Racism and Hollywood. The two words seem to continually pop up in relationship to each other.
One of Sony’s top studio executives, a white woman, was recently exposed for making racist jokes about Barack Obama via email to a white producer. On the Golden Globes red carpet, at least two high-profile white journalists confused Viola Davis with Shonda Rhimes. And then the Oscar nominations, released early Thursday, caused yet another racially tinged social media dustup.
Twitter and Facebook posts both praised and skewered the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for giving a Best Picture and Best Original Song nod to civil rights drama “Selma” while also skipping individual nods to Ava DuVernay, its director, and David Oyelowo, who portrayed Martin Luther King Jr. in the film. The outrage led to the creation of the humorous #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. But insiders say the reasons for the so-called snubs are far more nuanced than most people think.
“The average person doesn’t know how this game is played,” says Wilson Morales, editor of Blackfilm.com and a film critic. “It’s tough to say it’s racism, but at the end of the day, it’s racism and politics.”
On the political end of things, most film awards rely on a complex system of goodwill, exposure and campaigning. Conventional knowledge holds that movies released later in the year have a greater chance of being remembered by voters versus those released early in the year. But insiders say DVD screeners of “Selma” didn’t get to voters until too late
“Everyone in Hollywood realized that Hollywood essentially followed an incredibly diverse year with quality movies with an incredibly non-diverse year for quality movies,” says Eric Deggans, a critic with NPR. “[In 2013] you had ’12 Years a Slave,’ ‘The Butler,’ ‘Captain Phillips’ — really good movies that had a lot of strong roles for black people. This year the movies with good roles for black people were all indie or small or movies that debuted later.”
Executives, such as the ones who emailed those racist jokes, are the ones who greenlight movies. So the larger question, Deggans says, surrounds Hollywood’s investment in diversity. He doesn’t buy the belief that diversely cast films don’t make moolah. “After Earth,” starring Will Smith, for example, was panned stateside but did quite well overseas. Meanwhile, “Selma” snagged a 99 percent Rotten Tomatoes score — proof that it was loved by critics.
“It comes back to how hard it was for movies like ‘Selma’ and ‘The Butler’ to even get financed,” says Deggans. “Oprah [Winfrey] had to step in on both of those movies. It’s astonishing that it has taken 50 years to have a major theatrical movie made about Martin Luther King. That’s crazy.”
He goes on. “That tells you Hollywood has a problem where it is marginalizing stories of certain people so those stories are not being made into films that have the levels of visibility to get Oscar nominations.”
And that’s still not the whole story. The Hollywood Reporter says that of the nearly 6,000 Academy members in 2012, about 94 percent are white, 77 percent are male and 86 percent are age 50 or older. And the Huffington Post on Thursday declared this year’s Oscars to be the whitest since 1998.
Chicago filmmaker Darryl Roberts, who produced the “America the Beautiful” documentaries, says fans should be careful not to buy into negative hype.
“In my mind [‘Selma’] is to be congratulated for what it is as part of African-American history,” says Roberts. “Let’s not get caught up in us viewing [DuVernay] based on how she’s validated in Hollywood. Let’s celebrate her film and what she’s done: the first feature film about King coming out and playing on his birthday. That’s of historical significance whether she’s nominated for best director or not.”
Roberts isn’t the only one questioning the necessity of an Oscar nod. Sergio Mims, a local film historian and co-founder of the Black Harvest Film Festival, was shocked that DuVernay wasn’t individually named. Still, he says, the issue is nuanced. Academy voters look at what’s familiar to them.
“The film gets nominated for Best Picture and you would think it would be nominated for Best Director, but the only other nomination you got was for best song?” he says. “That doesn’t make sense. It’s throwing a bone at it. … [Best Picture and Director contender] ‘Boyhood’ is the most overrated movie of the year. Gee. What’s it like being a pampered white kid in the suburbs? Wow.”
Mims also goes on. “It comes back to the bigger question: Should we really care? Do we still need white approval to say that our films are worthy?”
The NAACP Image Awards nominations, released in mid-December, didn’t garner nearly the coverage that the Oscars do.
The key players in this, DuVernay and Oyelowo, were staying silent about the outcry Thursday. DuVernay has scads of experience in this game; she used to be a high-profile movie publicist and she founded an organization designed to help fledgling filmmakers. She won’t get caught up in Twitter arguments pitting movies against each other.
Some analysts blame the snub on the issue of the film’s historical accuracy in its characterization of President Lyndon B. Johnson as standing in the way of civil rights advancements. But as Mims says, “American Sniper” — another Best Picture nominee left out of the Best Director category — was already proven to have inaccuracies in its original workings as a book.
Still, at least one “Selma” cast member was speaking out. Common, who garnered a best song nod along with John Legend for the movie’s “Glory,” did briefly touch on the issue, admitting he wished DuVernay had gotten a nomination.
“I was very much hoping because Ava created an incredible piece of work and that film is a beautiful film,” the singer told the Associated Press in an interview Thursday. “And David Oyelowo, actually [costume designer] Ruth Carter, like I was hoping for our whole team because we created a family. But for sure Ava DuVernay because … she put so much heart and soul into it.”
Adrienne Samuels Gibbs an be reached at @adriennewrites on Twitter or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.