Saturday, January 23, 2016

Diversity and the Oscars

There has been a lot of controversy over the lack of minorities nominated for Oscars this year.  And then the uproar has gotten worse for those who are expressing their opinions about the lack of minorities.

So I figured what harm could I do by throwing my hat into the ring.

Now I know that some of you are of the opinion that this and all award shows are pointless.  This article is not meant to dissuade you from your position.  But for those who have enjoyed the Oscars in the past, here is my analysis.

The lack of diversity in the Oscars is a real problem for the Academy.  The only reason why this award has any cache is that it comes with it an air of respectability.  Nobody cares if you win an MTV Movie Award, but they do care about an Academy Award.  The difference is that the Academy built up over the years a reputation for finding and awarding real excellence in cinema.

But as cinema evolves, this lack of diversity is chipping away at this reputation.

And here is the thing: the racial component is only a symptom of the real lack of diversity.

The problem with the Academy is that they have developed a very narrow-minded view regarding what is and is not worthy of nomination.

The Academy is made up of people who have worked in the industry for a number of years.  They have to apply or be sponsored for membership.  But the fasted way to get in is to be nominated for an Oscar.  Part of the problem is that this leads to a self-perpetuating system.  The types of films and performances that get nominations lead to those new members nominating the same types of films and performances.

This leads to certain formulas to increase your chance of earning Oscars.  For example, straight actors playing gay is a huge factor (Tom Hanks, William Hurt, Christopher Plummer, Jared Leto, Philip Seymore Hoffman, Sean Penn, etc) or beautiful actresses uglyfing themselves (Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, Julia Roberts, Hilary Swank, Marion Cotillard, etc).  The movies themselves increase their chances of winning if they are about the movie industry, Southern California, or are a bio-pic in general.

This narrowing of focus leads to a lack of diversity.  But this is not limited to race.  The Academy tends to close itself off to diverse ways of thinking.  I seriously doubt that 13 Hours will get a nomination, and even though American Sniper was nominated it won very little.  And despite the monumental cinematic and cultural achievement of The Passion of the Christ, it also did not comport with the Academy's limited scope.

And it can be something as simple as the snobbery the Academy has towards comedy.  Can you remember the last time a comedy was nominated for best picture or earned a win in a major category?  Comedies are a huge part of the cinematic landscape and they seem to be completely dismissed out of hand as unworthy of awards.

And then there is the problem of genre.  As the majority of the movie-going public votes with their dollars what movies they like the best, the Academy tends to staunchly ignore what is popular.  For example, Superhero films are one of the biggest moneymakers around now.  And yet none have been nominated for Best Picture.  This includes snubs against great films like The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Man of Steel, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Animation is also an incredibly popular film medium.  These stories not only employ incredible spectacle and imagination, but often they reach cathartic levels of emotion that many other "prestigious" films do not.  Yet only 3 animated movies have ever been nominated for Best Picture (Beauty and the Beast, Up, and Toy Story 3).

Action movies may not be "high drama" to some.  But can you deny that a great action film requires a strong, dynamic, visceral mastery of the visual art of directing.  And yet Michael Bay, John McTiernan, Tony Scott, and Martin Campbell have never been nominated in this field.

There are some times when they break out of form, this tends to be some kind of tokenism.  The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is still the only fantasy film to win Best Picture.

 I do not mean to say that what is popular is necessarily good.  And I also want to make clear that adding nominations simply to bring in more diversity is not the answer.  Adding more diverse films simply to say you are more diverse misses the point.  Films should be nominated for their excellence not so that you can check off a box to make sure you have covered your diversity bases.

But this dogged refusal to recognize what is good because it is popular is detrimental to their brand.  The highest rated Oscar show in years was when Titanic was nominated.  The same thing applied to the year that TROTK won.  If you have no one to root for, then why bother watching.  As you know I see a lot of movies, and I've seen less than half of the movies nominated.

Could you imagine if Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens had been nominated in all major categories?  It would show diversity of genre (sci-fi), diversity of race (John Boyega and Oscar Isaac should have received nominations), diversity of directing (action instead of drama), etc.  And I guarantee it would be one of the highest rated Oscars with eyes glued to see their favorite movie win.

But that isn't going to happen.

By closing themselves off to their insular artistic and philosophical world-view, the Academy lacks the diversity to see some great art right in front of them.

And that is the real problem.

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