Saturday, January 30, 2016

Is It Worth It To Boycott The So-White Oscars?

Well, I think that it depends on what you mean by "worth it."

You have to start with the question of whether the absence of African-Americans from the acting nominations for this years Academy Awards is something that's worthy of public protest.  As a professional actor myself, and having never been nominated (and not likely, nearing the age of 60, to be so nominated), I will admit that I'm somewhat skeptical about whether any of us should care, for two reasons.

First, awards are almost always political, and especially when the awards are meant to honor achievement in the arts, where achievement is always highly subjective.  "Lawrence of Arabia" beat out "To Kill a Mockingbird" for the Best Picture Oscar in 1962.  They're both great movies, among my personal favorites.  Is there any really rational way to say that one was better than the other? Beyond that, the Oscars' main value is their connection to the early days of motion pictures, when the industry and its products were easier to glamorize in a less media-saturated world. Nobody really idolizes actors anymore, which is why awards shows generally are in a downward ratings spiral.

But, I digress.  The current Oscars controversy touches on the state of race relations in a soon-to-be post-Obama America.  After nearly eight years of experiencing its first African-American presidency, is life in America better for the only group of its citizens whose ancestors came to this country as property, not people?  And, in an age where the film industry is more of an international industry than ever before, does the process for the industry's most recognizable awards reflect the diversity implied by that international character?

Sadly, I have to admit that the answer to the second question is decidedly no.  And, as a consequence, I think it's completely fair to say that the answer to the first question is more likely than not to be no. Of course, that "more likely than not" gets replaced by certainty when you look at aspects of American life other than films, such as gun violence.

In that sense, boycotting the Oscars has value, because the boycotts start a conversation that we clearly need to have.  And, if the media is a reliable guide (and, in this case, I think that it is), that conversation is already well begun, although not without a few missteps.  Michael Caine's comments pain me the most, because I hold him in very high regard as an actor who makes almost any film better just by being in it.  I'd like to think that he has a blindness to his level of white-male privilege that can be corrected.  I have no explanation for Charlotte Rampling, however.  Even though she has since retracted her inflammatory remarks, you'd think that someone who hasn't been in the public eye for three decades would be grateful enough for the attention she's getting now that she wouldn't go out of her way to poke fingers in the eyes of people she's never met.  Makes me wonder whether or not her next project is going to be called "The White Porter."

Perhaps not surprisingly, more positive thoughts are being contributed by African-American members of the film industry.  Take Viola Davis, for example.  As she so recently stated, it's not a question of who gets recognized for today's films, but rather a question of what films get made today. It's tragic that this is even an issue, because so much of American history is African-American history.  There are any number of great stories that are not told, and one could begin anywhere to start remedying their absence among American movies.  How about, for example, a major biopic about Frederick Douglass?  There have been a few TV movies about him.  But why not a major Hollywood epic?  Why can't that be Steven Spielberg's next big historical project?  Why does it always have to be the independent film industry that comes up with projects like this?

Ultimately, what I hope is that all of us, whether in or out of the film industry, takes the advice of Will Smith.  Because all of us are in this great thing called Life together.  It would be helpful, it would be much more than that, if our entertainment reflected that fact.

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