Oscars Schmoscars: Controversy in Black and White

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Comedian and actor Chris Rock will host the Oscars once again, to the pleasure of many. (YouTube)
Comedian and actor Chris Rock will host the Oscars once again, to the pleasure of many. (YouTube)

“Star Light, Star White, Only Stars We See Tonight

Wish We May, Wish We Might, See Chris Rock Make All Things Right…”

That’s not entirely true. We’ll see plenty of stars of all backgrounds and colors this 28th of February on ABC, with plenty to say about the 2016 controversy regarding the lack of black nominees. For one thing, it’s no secret that Chris Rock will be hosting, and that fact alone is going to be a motivating factor for some viewers to tune in despite lackluster enthusiasm for the awards ceremony itself. For another, the presenters and performers will be as diverse as the “cool kid table” in the back of a public high school lunchroom. Here’s the lineup, just to give you an idea: Benicio Del Toro, Tina Fey, Whoopi Goldberg, Ryan Gosling, Kevin Hart, Lady Gaga, Sam Smith, Charlize Theron, Jacob Tremblay, The Weeknd and Pharrell Williams.

Oscars’ producers David Hill and Reginald Hudlin revealed the presenters via January 28th Press Release, saying “Each of these artists brings a wonderfully distinctive element to the Oscars stage. Together they represent the many thrilling ways stories can be shared about the human experience, and we’re honored they will be part of the celebration.”

However, when it comes to the names you’ll hear before these presenters read off the winner in each category, there is a certain skin tone that keeps showing up. You know, the pale kind. Though the lists below are incomplete, leaving out categories like film editing, foreign films and costume design, you can swim the many shades of rosy pink and pale peach skin below:

Nominations for Performance by an actor in a leading role: Bryan Cranston in Trumbo, Matt Damon in The Martian, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs, and Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl.

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling in “The Big Short” (Paramount)
Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling in “The Big Short” (Paramount)

Nominations for Performance by an actor in a supporting role: Christian Bale in The Big Short, Tom Hardy in The Revenant, Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight, Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, and Sylvester Stallone in Creed. (That last one probably caused a few eye twitches somewhere.)

Nominations for Performance by an actress in a leading role: Cate Blanchett in Carol, Brie Larson in Room, Jennifer Lawrence (aka: the new Meryl) in Joy, Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years, and Saoirse Ronan (my personal favorite) in Brooklyn.

Nominations for Performance by an actress in a supporting role: Jennifer Jason Leigh (where has she been for so long?) in The Hateful Eight, Rooney Mara in Carol, Rachel McAdams in Spotlight, Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl, and Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs.

Nominations for Best animated feature film of the year: Anomalisa Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson and Rosa Tran, Boy and the World Alê Abreu, Inside Out Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera, Shaun the Sheep Movie Mark Burton and Richard Starzak, and When Marnie Was There Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Yoshiaki Nishimura.

Nominations for Achievement in cinematography: Carol Ed Lachman, The Hateful Eight Robert Richardson (in yet another Tarantino venture), Mad Max: Fury Road John Seale, The Revenant Emmanuel Lubezki, and Sicario Roger Deakins.

Nominations for Achievement in directing: The Big Short Adam McKay, Mad Max: Fury Road George Miller, The Revenant Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Room Lenny Abrahamson, and Spotlight Tom McCarthy.

The story of pianist/singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone is nominated (Netflix publicity photo
The story of pianist/singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone is nominated (Netflix publicity photo

Nominations for Best documentary feature: Amy Asif Kapadia and James Gay-Rees, Cartel Land Matthew Heineman and Tom Yellin, The Look of Silence Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen, What Happened, Miss Simone? Liz Garbus, Amy Hobby and Justin Wilkes, and Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom Evgeny Afineevsky and Den Tolmor.

Nominations for Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score): Bridge of Spies Thomas Newman, Carol Carter Burwell, The Hateful Eight Ennio Morricone (he is to Tarantino what Johnny Depp is to Tim Burton), Sicario Jóhann Jóhannsson (deservingly nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for his work in The Theory of Everything), and Star Wars: The Force Awakens John Williams.

Nominations for Original screenplay: Bridge of Spies Written by Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, Ex Machina Written by Alex Garland, Inside Out Screenplay by Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley; Original story by Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen, Spotlight Written by Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy, and Straight Outta Compton Screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff; Story by S. Leigh Savidge & Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff.

And finally, the Nominations for Best motion picture of the year: The Big Short, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, Producers, Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg, Marc Platt and Kristie Macosko Krieger, Producers, Brooklyn, Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey, Producers, Mad Max: Fury Road, Doug Mitchell and George Miller, Producers, The Martian, Simon Kinberg, Ridley Scott, Michael Schaefer and Mark Huffam, Producers, The Revenant, Arnon Milchan, Steve Golin, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Mary Parent and Keith Redmon, Producers, Room, Ed Guiney, Producer, and Spotlight, Michael Sugar, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin and Blye Pagon Faust, Producers.

If you weren’t aware, there were originally 305 feature films and 112 original scores being considered for Oscar-quality selection, according to a Press Release from the Academy Publicity Department in December of 2015. Between December 14th and January 28th, they narrowed it down to the final eight.

Here comes the controversy.

Whoopi Goldberg (Wikipedia)
Whoopi Goldberg (Wikipedia)

It seems like they were able to get opinions from almost every celebrity, from those affected to those who honestly couldn’t care less. On the spectrum of Jada Pinkett-Smith (boycotting the ceremony that many would agree robbed her husband of a nomination) to Whoopi Goldberg (passionately endorsing changes in the movie industry to include more people of color) to Michael Caine (chalking it up to “not everyone is nominated”), I’d say most people I talk to are somewhere on Whoopi’s channel. Is it right that there are few films like “Creed,” and the chances of anyone who isn’t a white Hollywood veteran getting nominated are slim to none? No. Is it a noticeable trend to see white performers favored over those of minority status? Yes. Should we change it? Definitely, and 2016 might be a catalyst for that change.

Goldberg, not one to mince words, said of this year’s color-coded awards, “We have this conversation every year … and [there’s] not a lot of support for little companies that make movies that may be more diverse than anything else, but you can’t bitch about it just at Oscar time.” She pointed out that it is a responsibility of black producers to increase the diversity in Hollywood, and to provide quantity and quality of work for members of their community who may otherwise not have a stepping stone into the limelight.

On that note, I do wonder if Michael Caine is simply unaware of how American racism differs from that of Great Britain, due to our recent history and recent uptick in race-related violence. The fact that Chi-raq hardly seems to have been on the radar for the Academy seems indicative of our own national quasi-blindness to this.

Historically speaking, it hasn’t been that long since segregation, since we had laws forbidding interracial marriage, since we had blatant redlining in the real estate market. We still see reminders of our discomfort regarding differences in skin color and ethnic background in the tension surrounding most racially-based comedy, the surprising backlash over interracial romantic pairings in movies or even commercials, and the disproportionate numbers of minorities in crime and incarceration statistics.

Perhaps a few out there remember the Clark Doll Study in 1947, when two psychologists tested the racial views and implicit biases of children using black and white dolls. Even black children were more likely to choose a white doll, to assign positive traits to that doll, and to express mistrust and hostility toward the black doll.

In a reconstructed version of that study in 2010, Anderson Cooper revisited this, giving children the choice between paper dolls on a color scale, and asking them to choose and describe the most and least favorable doll. Children overwhelmingly chose lighter skin, and again insisted that the white dolls were nicer, better friends, etc.

Jada Pinkett Smith (Wikipedia)
Jada Pinkett Smith (Wikipedia)

Now, regarding the Academy Awards, I happen to be of the opinion that they have meant less and less in the last half decade, as every film nominated generally seems to represent money more than it does societal progress and views. Everyone seems content to dump millions into a few vessels, and then we’re surprised when we receive an almost-Factory Farm version of motion pictures, complete with nothing but sentiment-laden writing within watered down historical epics and overhyped special effects vehicles. Only one of the movies I actually liked this year was nominated (Spotlight), so maybe I’m bitter about the nomination process in general. But don’t let my bias ruin the point.

The point is that art can really make a difference. It shouldn’t be a game for certain people, from certain walks of life. It should reflect the human experience or explore human curiosity. It should surprise you. As always, the film industry, for all its Hollywood-centric laughable frivolity, is a tough business, and it’s made tougher for those who don’t fit the ideal.

Make no mistake, that ideal is still white, thin, and well connected. Our society does not appreciate any divergence from that ideal unless the vehicle contains humor or entertaining vulgarity — neither of which set you up for an Oscar nomination. Basically, you can make a quality film and not get noticed due to racial bias, or you can make a wacky comedy and sell tickets but never receive due credit in your field.

So please, let’s rock the boat a little. (No pun intended. However, I am really, really looking forward to that Chris Rock monologue.)