Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith are not pleased with the racial makeup of the 2016 Oscar nominees, so they are calling for a “conscientious absenteeism” — if I may offer a suitably puffed-up term — of the 88th Academy Awards. My first thought upon reading this news was, who cares? And then I realized that a great many people care deeply about what stars think, and that few people care about what I think.
But should the boycott turn into a movement, and should the scene of a few empty seats in Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre on February 28th, 2016 turn into a historical moment about which the poor schoolchildren of the future will struggle to write essays (“The 2016 Oscars boycott was, um, when Martin Luther King Jr. marched down Sunset Boulevard to demand tax breaks for minority-owned acting studios…”), it would be prudent to weigh in now.
Lee and Smith are correct when they observe a lack of racial diversity among the 20 nominees for acting awards. All of them are white — or at least a shade of periwinkle, as with Kate Winslet, or slightly marigold-hued, as in the case of Mark Ruffalo. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite is more of a headcount than an opinion or a call to arms.
To dilute the milkiness of this pool, the malcontents want the Academy — presided over by Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a black woman, no less — to be less #OscasSoWhite and more #OscarsSoStatisicallyRepresentative. Because 13 percent of Americans are black, the argument goes, 13 percent of acting nominees should be black, too. That adds up to two or three out of the total of 20.
Of course, by this reasoning, between three and four nominees should be Hispanic (as Hispanics count for 17 percent of the U.S. population) and at least one nominee should be Asian (as Asians count for five percent of the U.S. population). But nobody cares about about Hispanics and Asians getting nominated for Oscars because Hispanics and Asians aren’t complaining and presumably they have better things to do than gripe about a pompous awards ceremony that is part pageant and part circle jerk.
What the boycotters specifically want is for more of the Academy’s 1,138 members who vote for nominations in the acting categories to be black. Ignoring the racist implications of this plan — that black members will necessarily nominate black artists — in the short term, this wouldn’t make much of a difference. Academy members hold their titles for life, so we’d either need to cull the herd of white members or very quickly create hundreds of new membership slots and fill them with black folks. The first option is probably illegal (#AcademyLivesMatter, too) and the second might lend credence to some members’ fears that their prestige is under attack. Apparently, you can only become a member of the Academy after you receive a nighttime visit by the ghost of Frank Capra and go through an initiation ritual that involves devouring an entire reel of 35 mm film. Or so they want us to think.
In addition to wishing to rig the awards by having new members be selected on the basis of their melanin levels, the boycott leaders are also demanding that more black people be ushered into the film industry, both as cast and crew. But short of a Soviet-style diktat prescribing racial quotas at every stage of moviemaking — from conception to casting to post-production — I don’t see how this how this could be done, and more importantly, why anyone would want to see a movie that had been conceived, written, and produced with a careful eye on race ratios. ABC Afterschool Specials for the big screen, it would seem.
I would agree with Lee on one point: the Academy Awards ceremony appears increasingly irrelevant and yes, underrepresentative of the shades of people we see around us. While celebrity worship is as strong as ever, the practice is displaced and fragmented, and our collective swooning over actors is just as likely to take place in hidden corners of the internet as with the whole family, gathered around a television screen on a Saturday night. The number of viewers for last year’s Oscars even hit a six-year low. Although, with many people curious to see how host Chris Rock will handle the #OscarsSoWhite polemic, the number of viewers this year could very well skyrocket.
Maybe it’s time we drop our interest in the Academy Awards and take up a truly useful hobby, such as learning how to make fermented vegetables. For the majority of people, movies are a form of cheap entertainment, nothing more. Even films such as “Selma” or “The Help” that are supposed to be educational and consciousness-raising are consumed like any other movie: with one eye on the screen and the other on our 248-oz Pepsi and jumbo bucket of popcorn. And if the movie gets too preachy, we tune out.
Most of us only have a passing interest in the Oscars because we need something to read about on our smartphones between the time we sit down on the toilet and flush. Take the current obsession with seeing Leonardo DiCaprio finally win an Oscar — which I still can’t figure out if it’s authentic or ironic. If he manages to win Best Actor for “The Revenant” (spoiler alert, based on what I heard on the bus) in which he plays a man who gets raped by a wolf before getting buried alive in a snow cave, everyone will say hooray as if some great injustice has finally been corrected, but a second later we’ll forget about Leo and we’ll go back to picking lint out of our belly buttons while checking Facebook.
The best way to honor movies — and their cast and crew — is to pay to see them. With the exception of “Jurassic World,” which should have ended up on the straight-to-Blu-ray path, the top-grossing films are generally the ones that people actually want to see, because they’ve read or heard good things about them. As sad as it is to a bona fide movie snob like me, going to see “Furious 7,” “San Andreas,” and “Pitch Perfect 2” presumably gives audiences a sort of tangible pleasure.
The way we spend our money is, in many senses, the purest measure of what we really like, which is why Jada Pinkett Smith’s husband was a mega-star six times over in the 90s and beyond. People liked watching him act. Even today, you could cast Will Smith in a two-minute shampoo commercial and fans would rush to purchase tickets. If the movie industry is filled with racist gatekeepers, how could Will Smith have ever launched such a successful career? In fact, according to the IMDB, three of the 10 highest grossing actors of all time are black, with the number one and number two spots going to Samuel L. Jackson and Morgan Freeman. Even if the Academy doesn’t give adequate recognition to black actors, those who fund movie productions — and those who pay to watch movies — certainly do.
Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate that Hollywood’s problem is not that it’s bereft of blacks, but that it’s overrun with whites, is to Google, “What are the worst movies of 2015?” Hundreds of articles and blog posts have been published addressing this question, and virtually in every case, the only movies listed star white actors for the lead roles. So while white actors may be considered the best (or the best-known), they are also the worst and the subject of endless derision. The most ridiculed actors in Hollywood — Ben Affleck, Gwyneth Paltrow, Adam Sandler, Anne Hathaway, and Shia LaBeouf — are all white. Oops, with the notable exception of Jada and Will’s groan-inducing son Jaden, who is roundly seen as having been given the golden key to a life of stardom rather than having earned it.
The door swings both ways, it seems.
Drunk Uncle is a drunk uncle who lives in Europe. His views do not reflect the views of the Dandy Goat nor anyone of sound mind and proper beliefs.