The all-white Oscars need to represent America

Sunday, February 21, 2016 - 5:28pm

NOSELL

The Weinstein Company

 

You would be hard pressed to find someone with an Internet connection that hasn’t heard that something is up with the Oscars. They’re white. Really, really white. The source and extent of the underrepresentation has been debated in think pieces from the New York Times to whatever “The Odyssey Online” is.

The Oscars disproportionately favor white actors. That’s not really up for debate. But why are the Oscars the center of this conversation? Other award shows (namely the SAG Awards) award the actors of color that the Oscars snub. People are making movies about women and people of color, and the American public is paying to see them. Hollywood itself is pretty white, but not to the same extent as the 2016 Oscar nominees.

So, the question isn’t are the Oscars whitewashed, the question is do the Oscars even matter anymore? Do award shows accurately reflect the culture of American moviegoers, or is the Academy detached enough from the box office to render itself insignificant?

There is an intense desire for representation in movies, and that has been made clear with the box office successes of movies like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Creed.” “The Force Awakens,” far and away the highest grossing movie of the year, was led by Daisy Ridley (a woman!) and John Boyega (a Black actor!). Diversity exists onscreen. Movies can make money even when they aren’t about white men. But what separates these movies from their Oscar-nominated peers is their failure to live up to a certain old-fashioned ideal of quality. They’re popular; they’re entertaining; they’re easy to watch. Therefore, they can’t be anything more than entertainment. They can’t be art.

Studios make a movie like “The Force Awakens” for very different reason than they make a movie like “Carol.” Both are great movies. “Carol” was made, more or less, to be placed on the podium alongside the other Oscar-nominated movies. “Carol” was made because it’s sad and it’s beautiful and the Academy eats that up. “The Force Awakens” was made to make money, and lots of it. It was made to entertain and engross the public. It was made to inspire the sales of merchandise. “The Force Awakens” and most of the racially diverse big studio movies of 2015 were made because they make money. They weren’t made to be “prestige pieces.” They weren’t made to be art.

Oscar nominations can be box office pushes for low-grossing movies. They steer movie snobs (like myself) toward films promised to be the crème de la crème. The Academy loves heavy period pieces, family dramas and anything with a lone male hero who survives against all odds. Like the American public, the Academy likes to see itself in movies (see: “Birdman” or “The Artist”). The problem here is that, unlike the American public, the Academy is overwhelmingly white and male.

The makeup of the Academy clearly does not represent the American public, but perhaps it doesn’t want to. Perhaps, the Academy exists to represent Hollywood. Demographically, the Academy represents the makeup of the writers, directors and producers who make Oscar-winning movies. White men decide movies made by white men are the height of cinema. If the movies nominated for Oscars have a diversity problem, the people that made them have an even bigger one.

So why do people still care about the Oscars? Isn’t it enough that studios are making more and more movies with women and actors of color?

The Oscars do matter. Not because a golden statue can actually decide the “best” movie, actor, director, etc. of the year. Not because it matters if any one film or performance is better than another. The Oscars matter because they represent movie-making on a larger scale. They stand as a symbol for what it means for a movie to be great, what it means for a movie to transcend commercial success and become something worth remembering.

So go ahead and get mad at the Oscars, but stay mad on February 29. Stay mad on June 29 when the few diverse summer blockbusters are heralded as the end of underrepresentation in Hollywood. Stay mad on November 29 when studios roll out their next slew of whitewashed Oscar hopefuls. 

I’ll be watching the Oscars next Sunday. They’re going to be tense and they’re going to be awkward, but I’m hopeful that that tension and awkwardness will push moviemakers in the right direction. Normally I wouldn’t argue that award shows matter, but this year they do. Because this year they hold the potential to become more than just Hollywood patting itself on the back. This year the Oscars have the potential to be the springboard for real, necessary social change.