On Tuesday the Academy Awards will be announcing this year’s nominees vying for the iconic golden statues in various categories. In the past, the lead up to the announcement was a time of speculation and excitement for cinephiles worldwide. This year, however, feels different. The escapist fanfare that the Oscar nominations once provided has been eclipsed by the unscripted and unfolding drama that President Donald Trump‘s ascension to office has brought.
It has been hard to get enthusiastic about the countdown to the film’s industry’s most prestigious night, when the world sits on the precipice of an uncertain future.
Interestingly enough, it was in reflecting on the legacy of former President Barack Obama, and the divided state that America now finds itself in, that my mind drifted to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign that has plagued the Academy Awards like a pimple that makeup fails to conceal. Similar to when Obama was elected to office, when many thought that the United States had finally put the issue of race behind them, I have notice that same type of “this will finally end #OscarsSoWhite” rhetoric popping up in relation the to upcoming Oscars.
There is no denying that, after two straight years of minorities being locked out of the four major acting categories, prompting the start of the Oscars So White movement on social media, this year’s awards looks to finally steer the ship away from the current of controversy. In a year where films such as Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Loving and Fences are doing well both critically and financially at the box office, and documentaries such as 13th, I Am Not Your Negro and O.J.: Made in America offering sobering looks at our society, chances are good that we will see a more diverse crop of nominations.
However, unlike what some awards pundits would have you believe, this does not signal the end of #OscarsSoWhite. Yes, it is true progress was made but, like all great upheavals of the past, it came in the form of a drip rather than a flood.
While seeing a handful of tales featuring African-American’s in prominent and complex roles was a welcome addition to the cinematic landscape last year, it was still a rather poor year for diversity on the whole when considering the amount of films released. How many 2016 American films can you name that featured Asians in a prominent role? How about Hispanics or Indigenous characters?
#OscarsSoWhite was never simply about seeing more African-Americans getting the same opportunities and roles as their white counterparts, but rather it was about demanding equality for all. To assume that the diversity in cinema issue has been fixed based on a handful of films, which includes the golden financial goose Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, is short-sighted thinking.
Remember when Kathryn Bigelow became the first women, out of four to be nominated in history, to win the Best Director Academy Award in 2009 for The Hurt Locker. It was a wonderful moment which signified the shattering of the male-centric glass ceiling. Many rejoiced as Bigelow created a new path for other female directors to follow. Funny thing is, not one female director has won, let alone been nominated, since.
Sure, it is great to see the Academy take action by attempting to bring a more diverse balance to their voting body, but the awards themselves have always been symptom of a greater problem. They are the soldiers who inadvertently found themselves on the frontlines of a battle they were clearly not prepared for. The real change in thought and process has always needed to come from the creator and studio executive levels first and then trickle down to the casting agents, directors, etc.
Of course, part of getting the message across to the powers that be involves being more selective in where we, the audience, spend our dollars – see the current box office success of Hidden Figures as an example of this – and to not simply assuming Oscars So White ends with one nomination.
As much as the Academy Awards may be a soft target in the eyes of some, as it is nothing more than a night when Hollywood celebrates itself, the Oscars carry a significant level of clout that the industry benefits from. It gives a financial bump, and exposure, to all of the films that are nominated. The average movie watcher will often seek out what Hollywood deems, or at least creates the illusion of being, the crème de la crème.
This is why the Oscars So White campaign has been so crucial in the past two years. Some have dismissively said that there were no minority performances, or films with a truly diverse cast, that were worthy of award notice, yet the protest forced cinephiles to take an honest look at, and in many cases call out, the lack of diversity in the media they regularly consume. As delightful as La La Land is, one would need to be blind not to notice the lack of diversity in its Los Angeles setting. The minorities in the film are either backup dancers or vessels to help get Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia’s (Emma Stone) respective careers on track.
La La Land was not the only prominent example of this. One could easily point towards films such as Manchester by the Sea, Café Society, Nocturnal Animals, and and The Neon Demon to name a few, for other examples where opportunities for inclusion were overlooked. Yes, many of these films are quite good, but they inadvertently perpetuate the stereotype of what type of people can tell seemingly universal stories.
So if these upcoming Oscar nominations do end up embracing diversity, they should be rightfully praised but not let off the hook. Even if it turns out that the controversial #OscarsSoWhite hashtag does not 100% apply this year, its spirit should not be forgotten, especially when minorities from all backgrounds are still fighting for equality both in front of and behind the camera.