We get this every year it seems: an outrage over the lack of representation by black actors and filmmakers in the nominees for the Academy Awards. There is always the outrage over subbing any film or performer; but, when it comes to race, the shouts and tweets are louder. This outrage takes many forms and has many voices but what we see, almost annually, is a pundit (or few) that claim to speak for their entire race in decrying the racist motives of the Academy Awards. It’s not new, remember when Marlon Brando sent that Native American girl to accept an award for him? Quite frequently, this is Al Sharpton or someone like him. This year we have Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith boycotting the Oscars and speaking out about the lack of representation in the nominees. I agree with them on the fact that there are no black nominees, that while there were outstanding performances and films from black artists this year, the Academy did not recognize them. The Academy is mostly old white people, so their tastes are not surprising at this point.
My argument, however, is essentially to ask, “What’s the point?” What does having an Oscar or a nomination actually mean? Why would it ever matter who the voters are for the Academy Awards? How do their opinions shape what everyone else thinks are great movies.
As I said before, there were fantastic films and performances by black actors this year that were unrecognized by The Academy. Straight Outta Compton was a fantastic film, Will Smith earned a lot of respect for his role in Concussion, and there is the continuing work of such great actors like Idris Elba, Morgan Freeman, and many others. It would have been great if they’d gotten recognition at the Oscars this year, but that wasn’t my decision; nor was it Spike Lee or Jada Pinkett Smith’s decision. Those old white men that make up the bulk of The Academy’s voters, they have their own opinion, they like the movies they like for whatever reasons they do. That doesn’t mean that Straight Outta Compton, Concussion or any of the other great things done by black artists this past year are unworthy of recognition. In fact, one would better serve racial interests by promoting and discussing those movies – instead of complaining about the cinematic opinions of old white men.
I understand there is a lack of racial diversity in Hollywood, but time and society will eventually change that. Calling for an “investigation” into the Academy voters, demanding to include more people that share the same opinion – that’s a great way to create dissent and get people to hate you. Imagine if a presidential candidate went out of their way to ensure that no people from the rival political party were permitted to vote. Politicians do find subtle ways to do that and they lose respect for it. How is claiming that the race of a person makes their voice more important – that more black voters would create more recognition for films by black artists? The Academy is not a political organization, it’s just a bunch of people with different opinions, and the American public doesn’t always see it that way. If The Academy truly represented the cinematic tastes of the American Public, Star Wars: The Force Awakens would have been Best Picture, right behind some Michael Bay movie.
Hatred and boycotts are not the way to serve any cause. I hate to use a horrible cliché such as “you draw more flies with honey,” but it’s true. You can’t force people to like movies they weren’t interested in – you can’t force all those old white men to like Straight Outta Compton, you can’t force people to start watching more films by black artists by whining about some dumb awards that realistically achieve nothing. An Oscar doesn’t make a film bad or good; a movie is subjective art, it’s only as good or bad as each individual viewer decides. Whining accomplishes nothing: when a kid whines about “life isn’t fair,” they’re often right but such cry-baby antics don’t suddenly make the world more fair. Introducing people to the work of black artists, discussing the great works they’ve done, getting people motivated about those films will create more diversity. The Academy won’t change society – society has to change itself. The work and voice of one individual will never create diversity. The introduction of ideas by individuals, however, can change society’s views on such things.
In other words, if you want to create more diversity in Hollywood, don’t start at the top and demand it. Start at the bottom, with the individual filmgoer, introduce them to a broader variety of films, get them to develop their ideas and tastes. After all, what’s important is that their work is watched and appreciated, not that it wins awards. A movie isn’t “good” or worthy of acclaim because a bunch of old white people, whom you’ve never met, say it is – a movie is good because you enjoyed it, because YOU give it that acclaim. As it stands, yes there is a racial qualification to getting an Oscar, but that’s just a meaningless award that does and means nothing. There is NO racial qualification to making great art.
Don’t waste your time telling The Academy to check their privilege because they won’t. That time is better spent encouraging people to watch some good movies, introduce them to some good art.