Saturday, January 17, 2015

If "Selma" Had Gotten More Oscar Love, Would It Have Meant Hollywood Is Any Less Racist?

Numbers and Oscar nominations are so relative. Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie probably would have killed for just one this year (and they practically killed themselves gunning for it on the Oscar campaign trail), and here we are complaining that Selma got two. Make that just two. It is, after all, a quintessentially Oscar-bait movie: Important topic. Check. Excellent reviews. Check. Hallowed hero, historical angle, Oprah Winfrey's name in the credits. Check, check and check.

So where was the Oscar love?

I haven't yet seen Selma, so I can't really weigh in on why it was snubbed by the Academy this week (if you consider getting a Best Picture and Best Original Song nod but none for Best Actor and Best Director to be a true snub). There are the expected charges of persistent racism in Hollywood, and perhaps they're not off the mark. Maybe Oscar felt it was up enough with blacks after rewarding 12 Years a Slave and Lincoln with the Best Picture prize in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and celebrating The Help with four nominations in 2012.

There's also the possibility that releasing the movie on Christmas Day only and then pulling it from theaters until January 9 just to make it eligible for Oscar consideration worked against it. Had the movie been rolled out starting in October or November and given time to build a following, perhaps it could have been this year's 12 Years a Slave, which was released at the beginning of November in 2013. Or perhaps that would have given the customary backlash more time to develop, making it this year's The Butler.

We'll never know for sure. What we do know is this: The Academy has lousy timing. The Oscar nominations were announced on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday (January 15), right before the weekend when the United States honors the life of its only black national treasure with a public holiday.

Frankly, I don't know what took Hollywood so long to make a film about one of the most celebrated icons of the 20th century, a man who was to the U.S. what Nelson Mandela was to South Africa (and note that Morgan Freeman did secure a Best Actor nomination for playing Mandela in Invictus, a film that received considerably less critical acclaim than Selma). Wouldn't Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday have been the perfect time to acknowledge David Oyelowo for playing him and Ava DuVernay for directing an acclaimed move about him?

(Oyelowo, incidentally, is an excellent British actor who was previously worthy of an Oscar nod for playing the titular character's son in The Butler, which brings me to an interesting aside and perhaps fodder for a future blog post: Why have foreigners -- from Lincoln's Daniel Day-Lewis to 12 Years a Slave stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o and director Steve McQueen to Selma's Oyelowo and Tom Wilkinson -- recently been dominating films about quintessentially black American experiences?)

When I mentioned the racism angle to two of my colleagues at Ninemsn in Sydney, they were mortified by Oscar's oversight. It was interesting to see their reaction because, being Australian, they don't have the same history with racism that whites in the U.S. do. In fact, I don't know that the racism angle had even occurred to them until I suggested it. And once I did, once I mentioned the fact that Oscar only seems to care about performances by black actors if they are in films about race, their curiosity was piqued.

"Why do you think that is?" one of them asked.

It was a good question and one I'd actually been considering all day, ever since I read a comment on a message board saying that perhaps the snubbing of Selma was a good thing because it's time for Oscar to acknowledge that being black isn't just about race and racism. The way I interpreted it, the commenter was not saying that movies documenting the black struggle shouldn't continue to be made, but rather that it's time to recognize that the lives of black people don't completely revolve around struggle and being accepted by white people.

Mine certainly doesn't, and I couldn't agree more.

To answer my colleague's question, I blamed the collectivist mentality of many white people when it comes to the way they view minorities and even in the way many minorities view themselves. It's right there in statements/questions like "No Asians" and "I'm not attracted to black men" and "Is it true what they say about black men?", and "Black don't crack" and "Once you go black you never go back," and it's also in the way Hollywood casts minorities.

White people, white actors, are generally seen as individuals. A white man is a "man." A white actor is an "actor." A movie featuring a predominantly white cast is a "movie." Black people, black actors, on the other hand, are generally seen as belonging to a group. A black man is a "black man." A black actor is a "black actor." A movie featuring a predominantly black cast is a "black movie." A black person represents his or her entire race in a way that whites never do, making it harder to separate us from our skin color.

I've written before about Oscar's annoying habit of recognizing black actors primarily for playing "black" roles in "black" movies. With the exception of Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, whose respective Oscar-winning roles in Training Day and Million Dollar Baby could conceivably have been played by white actors, every black actor who has won an Oscar since Whoopi Goldberg snagged hers for Ghost has won for playing a character in a movie where race was the dominant theme, the cast was mostly black, or the character was based on a real-life black person. The same goes for the overwhelming majority of black nominees since Hattie McDaniel became the first one for Gone with the Wind.

OK, so Jennifer Hudson's Oscar-winning performance in Dreamgirls could conceivably have been given by a white actress. Dreamgirls could just as easily have been based on a Bananarama-esque girl group as a Supremes-style trio. The cast was predominantly black, though, making it more or less a "black" movie. Why is it that black actors, especially Oscar-nominated ones, are so often relegated to those? Some 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation in the American public school system, Hollywood movies continue to be largely segregated.

So it's not entirely Oscar's fault that he seems to notice (or snub) black actors in mostly black movies. It's not as if he has much more to choose from. Then again, Oscar has become obsessed with recognizing actors for playing real-life people (nine of this year's acting nominees), further limiting the possibilities for black thespians and actors from other minority groups. It's not like Michael B. Jordan had a shot at Eddie Redmayne's role in The Theory of Everything.

But even when they're not hiring talent for biopics, Hollywood casting agents seem to stick to the theory that white people don't want to see black people on movie screens? The implication: They're not racist; they're just giving the masses what they want. I'm not buying that argument, but it's frustrating that one still has to be made in 2015.

I'm as tired of reading think pieces on why movies like Selma get so little Oscar love as I am of seeing movies like Selma being the only movies with black actors that are deemed worthy of Oscar recognition. When do black people get to star in the likes of Still Alice and Wild and Birdman and Boyhood? Black people get Alzheimer's. They go for long walks. They grow up from boys to men. American Sniper's Cory Hardrict aside, Selma is the only one of the eight Best Picture nominees to feature a black actor in its principal cast.

When do we get to regularly see black people in movies that don't feature all-black or mostly black casts? When do they get to be in Oscar-bait movies where the primary theme isn't race? Even if Selma had received as many Oscar nominations last week as Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, these are questions I'd still be asking.

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