“There are so many questions. And that’s something I’ve been accused of: of raising questions without having answers. But I’ve never felt it was the filmmaker’s job to have all the answers. To find answers for racism and prejudice in films? You can’t do that.” — Spike Lee
“Social scientists studying in-group decision making have long observed a pervasive phenomenon: groups unconsciously privilege ‘their own kind’ when deciding how to distribute resources. And this is across the board. It’s something ingrained in human behavior and studied for over 50 years …when we make group decisions — as is done on a panel, selection or nomination committee — with a group of people just like us, that bias is reinforced and amplified.” — Esther B. Robinson
“Let’s acknowledge that the Oscars are bullshit.” — Manohla Dargis
Everyone, of course, thinks they’re probably right. About how important or unimportant the Academy Awards are. About what the best movie of the year was. About how racist the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) is. There are a million people writing billions of words about this. What will it solve? I haven’t watched a live broadcast of the award show since I started studying at university, but that doesn’t change how much I hear about it, and it doesn’t change that, however adjusted it might be because people are talking about entertainment, this conversation — about race, about colonialism, about barriers — is not contained to just movies. Movies enable conversations, and, this year in particular, that includes the industry’s annual variety show.
First, let’s get a couple things out of the way: the Academy Awards have never been about quality — they are about access. The Academy is not an elite group of film-watchers, able to discern something you and I can’t — it’s a club of industry figures, some high profile, but many not. If someone is busy doing work on a film, they probably don’t have a lot of time to watch most of the films that come out during a year, leaving the entire process up to the promotion budgets of studios and the free time of, well, roughly the same demographic that makes a checklist of best picture nominees and attends them at a theatre near you: mostly white, mostly senior, and mostly male.
In turn, Oscar nominations allow movies to open wider (reaching Abbotsford, Mission, and Chilliwack — though this can seem like an “American issue,” most of the films that play in Canadian theatres are American), influencing what we consider popular culture, directly resulting in the mass of coverage I mentioned above. If everyone was left to their own devices, the movies we’d end up talking about at the end of the year would look very different, but that isn’t reality: what movie theatres play, what critics review, and what shows up on the front page of YouTube still has a great deal of influence.
Now, many people don’t care — every year, good movies come out. People see them. Sometimes they get awards. But the award ceremony boycotts, the op-eds calling for change, the technical adjustments by the Academy to introduce some of that change, slowly, “if you’ll just be patient,” all this isn’t nothing. It’s not unlike the student protests and confrontations seen in the past year at some North American university campuses: what do you do with a history of racism at an institution? Do you ignore it? Has that worked?
No one article is going to figure this out. Given another decade or two, it’s unlikely AMPAS will have either, not completely. Relying on institutions to bring about change is almost always a long, unsatisfying process — and none of us have any power to influence that body anyway. So what’s the worry? Like Sal’s Wall of Fame in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, one argument will always say to leave the decoration alone, just enjoy the pizza, leave it alone, don’t start anything stupid.
But there’s one part of this that sticks out as particularly wrong. After Jada Pinkett Smith, among others, announced they were done trying to hang out with a party that doesn’t want to recognize a significant amount of their work, interviews began to probe the issue. It probably would have been too much work for writers to, you know, watch some movies and talk about what the Academy doesn’t notice (bringing up biopics like Straight Outta Compton and Concussion is just playing into the same, rigged game), so question after question asked any African-American actor nearby: what do you think about this? Do you support it? Are you angry?
By the end of the week, commentators will have finished filing their pieces anticipating the material Chris Rock, the host of this year’s ceremony, will use to try and defuse or pile fire on the situation, depending on how predictably “clever” this year’s joke writers are. But a year ago, while promoting a film he directed, Rock already had an answer to this. Asked by New York magazine how he would have covered sites of racial divide like Ferguson, Missouri, in a way better than the often bewildered or limited way journalists at the time did, Rock responded this way: “I’d do a special on race, but I’d have no black people.”
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. To say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.”
To point out that the process of de-colonialism will never take root in some of this continent’s oldest institutions until some people’s power is reduced, until there are fewer white people at the top of many organizations, is sometimes seen as insulting. It’s “reverse racism,” or now more commonly, just “racist.” But to follow that line is to not talk about race at all — to repress it, to say it’s a non-issue, to say, well, look at the few exceptions; isn’t that enough? There are many factors of course; race is just one (and while this particular conversation is mainly about black and white representation, the broader picture is not that simple). But in order for people to be comfortable talking about that one topic, we need to at least be honest about what ours does for and to us. We can’t wait for Los Angeles to.