You have to wonder, once the Oscar nominations were made public on Thursday morning, whether each separate member of the Academy immediately felt a pit at the bottom of his or her stomach, knowing what was coming. There’s no way the individual voters didn’t look at the totality of their decisions and know they were about to be eviscerated as if they’d just thrown a pillow case full of minority children off the top of the Dolby Theater. Many of them may breathe rarified air but they live in the year 2015 and have access to the internet just like the rest of us. Hollywood surely figured out by around 8:45am East Coast time today that the “White Out” headlines were going to write themselves and that a clever hashtag would be trending within the hour. When it was revealed that Selma director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo had been snubbed by the Academy collective and that most of the big-ticket nominees were white, no doubt the industry types kept their phones near — just waiting for that call.
And man is it coming.
It took all of about five hours from the announcement of the nominations this morning for Al Sharpton — his spidey-sense no doubt tingling at the thought of a global audience — to inject himself into the controversy. Through a press release he announced that he’s calling an “emergency meeting” with his “task force” to address the crisis and “discuss possible action around the Academy Awards.” “The movie industry is like the Rocky Mountains, the higher you get, the whiter it gets,” he cleverly quipped. He went on to call the lack of black and brown faces among the nods “appalling,” despite conceding that Selma picked up a nomination for Best Picture. “With all of the talent in Selma and other Black movies this year,” he said, “it is hard to believe that we have less diversity in the nominations today than in recent history.” Movies themselves can be color classified despite being made up of dozens and dozens of people both in front of the camera and behind the scenes — please make a note of it.
Apparently we’ve overcome the scourge of racism in this country if Al Sharpton is able, without fear of being laughed off the planet, to lose his mind over two black people not receiving high-profile nominations for the single most prestigious award in the entertainment industry. If being snubbed by the Oscars is now an “emergency meeting”-worthy offense, MLK’s dream really has come true. I haven’t seen Selma yet, although I have no doubt that the work of both Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo in it is excellent. However, excellence doesn’t always guarantee you an Oscar nod; that’s unfortunately just the way it is. Theoretically the nominations and the awards themselves are supposed to be based on achievement and merit rather than on what the public — or a portion of it — believes the field of winners should look like. This wasn’t a conspiracy. This wasn’t a clandestine effort to screw over Selma‘s cast and crew or Black America. This was a bunch of individual people voting in a way that left DuVernay and Oyelowo to fall through the cracks.
You can make the argument that you didn’t like Bradley Cooper in American Sniper as much as you liked David Oyelowo in Selma — or Bennett Miller’s job in Foxcatcher as much as Ava DuVernay’s — but that’s your opinion based on nothing more than your own tastes and enough Academy members felt differently that your pick wasn’t chosen. It happens. It’s happened over and over throughout Oscar history and it will surely happen again, no matter how much hell anyone raises or how loudly anyone cries foul.
It’s absolutely true that, as Scott Mendelson over at Forbes says, the snub of Ava DuVernay matters because it unfortunately has the potential to impact her future. Also, if his concerns that the snub came as a result of liberties Selma took with its true story are legit, that’s both unfortunate and unconscionable, since an artist gets to do that when she helms a project. But the former simply can’t theoretically be taken into account when making a decision as to whether to give her a nod and the latter can never be proven. As far as we know, this is simply a case of the Academy choosing one person over another — nothing more. It’s also true that talented people of color should always be given opportunities and latitude to work behind or in front of the camera in Hollywood. But who’s to say that more black members of the Academy wouldn’t have produced exactly the same result as what we’re seeing this year? If anyone from any race or ethnicity chose to cast his or her votes based not on the quality of the films but out of a sense of allegiance we’d know for a fact that the Oscars weren’t a meritocracy and therefore weren’t fair.
You look at the nominees in most of the major categories this year and, yes, there’s a hell of a lot of white. (Wes Anderson alone has to count for around six white people.) But that could just be how it shook out this year and to claim racism — which Sharpton is of course doing, because, well, it’s Sharpton — is not only conspiratorial but counterproductive. Last year, 12 Years a Slave took home a Best Picture Oscar and a whole slew of other awards in more than a half-dozen national and international competitions. You have to assume that this happened because 12 Years a Slave was legitimately considered the best movie of the year by the Academy and others. And if you assume that, you have to likewise assume that the voting was above-the-board this year and what we got is simply how the chips fell. You don’t have to like it, but you also can’t assume that it’s the result of a corrupt system.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first black female president of the Academy, doesn’t think there’s a diversity problem at play here and while you can absolutely argue with that — the statistics bear out that the Academy is largely white — it doesn’t mean there’s malfeasance at play. What Al Sharpton is going to do is what he always does, what he did last month in the wake of the Sony hack: he’s going to make threats and set up hoops he demands that Hollywood jump through until he’s satisfied with the result. He’s going to try to hold hostages. Because he isn’t interested in an Oscars that’s fair, he’s merely interested in one that looks the way he believes it should, the actual will of the Academy be damned. In his mind the process can’t possibly be impartial and legitimate if it shook out that Selma got shortchanged and a majority of the big-ticket noms went to people who happen to be white. Only that is how it shook out and to the best of anyone’s knowledge it was fair.
If any of us has an issue with who got nominated and who didn’t, unfortunately, he or she is going to have to do what we do most years: write a lengthy think-piece about it or fire off an angry tweet then sit the hell down.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.