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IT’S ACADEMY AWARDS TIME AGAIN, and the 2016 Awards will be the 88th time that some sort of ceremony has taken place to recognize the “best” of Hollywood. There is already mucho brouhaha surrounding this year’s nominations, as this is the second year in a row that all the acting nominees were for white folk. Outrage was immediate following that announcement with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and boycotting the Oscars trending on Twitter.
Jada Pinkett Smith was the first major voice to call for action via Twitter: “At the Oscars, people of color are always welcomed to give out awards, even entertain, but we are rarely recognized for our artistic accomplishments. Should people of color refrain from participating all together?”
This set off a brushfire.
If the membership of the Academy voters was representational of the general population, would we be having this conversation right now?
Several players have leveled accusations of institutional or systemic racism against the Academy and will be boycotting the ceremonies.
But I am not addressing those accusations here. I am addressing someone who addressed those accusations, and I will bring up some numbers that should interest you whatever your own opinion on this matter.
Forest Whitaker has been a fave since his marvelous turns in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) and Bird (1988). The photo here is from Ghost Dog – The Way of the Samurai, a 1999 film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Whitaker plays a Mafia hitman who tries to adhere to the code of the samurai as he carries out his orders.
You take the lowbrow and I’ll take the high
Taking the lead and speaking for those of us whose aesthetic eyebrows are above sea-level—meaning we would like to think that we focus on Best Cinematographer, Best Documentary, Best Screenplay, etcetera—I acknowledge that most of the sex appeal of Oscar Night is within four categories, and they’re all about the actors and actresses. 1
Now except for the Baseball Hall of Fame, I don’t usually follow these award things. With the Oscars, I find that the films and creators nominated and selected each year by the Academy’s reviewers are a reasonable combination of the year’s “best” films (always subjective) with the year’s most commercially successful. 2
Through the years, the nominators and voters may not have always made the best choices—especially given hindsight—but they have almost always made good choices! 3
A walk through the list of nominees over the past few decades should not embarrass most movie buffs—if representational choices are what you are looking for. 4
In fact, if you were stranded on Hypothetical Desert Island, and for entertainment you had a DVD of every movie that made the Top 5 nominations for Best Picture (if that was possible), you would have a helluva fine representation (almost 500 movies) of the history of Hollywood movie-making since the inception of the Awards.
When friends drop by, you could entertain them endlessly with movies they had never seen! (Naturally, they would have to bring the beer and popcorn.)
Here’s an Oscar situation that I never understood: in The Color Purple (1983), director Steve Spielberg took comedian Whoopi Goldberg and in her first movie role assisted her to a nomination as Best Actress in a Leading Role. He took television host Oprah Winfrey and in her first movie role assisted her to a nomination as Best Actress in a Supporting Role. He took singer Margaret Avery, who’d appeared in several earlier movies in minor roles, and in her first major movie role assisted her to a nomination as Best Actress in a Supporting Role. And for this remarkable achievement, he wasn’t even nominated as Best Director! 5
Boycotting The Oscars?
Earlier today I received my Independent Journal newsletter and it featured an article taking to task those brouhaha-ers stirring up the lack-of-racial-diversity accusations. Here is the entire text of “If Anyone Tells You the Oscars Are ‘Too White,’ Have Them Take a Look at This List” by Conor Swanberg:
“The 88th Annual Academy Awards haven’t even happened yet, and there is a whirlwind of drama surrounding Hollywood’s most star-studded night. Celebrities like Spike Lee and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith have called for a boycott due to a lack of “minority” nominees.
So what have the past fifteen years looked like in terms of “minority” winners? Take a look at this list of Black, Latino, and Asian winners of the Academy Awards since 2000.”
Please note that I added the emphasis on Black, Latino, and Asian winners.
Mr. Swanberg then lists the “minority” winners in twenty categories over the past fifteen years. Here are the Big 4 categories and the “minority” winners in each:
Best Actor in a Leading Role
Denzel Washington, Training Day (2001)
Jamie Foxx, Ray (2004)
Forest Whitaker, The Last King Of Scotland (2006)
Best Actress in a Leading Role
Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball (2001)
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Benicio del Toro, Traffic (2001)
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls (2006)
Mo’Nique, Precious (2009)
Octavia Spencer, The Help (2011)
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years A Slave (2013)
Since 2000, there have been fifteen Academy Awards ceremonies. Fifteen times the four big categories is sixty, oui?
Americans of “minority” descent (primarily black, Latino, and Asian) make up approximately 37% of the legal US population—and that percentage is growing.
For this article of mine (“Boycotting The Oscars For The ‘Right’ Reasons”), I will use a conservative 35% for a fair and balanced view of our “minority” brothers and sisters. If I assume that there is an equal percentage of “minority” actors and actresses available for Hollywood roles, then the Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress Awards (the Big 4 of the Awards) should have gone to “minority” actors and actresses at least twenty-one (21) times.
In fact, they won ten (10) times. That’s a HUGE statistical discrepancy in favor of the brouhahaers.
10.8% of speaking characters are black
I know enough not to make assume equal representation in Hollywood. In a survey of one-hundred top-grossing films of 2012, speaking roles went to following ethnicities: 6
• Black actors and actresses 10.8%
• Hispanic actors and actresses 4.2%
• Asian actors and actresses 5.0%
• Mixed race actors and actresses 3.6%
That is, less than 24% of “minorities” get speaking parts in Hollywood movies, which is considerably lower than my already low 35%! 7
Still, using that lower number (23.6%), “minority” actors and actresses should have won the Big 4 Awards fourteen (14) times.
In fact, they won ten (10) times. That’s not a big enough statistical discrepancy to work in favor of the brouhahaers.
And that, my friends, is all the time and research that I am putting into this article. I acknowledge that my math here and the use of statistics is basic and simplistic, but it’s accurate enough for you to draw some conclusions.
Using the low and high figures above, there should have been between fourteen and twenty-one (14–21) names of “minority” actors and actresses in the four categories that I selected from Mr. Swanberg’s article.
As noted, there were ten.
So then, did Mr. Swanberg make his point? 8
Before you answer that, read on . . .
The red herring and the straw men
First, the Independent Journal is anything but independent: it is very rightwing. Conor Swanberg specializes in articles with an exclusively rightwing perspective. While the text of “If Anyone Tells You the Oscars Are ‘Too White,’ Have Them Take a Look at This List” is politically blasé, the title of the article stands as an editorial comment.
That said, Mr. Swanberg’s (implied) refutation of the boycotters’ position and my (implied) refutation of his refutation are both just so much horsepuckey. And here is why:
• On one hand, the article is a red herring in that it “distracts from a relevant or important issue.”
• On the other hand, it’s equally a straw man argument in that it “gives the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument which was not advanced by that opponent.” 9
The people denouncing the Oscars are not debating the past fifteen years. They are pointing out that in the last two years (2014 and 2015), the total number of “minority” actors and actresses nominated—not winning, but just nominated—in the Big 4 categories was zero (0).
Mr. Swanberg does not even address that in his piece.
In fact, let’s look again at those categories: the last time that a “minority” won Best Actor in a Leading Role was 2006, not a good sign racial-diversity-wise.
The last time that a “minority” won Best Actress in a Leading Role was 2001, again not a good sign.
And the last time that a “minority” won Best Actor in a Supporting Role was 2004, ditto.
I dunno, but combine that with the zero nominations for a “minority” in any of the Big 4 categories two years running seems to paint a less than flattering image of the Awards and would seem to give considerable weight to the boycotters’ arguments.
But the last time that a “minority” woman won Best Actress in a Supporting Role was 2013. In fact, a black actress has won that Award four times in the past ten years, which would seem to be in Mr Swanberg’s favor.
But then again, it can be interpreted as quite the opposite—if you catch my drift.
Morgan Freeman is a household word and every moviegoer has seen him in so many movies that we actually lose count! But one that sticks in my head is his role in the indie 10 Items Or Less, in which Freeman plays himself driving around LA with a cashier talking about life and things—a sorta lightweight My Dinner With Andre. You have to see the movie.
Almost all the Oscar voters are white!
Did you know that 94% of the Academy’s 6,000+ voting members are white? If the membership of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences voters was representational of the general population and 37% of the voters were “minorities,” would we be having this conversation right now?
So, do I believe that the Academy as an institution is racist?
Do I believe that the Academy voters as a group are racist?
Do I think the black actors have a point about ingrained cultural bias among the almost exclusively white Academy voters begetting what can appears, if only superficially, to be racism?
I think that the method of making the nominations and selecting the winners is antiquated and insufficient. First, given what we know about cultural bias—to which we are all susceptible—it should be addressed immediately with a ‘tenth man rule’ committee that oversees unconsciously blindered decisions.
Second, I think that selecting one person as the “best” in any of the categories is impossible and self-defeating. There should be at least five winners in each category and we still wouldn’t cover all the brilliant acting that we see year in and year out!
In Hancock (2008), the extraordinarily popular Will Smith plays a superhero with a HUGE ego, a HUGE attitude, and a HUGE drinking problem. While most viewers and critics focused on the down-and-out and misunderstood superhero aspect of the film, few paid attention to Smith’s portrayal of Hancock as being remarkably similar to a stereotype of a homeless alcoholic black man who, devoid of superpowers, would just be another annoying asshole on the streets. PS: You won’t find Mr Smith’s name among the Oscar winners on this page.
But couldn’t it just be a coincidence?
Sure, I guess it could . . .
FEATURED IMAGE: In 2002, Halle Berry received the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance in Monster’s Ball. Denzel Washington won Best Actor award for Training Day. It was the first time that a black woman had received that award; it was the last time that a black woman has received that award. Frankly, I found most of the photos of the beautiful Halle Berry accepting or posing with her Oscar to be less than desirable or dignified. This one was the best of those large enough to be used as a featured image. 10
PS: Just a thought here, but we white folk should probably oughta wanna keep outta this brouhaha for the time being—especially if we have a “suspect” background. As an example, there is Gerald Molen, who referred to the boycotters as “spoiled brats” and somehow brought Michael Moore into this, referring to him as a “socialist always looking to insert his brand of racist hatred.”
Mr. Molen’s movie 2016: Obama’s America purportedly “documents” rightwingnut and apparent racist Dinesh D’Souza’s fantasies about the future. This piece of anti-Obama propaganda almost undoes Mr. Molen’s marvelous achievements as the producer of such faveraves of Berni’s and mine as Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, Rain Man, Minority Report, and the under-appreciated Twister.
The combination of this fake documentary with his utterances could allow others to paint Mr Molen as a knee-jerk rightwingnuttybuddy type.
As my fly-fishing phone-buddy John James Peipon would say, “Just sayin’ . . .”
1 The word brouhaha is French and indicates a state of social agitation when a minor incident gets out of control. And here me wee brain has always thought that brouhaha was something that drunk Irish did—I probably confused it with brew, ha ha!
2 The Major League Baseball Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, New York. It’s the place where Pete Rose the player deserves to be but ain’t, as Pete Rose the manager may have forever barred his entrance. And now that Bert Blyleven is in there where he belongs, I can blather on about getting Darrell Evans and Craig Nettles in there, too!
3 Berni and I love movies and watch lots of them. If it were up to her (and this is the subjective part), Richard Curtis would be a deity, if only for Notting Hill, Love Actually, and About Time with Mr Bean being forgiven. If it were up to me Woody Allen would need a storage locker for his awards (way too many films to mention).
4 And people with highfalutin’ taste for avant-garde and experimental films, or with a lowfalutin’ taste for ‘B‘ and exploitational movies, are free to disagree.
5 If you have not seen The Color Purple, stop reading and go do whatever it takes to put this at the top of your personal list of Movies I Must See Before I Die!
6 The statistics are from “New study puts numbers to the lack of “minority” representation in film.” It further states, “Just over three-quarters of all speaking characters are white (76.3%). These trends are relatively stable, as little deviation is observed across the five-year sample.”
7 There could be several reasons for this that are not directly systemic racism, such as percentage of black actor/actress wannabes perceiving Hollywood as systemically racist and don’t bother pursuing a career there.
8 Hell’s Belles, did Swanberg even do his research?
9 The definitions for red herring and straw man are from Wikipedia; click on over to either for more information on these logical or informal fallacies.
10 In most of the photos that I found, Ms. Berry’s mouth is agape!