Snubbed... actors such as Selma's David Oyelowo (middle)
Theoretically, awards shows like the Oscars and the Grammys are meant to celebrate the entirety of talents of their respective industries. It is assumed that the judges look at the full spectrum of eligible entries, submitted by artists and technicians of all genders, races, and other physical attributes.
It is precisely because these awards ceremonies are supposed to reward based on sheer talent, or if you will, "merit," that white people often get their underwear twisted in knots more intricate than the most recalcitrant set of earphones when awards shows like the Black Entertainment Awards (BET), The Deadlys and even literature awards like The Stella Prize roll around. But why have awards just for blacks/Aboriginals/women?, the standard whine goes. Isn't that just reverse racism/sexism? What would happen if we had award shows just for white people? Or just for men?
Well, in the early hours of the morning, the esteemed folks at the even more esteemed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences demonstrated that once again, we do have awards shows to seek to almost exclusively reward white men. Oh sure, the Oscars are supposed to be colour and gender blind, whatever that means. And to maintain this illusion, they will, every now and then toss a few nominations and even the odd gold statuette in the direction of people of colour and women, but, more often than not, these shows are little more than an exercise in white, male privilege.
Steve Carell as John du Pont in "Foxcatcher" Photo: Supplied
To wit, the Oscar nominations were announced today, and once again, in the Best Picture and Best Director categories the members of the Academy decided to almost exclusively recognise white men. On top of that, there was not a single person of colour represented across the four acting categories. To put that another way, 20 of of 20 best acting and best supporting acting nominees in the year 2015 are white. The social media backlash was immediate:
In the Best Director category, which in its 87th year has still only had one female winner (Kathryn Bigelow in 2009, who, as we all know is "really overrated" and only won because she's "very hot"), of the five male nominees, four are white, one is Hispanic. Overlooked, of course, were the female directors of two of the years most recognised films: Ava DuVernay for Selma, the timely civil rights epic, and Angelina Jolie for Unbroken, the less critically less acclaimed but no less ubiquitous Louis Zamperini biopic.
Of these two snubs, it is DuVernay's that was most surprising. This is how Forbes writer Scott Mendelson (who is a white man meaning his opinions are automatically more objective and thus more important than mine) reacted to the nominations:
"That Ms. DuVernay didn't get a Best Director Oscar nomination doesn't make Selma any less of a great film. But...(it's) a sad reflection of a year when a number of good, great, and lousy fictionalized true-life biopics about allegedly great or somewhat interesting white men are well-represented while one of the very best-reviewed movies of the year went with hardly a single relevant nomination, aside from getting into the expanded Best Picture field, arguably on account of controversy over its accuracy (Selma has been accused of distorting President Lyndon B Johnson's role in the civil rights struggle). Considering the obstacles that Ms. DuVernay faces in terms of just steady employment by virtue of her gender and skin color, the risk of Selma being defined not by its once-unquestionable quality as a motion picture but rather by the context of its back-and-forth bantering over its alleged historical embellishments is more than just trivial."
Mendelson nails an important point. Despite the fact that the Oscars seem to be as ridiculed as they are respected, they are still the barometer of excellence in film, and, as such they play a huge part in the success (or lack thereof), of people's careers. And that means, despite the fact that Hollywood is still run mostly by older, white men, when we regard their choices are an at least somewhat objective interpretation of reality, we are setting the stage for the continued exclusion of marginalised groups.
Sadly, this is still how our society functions. Women and people of colour and, in DuVernay's case, the double-whammy of a woman of colour, are allowed a certain amount of recognistion but not too much. When it becomes glaringly apparent they have been shut out for too long, the Academy will have a diversity-themed Oscars (see: Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and Sidney Poitier in 2001, and Lupita Nyong'o and 12 Years A Slave in 2013). But you can bet your uncle Oscar that whenever these white-dominated shows do acknowledge that people other than white men exist and they are pretty good at making films, they will always bounce back to their true mission the following year.
Now, I would find this state of affairs more acceptable if everyone would actually just admit it. Instead, we have to maintain the farce that we are a post-racial, post-feminist, inclusive society that rewards talent and hard work and "merit", when in fact, ceremonies such as the Oscars demonstrate the exact opposite.
Now I'm not saying the chosen five male directors are not talented or hard working. Nor that their films are not enjoyable. Only that people who fit a certain mold are more likely to be rewarded, and rather than recognise a system that is inherently stacked towards rewarding them, we delude ourselves that our society isn't still run by white men who get to present their worldview as the worldview.
As Ann Hornaday wrote in the Washington Post this morning, "(With)the exception of "Selma," which gratifyingly received a nod for best picture, the plots of the nominated movies mostly hewed to a monotonous storyline, centered around great men either in fact or in the making, whether it's the Iraq war hero Chris Kyle in "American Sniper," Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything," Alan Turing in "The Imitation Game" or the tortured artists played by Michael Keaton and Miles Teller in "Birdman" and "Whiplash.""
Don't believe that tosh about this being "only the Oscars" and "only movies," as if pop culture isn't both a reflection and a driving force of the culture at large. When we watch these films dominated by white men, and then sit back and watch them get rewarded, it reinforces the dominant narrative: that white men's stories simply matter more.
For they are the conflicted geniuses, the heroes, the creators, the stars. The rest of us are merely bit players, tokens. Perhaps we'll get a good cameo if we're lucky. In a world where men actually claim that "feminists have gone too far" and white people think they face more discrimination than blacks, this is yet another incident, however trivial it may appear, that tells the true story: this is still a white man's world.
At least for another year.