Friday, September 26, 2014

Another Hollywood Blackout?: How Not to Write an Oscar Story

"Will This Be the Whitest Oscars in Almost 2 Decades?"

That's the question posed by Kyle Buchanan in the title of a September 25 article on New York magazine's Vulture website. I was immediately intrigued, flashing back to "Hollywood Blackout," a People magazine cover story from 1996. This should be good, I thought, diving right in.

After reading the story, I wanted to give it a new title, a declarative statement instead of a question: "Gold Derby Thinks the Next Oscars Will Be the Whitest One in Almost Two Decades." That's a completely different piece, and unfortunately, it's the one Buchanan wrote.

Race is an inflammatory enough issue, so it feels somewhat careless and lazy to base an entire racially charged premise solely on the opinions of a panel of 17 Oscar "experts." So the Academy's next acting line-up will be the whitest one in years because Gold Derby says so? Well, what does the writer think? Doesn't Vulture have its own Oscar expert who can prognosticate on his own or at least come up with an Oscar theory that relies on more than just Gold Derby votes. If so, he might have noted that last year's "groundbreaking" Oscars also featured a Latino Best Director winner (Mexican Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity).

Whether or not he qualifies as an Oscar expert, Buchanan clearly knows his 2014 movies, and he mentions a number of possible contenders featuring actors of color. (Selma, for one, feels as Oscar bait as anything cited by a plurality of Gold Derby pundits.) Then he proceeds to dismiss them because they contradict what the Gold Derby voters predicted. It's like writing an article on how all the critics loved/hated the season premiere of Nashville and then pointing out that you felt the opposite but what you think doesn't really matter.

What may not matter is what Gold Derby thinks. The Oscar-movie season is just beginning, and there's still plenty of time for frontrunners to shift and dark horses to emerge. Let's talk in December when the Golden Globe nominations are announced.

If we want to talk racism in Hollywood now, the actual story might be in Buchanan's kicker: "In 2011, actors like Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Demian Bichir were nominated for Oscars, an honor that's supposed to portend big things to come in this industry. Three years later, all of them are doing TV." It's something I started to touch on last December (here), and I thought about it the other day when I saw Spencer struggling to make us laugh in an episode of Mom. I said to myself, What is she even doing here?

This is a story that someone has needed to tell for years (ever since Mo'Nique pretty much disappeared after winning Best Supporting Actress for Precious), and it's particularly relevant as we kick off the 2014-15 TV season. But then, it's also a piece that would require original thought and not just a recap of the predictions of 17 other people. I wouldn't expect anything less from a racially charged premise.

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