Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Why I'm not quite rejoicing over the "diversity" of this year's Oscar nominees

I know I should be applauding.
After 2016's shameful Oscars blackout and the subsequent #OscarsSoWhite boycott over the lack of black nominees, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has done a complete 180 this year by embracing color in an unprecedented way. A record six black actors have been nominated, with three of them competing in the Actress in a Supporting Role category alone.
Meanwhile, three of the nine Best Picture nominees (FencesHidden Figures, and Moonlight) feature predominantly black actors in the main cast. That's definitely a first. Just three years ago, Lee Daniels' well-received The Butler was completely shut out of the Oscar nominations, presumably (depending on whom you ask) because it had the misfortune of being released in the same year as the eventual Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave.
But have we actually overcome? And if so, with Fences v. Hidden Figures v. Moonlight also recently facing off at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, why do I still feel like shrugging?
Despite the obvious progress, closer inspection of the nominees reveals a troubling pattern. When it comes to black actors and the Oscars, a collectivist attitude continues to drive the Academy's choices.
In some ways, there's been no progess at all. Every black acting nominee has been cited for a movie with predominantly black actors in the central roles (so-called "black" movies) or one with racism at its center (Loving). Two performers, Actor in a Supporting Role frontrunner Mahershala Ali and non-nominee Janelle Monae, even appear in both Moonlight and Hidden Figures.
I suppose we should be thankful that none of the black Oscar contenders were nominated for playing slaves. (And if an old rape accusation hadn't come back to haunt The Birth of a Nation auteur Nate Parker, that would certainly not have been the case.) There's that.

But I wish that just one of them had been nominated for a role she or he could have won over, say, Michelle Williams or Casey Affleck, who, perhaps tellingly, remains a clear lead-actor frontrunner for the spartan intensity of his Manchester by the Sea performance, despite sexual harassment allegations against him by two women who worked on his 2010 directorial effort I'm Still Here.
The problem, however, isn't really with the Academy. Considering the options they were given, the voters did remarkably well this time. I commend them for pulling off one of the most diverse line-ups in the history of the Oscar nominations. The problem is with Hollywood. More than sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education integrated U.S. schools, Hollywood still has segregation issues.
Casting directors continue to overlook actors of color for non-race-specific movie roles. One might get the impression that the only reason three black actresses are headlining box-office hit and Best Picture nominee Hidden Figures is because the demands of historical accuracy forced the hands of the producers.
In some ways, 2017 is a step backwards from 2002, when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington took the lead acting Oscars for roles that, with some story tweaks, could have been played by Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks.
While a biopic like Jackie had to be led by a white actress (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was, after all, white), it's hard to excuse the whitewashing of the year's most honored film.
La La Land nabbed a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations (only All About Eve and Titanic have managed to score as many), and it's likely to take Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress, among many others. Impressive as it is, the film has been rightly criticized.
It's dominated by jazz music (a black music form, if ever there was one), yet the two leads, one of whom plays a jazz pianist, are white. The few black characters who do populate the movie are either incidental or peripheral. Despite his pop-star popularity and a decent performance, supporting co-star John Legend almost feels like a token big-name black inserted into the proceedings to give them a smidgen of color and credibility.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are wonderful actors, but couldn't, say, Legend and rising How to Get Away with Murder and The Birth of a Nation star Aja Naomi King have been just as believable in the main roles. As Hidden Figures has proven, you can put black actors up front and center and still score a massive box-office hit.
Speaking of Hidden Figures, the movie about three real-life black female mathematicians was at the center of the biggest Oscar-season gaffe so far. On the Golden Globes red carpet, former U.S. first daughter Jenna Bush accidentally called Hidden Figures "Hidden Fences" while chatting with Pharrell Williams, who produced Hidden Figures and wrote several of its songs. Interestingly, Michael Keaton made the same error while presenting Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in any Motion Picture.
The online peanut gallery immediatly started screaming "Racist!" While I understand the outrage, I think it's misplaced. The slips made by Bush and Keaton are understandable when you think of the subliminal implications of the bigger Hollywood picture.
Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and Denzel Washington vehicles aside, Hollywood seldom uses actors of color in substantial roles outside of aforementioned "black" films. So in a year with four "black" films in the Oscar-season discussion, we pretty much had those Bush and Keaton flubs coming. If Hollywood were less segregated, if black performers weren't banished mostly to "black" films and were more integrated into the movie mainstream, perhaps people wouldn't subconsciously blend "black" films into one.
Despite the asterisk hovering over my enthusiasm, I do consider the diversity of this year's Oscar nominees to be a positive step. And on Oscar night, I'll be cheering as loudly as everyone else when Viola Davis picks up her supporting-actress prize for Fences. (Please God, let it happen.)
But I'll also be hoping that someone in Hollywood will finally have the good sense to cast her in a leading movie role as dynamic and un-race-specific as her Emmy-winning one on How to Get Away with Murder. Annalise Keating is one of the most complex characters ever to hit TV screens, and she easily could have been played by Nicole Kidman or Julianne Moore.
And they wouldn't even have been slumming. TV is no longer viewed as being on a lower Hollywood rung than movies. I like to think it's partly because, unlike films, TV is finally getting diversity right.
May movies, and by extention Oscar, eventually get it right, too.
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