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Affirmative Action …in Art?

2011.02.22

It started with a simple tweet by Roger Ebert:

An off-year for ethnics at the Oscars. http://bit.ly/eBV5Nj

And then this article from Patrick Goldstein, which begins:

It’s a wonder that the security guards at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences didn’t stop Mo’Nique and make her show ID when she arrived to help announce the Oscar nominations early Tuesday at the organization’s Beverly Hills headquarters. After all, she was the only person of colour involved with the extravaganza, since the 83rd annual Oscar nominations have the dubious distinction of being an all-white affair.

Okay, I began to wonder, but so what?  Twenty white people have been nominated for acting Oscars this year (Javier Bardem, I am told, does not count as ethnic, as Spaniards are white.  …)  Is this especially significant?  Does it indicate racism on the part of the Academy?  Does it say anything at all about the Academy, or Hollywood?

.

I’ll confess something.  I hadn’t noticed.  It’s something that never crossed my mind.  When I heard the list announced, I was thinking only of whom the Academy was choosing to recognize, merit-wise.  And, honestly, I didn’t think of it again until two film critics I highly admire, A. O. Scott and Manhola Dargis, co-authored this article in the New York Times, saying in part:

Crammed into this year’s field of 10 best picture Oscar nominees are British aristocrats, Volvo-driving Los Angeles lesbians, a flock of swans, a gaggle of Harvard computer geeks, clans of Massachusetts fighters and Missouri meth dealers, as well as 19th-century bounty hunters, dream detectives and animated toys. It’s a fairly diverse selection in terms of genre, topic, sensibility, style and ambition. But it’s also more racially homogenous — more white — than the 10 films that were up for best picture in 1940, when Hattie McDaniel became the first black American to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.” In view of recent history the whiteness of the 2011 Academy Awards is a little blinding.

I started to get exasperated, not least of all because these articles were inevitably written by liberal white people.  What was the solution, I wondered?  Introduce a new category: Best Performance by an African-American?  Or should the category include all non-white people?  Or should there be a separate category for each minority?

Minorities are generally easy to spot, because they look nothing like normal people with power.

I doubt this would work.  It brought to mind an article I’d read about a year ago by a man (!!!!!) who was offended that women had their own acting categories.  Daniel Radosh’s contention, basically, was that men got better roles and therefore sex-segregated categories 1) assume that women are inferior and 2) try to make the poor dears feel better about it by ensuring the same number of women were nominated as men.  He also stated that the segregation has less to do with merit than with ensuring that the ceremony would be filled with glitzy gowns designed to show off awesome boobs.  I am paraphrasing, mind you.

The fallacy in his argument is glaring: what would the reaction then be the year that only men were on the ballot?

How DARE you not think my writing is SPECIAL!?

Something like this has actually happened before, quite recently.  In 2009, Publisher’s Weekly took a bunch of shit for having a ten best novels list that didn’t include a single woman.  Author and PW editor Louisa Ermelino  described the selection process as choosing “what we thought were the top 10 books of the year with no other consideration. …We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz. We gave fair chance to the ‘big’ books of the year, but made them stand on their own two feet.”  That seems clear enough.  She continued, “It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male.”

But they hadn’t set out to make an all-male list, it was just the natural outcome of judging the books by their merits “with no other consideration.”  Naturally, there were outcries from women novelists and journalists about the obvious sexism and bias inherent in the panel, and chastising them for their obvious shortsightedness.  What I didn’t hear was anyone considering the possibility that the ten best books of the year had been written by ten men.

The notion was summarily dismissed as implausible beyond comment.  And what happened?  Women’s literary group WILLA released their alternative list, featuring women authors.

If you are going to want to be judged entirely upon your merits and nothing else, then you need to consider the possibility your merits may not always be good enough.

Much hype was dished last year upon Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar (and only the fourth nominee).  I managed to anger a few (female) acquaintances by saying that if The Hurt Locker were directed by a man, it would not have won that Oscar.  (I believe Bigelow deserved the Oscar for 1995’s jaw-dropping Strange Days; not as “socially relevant” as The Hurt Locker, perhaps, but a masterpiece of action filmmaking nonetheless.)  Much was also made of Lee Daniels, director of Precious, based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, who would have rocked the award by being both black and gay (though at least four gay filmmakers have won the award in the past).  Some readers may recall that I found Precious to be more than a bit ridiculous, and not-so-subtley mocked Daniels’s direction–not because he’s black (or gay), but because it wasn’t that good.

The preceding paragraph wasn’t meant to justify anything, really.  But I believe that when the Academy makes a glaring omission, it is almost always entirely one of merit.  Many great directors have been sadly overlooked: Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Altman, Spike Lee, David Lynch. King Vidor, to name a few.  And they have also overlooked deserving works by Lucretia Martel, Claire Denis, Susanne Bier, Agnieszka Holland, Kelly Reichardt…  The Academy overlooks people not because they are sexist, not because they are racist, but because sometimes, they just aren’t very bright.  Like this guy:  Ron Howard won for A Beautiful Mind, for God’s sake!

But back to 2011.   I don’t really buy the argument that the lack of minority nominees is Hollywood’s problem, either.  The Kids Are All Right, Winter’s Bone, 127 Hours, The King’s Speech, Black Swan, The Fighter… these are not big-budget Hollywood tentpoles.  More and more, Oscar is choosing to nominate more independent, personal films.  The aforementioned nominees were not made in the studio system.  (So, I guess I would say it’s not only Hollywood’s problem.)

A list of the nominees trying to keep the brotherman down. On the inside, they're just laughing and laughing.

Obviously, we still don’t quite live in a post-racial America (any Tea Party rally will tell you that), but racism is not the reason for this year’s list.  Among this year’s nominees, I could have stood to see Tahar Rahim, Kim Hye-ja, or Edgar Ramirez nominated for acting.  (Ramirez is Venezuelan, so I am unsure if he counts as a minority or not; remember, Javier Bardem doesn’t count…)  But when I saw the list announced, I thought huh, the Academy did well this year, not jeez, the fishbelly circus must be back in town.

Honestly, who should have been nominated that wasn’t?  Nobody say Tyler Perry.

What woman should have been nominated who wasn’t?

Looking at my list of ten best film of the year, I notice that none is directed by a woman.  When I was compiling my list, I wasn’t thinking “women suck, let’s exclude them.”  I was thinking of which ones I truly thought were the best.  Ditto on my list of favorite performances, which do not contain minorities because I was trying to squeeze them in, but because I was only thinking of which were truly my favorite.

The Academy did the same.

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