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Racist Oscars need to lift their game

Tim Kroenert |  20 January 2016

It's less than a year since Eureka Street lamented (twice) the lack of non-white faces among 2015's Oscar nominees, yet here we are again. Last year it was specifically the snubbing of Martin Luther King biopic Selma's lead actor, David Oyelowo, and its director, Ava DuVernay, that had us — and discerning movie-lovers everywhere — scratching our heads and waving the flag for diversity.

This year the situation is even grimmer, with not one non-white face among 20 nominees for acting awards, despite a raft of contenders. The furious response from some quarters has been palpable, with filmmaker Spike Lee and actor Jada Pinkett Smith (wife of Will Smith, who is one of the actors arguably overlooked) calling for a boycott of the Oscars ceremony, and host Chris Rock cracking wise

Even Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), which presents the awards, has described the situation as heartbreaking.

It is heartbreaking, but it is also ironic, because at first glance, concepts of empowerment and inclusion seem to have been at the forefront of Academy members' minds. The theme of bringing marginalised or oppressed groups into the centre, or of restoring power and dignity to vulnerable individuals from whom it has been stripped, run through many of this year's nominated films.

It is epitomised in highly rated Best Picture picture contender Spotlight, about the Boston Globe journalists who uncovered the widespread abuse — and its cover-up — by Catholic clergy of, often, poor children in that city. We will have a review of that film by Jesuit film critic Richard Leonard next week. Suffice it for now to say that it is an emotive journalistic procedural with a keen eye for injustice.

Among other gongs, Alejandro G. Iñárritu's beautiful, brutal survival story The Revenant ought to see Leonardo DiCaprio finally earn his long-deserved Oscar — he already won a Golden Globe, and made headlines when he used his acceptance speech to advocate for the rights of America's indigenous peoples (members of the Pawnee tribe feature prominently in the film). 

Todd Haynes' Carol, whose stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara have each been nominated, portrays a taboo love affair between two women in 1952 New York. It is a subtle and captivating film, made so by the fact that its characters are not caricatures but complex individuals, susceptible at times to selfishness and poor judgement. Phyllis Nagy has, notably, also been nominated for her screenplay.

The list goes on. Multiple nominee Mad Max: Fury Road, whose female hero (Charlize Theron) rages against a most oppressive, patriarchal, dystopian society, invites readings as a feminist text. Hell, squint, and even Quentin Tarantino's bloodthirsty western The Hateful Eight (three nominations) might be read as a commentary on America assimilating violent racial divisions into its soul after the Civil War.

Yet with each new example of the Academy lauding films about diversity and empowerment, the lack of similar diversity among its list of nominees becomes ever more stark. Amid the justified furore about the lack of Black faces, there's barely been a moment to note the equally disquieting dearth of women's names that appear in the Best Director and Best Picture categories.

There is no doubt that the nominations in large part reflect the biases (conscious or otherwise) of AMPAS, whose membership historically reflects an industry that for many decades has been dominated by white men. That's not an excuse, but it is a sound explanation, which even Isaacs — the first African-American woman, and only the third woman, to ever preside over AMPAS — acknowledges.

In her statement about this year's lack of diversity, Isaacs notes that in the past four years the organisation has 'implemented changes to diversify our membership' to reflect 'inclusion in all of its facets: gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation'. 'But the change is not coming as fast as we would like,' she admits. 'We need to do more, and better and more quickly.'

Each of the films mentioned above is powerful. The issues and ideas they raise deserve the spotlight of mainstream attention and accolades. But that doesn't mean Lee, Pinkett Smith, Rock and Isaacs are wrong to object. When it comes to inequality, there should be no hierarchy: pursuing justice on one front doesn't excuse committing injustice on another. AMPAS needs to do better.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.



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Submitted comments

For many people, film is the art medium of choice. They may have little opportunity, or inclination, to visit art galleries or attend opera and ballet. So, there is a diversity amongst movie-goers and this diversity needs to be reflected in AMPAS. Movies should be judged on their merits though and not be a diversity numbers game. Looks like the movies nominated are outstanding and I'm sure the 'outsiders' will keep on keeping on.

Pam 21 January 2016

I am finding myself baffled by much of the discussion on race issues in the press/social media - which is probably a positive thing and my views have changed and shifted and hopefully will continue to do so. But in a country like the US where spin is often everything, and where advertising and political propaganda is carefully constructed to be inclusive, I wonder whether the Oscars is perhaps an unmoderated, unspun reflection of US society.

AURELIUS 22 January 2016

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