lack of minority voices in mainstream American film.
I’m a white man who writes about movies, and as such, not many people outside my own circle of friends are all that eager to hear my views on racism. And to be honest, even my friends aren’t all that interested. So I will simply make one point about the subject as it relates to movies and leave it to better qualified people to debate the rest.
This is not a Golden Globe problem or an Oscars problem. This is an industry problem.
Criticizing self-congratulatory awards operations is rather easy. If you want to be mad that Selma didn’t win the Golden Globe or that director Ava DuVernay was not nominated for an Oscar, have at it. In the past week I have read countless pissed-off tweets and blogs and messages from fans of Unbroken or Interstellar or The Lego Movie who are incensed over the fact that some academy or another didn’t confirm his or her opinion about what was best. I certainly would have nominated David Oyelowo in the Best Actor category. But as it relates to awards, I’m more upset that the actor who I think should have actually won the Oscar – Nightcrawler’s Jake Gyllenhaal – was also not nominated. (For the record, I would have removed Steve Carell, who isn’t even really the lead actor in his movie, and Michael Keaton, from that nominee panel.) I realize that awards, especially highly promoted ones, do matter in garnering both recognition and profit for movies, so I certainly understand why many people have complained about this. But it is not especially productive.
Instead, we need to be discussing why mainstream American film produces so few movies that offer award-worthy roles to actors of color. Because if Oyelowo had been nominated, would that have signaled anything truly meaningful? How many other black actors had roles that were even in the discussion for awards this year? In addition to Oyelowo, I would have considered Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, Cedric the Entertainer, and Astro for nominations. But I would not have put any of them in a top five. In fact, I think the most distressing thing about black actors and Hollywood this year was the fact that an excellent young black actor, Chadwick Boseman, got a chance to play an iconic and mercurial black performer, James Brown, in a movie this year, and the movie so neutered Brown’s sexuality that even a strong performance by Boseman was largely an afterthought. That is the type of role that should garner nominations, but unfortunately, mainstream American film does not seem to have a clue about presenting a character like James Brown.
At the same time, I don’t think it does much good to overstate, or indeed misstate, current conditions in Hollywood. For instance, I can’t tell you how many news outlets referred to Selma’s “snub” when the Oscar nominations were being reported. This, despite the fact that it was actually one of the eight movies nominated for Best Picture. Perhaps Oyelowo or DuVernay were snubbed, but I never read that. Even Dr. Cooper, in her passionate condemnation of the Golden Globes, wrote that “it would be impolitic to say that Selma received no awards because of white liberal guilt…” three paragraphs after writing about actor/musician Common’s acceptance speech for the song he wrote for Selma.
We shouldn’t ignore the fact that things have improved. One year ago, 12 Years a Slave was nominated for nine Oscars, and won three. It won both the Oscar and the Golden Globe as Best Picture. But maybe just as important, this year a genuinely bad remake of the musical Annie starred two black performers in the lead roles, and their race had nothing to do with the story. Quvenzhane Wallis and Jamie Foxx were merely a spunky foster child and a rich overachiever. Progress made – a lot more work to be done. That’s the nature of any change.
I choose to believe Selma did not win the Golden Globe for Best Picture because as good as it is, it is a flawed movie. For me, it has nothing to do with the depiction of President Johnson, which has angered some. The scenes depicting Dr. King and his supporters and detractors preparing for Selma are outstanding. The scenes of him with his wife Coretta strike me as very similar to countless domestic scenes I have watched in many movies and soap operas. That is what weakened the movie for me. I had the exact same reaction to another highly-regarded award contender this year, The Imitation Game. Like Selma, it is about a very complex and towering historical figure who overcame great society-imposed obstacles to benefit all humanity. As in Selma, I found the scenes of Alan Turing struggling with his major achievement to be outstanding. But the flashbacks to Alan as a boy, which were so important to the filmmakers, left me rather bored, and wishing for a speedy return to the main storyline.
As for David Oyelowo’s omission from the Best Actor competition, I do believe that has to do with ingrained and systemic racism — a glaze that simply values white performance over black performance. But that has been changing and will continue to change. What concerns me more is that in 2014 formidable actors such as Denzel Washington and Idris Elba were given nothing better to do than play derivative characters in derivative action/suspense films like The Equalizer and No Good Deed. That’s why this is an industry problem. The American film industry is directed more and more toward such derivative work. With so few good, original roles being created, actors of color, already marginalized, will find it harder and harder to land award-worthy roles.
So be angry about the awards show if you feel they are unfair. But recognize that they merely serve as a thermometer, and are not the cause of the infection.