Oscars in the Age of the Asterisk

When Dan Levy accepted the Golden Globe for Schitt’s Creek this year and ended his speech with a desire to see a more inclusive ceremony in a year’s time, I decided I had enough of the Oscar cycle after following it religiously since 2003.

To clarify, I love Dan Levy as a comedic talent and when he talks about “Schitt’s Creek” being a show built around the spirit of inclusiveness, that’s a part of what I love about “Schitt’s Creek.” The problem with Levy’s statement was twofold. His speech was in the middle of a ceremony when several minutes of screen time were already taken up with the Hollywood Foreign Press showing up and literally apologizing for not having any black members, and that was on top of an opening monologue that was filled with apology-type jokes. Since an expose came out from the LA Times about the lack of black members, it was destined in this current atmosphere that the main storyline of the night was racial inequality.

The second problem was that it was counterfactual. He accepted an award on a night in which four of the acting winners (John Boyega, Dan Kaluuya, Chadwick Boseman, and Andra Day) were black, two were openly on the LGBT spectrum (Levy and Jodie Foster), and a Chinese-American woman won best film director. In addition, an Orthodox Jew (Sacha Baron Cohen) who has made it his mission to stop hate speech won Best Actor in a comedy film, a woman-centered film won Best Picture in the drama category (Nomadland), a TV show with an LGBT lead won Best Television Comedy (Schott’s Creek), and the first Pixar film written and co-directed by a black man won Best Animated film (Soul).

These are great developments but it brings up the fair question: Why is this continually the point of outrage year after year in any and all movie-related discussions. When Marlon Brando won an Oscar for “The Godfather” he famously sent a Native-American to the stage in his place for the rights of Native Americans. Though some may disagree, it’s generally been an effective thing to use your speech time to advocate for causes. Jane Fonda used her time to campaign for deaf people, Leonardo DiCaprio for the environment, Frances McDormand for the wage gap, and Joaquin Phoenix for pretty much everything he could squeeze in three paragraphs. But those were actual issues.

Forgive me for feeling disillusioned at the cause of not using every possible opportunity in what’s supposed to be an exercise in free choice to convince a misinformed mob that you are, in fact, not racist. This is not an isolated incident but a fairly skewed set of facts about whether Hollywood and its awards bodies are inclusive enough despite the popularity of the hashtag #oscarssowhite. It is literally a source of complaint in every ceremony. Sasha Stone, one of the internet’s biggest Oscar prognosticators, championed “Moonlight” because of the importance of black visibility over its rival “La La Land” in the 2016/2017 Oscar race. A couple years later, she was so disillusioned with the quest for visibility that she noted this was the most vicious year of campaigning in which seven of the eight films were deemed problematic by some metric or other. She coined the term “woketopians” in a popular essay during the 2018/2019 Oscar race she wrote:

“The Oscar race for Best Picture used to be, for the most part, about two things: what film do people like the best, and what film “deserves” to win. That second part is where we have a problem now. What does “deserve” mean now? Well, it means your entire history could come under scrutiny if you’re a threat. It means that your movie can’t just be good — it has to completely satisfy the requirements of an industry seeking to right the wrongs of the past, right the wrongs of the Oscars. It has to offend no one.”

Even the defenders miss that voting is an unpredictable exercise by its very nature. What is also left out of the conversation is that voting is impossible to control. It is the result of 1100 voting secretly so it’s not as if members of the Academy’s acting branch can conspire together and nominate Lupita Nyong’o or Andra Day. It’s fairly probable that if these people could, they would get together and nominate 3 to 5 black actors and one Latinx actor every year just to quell the media about this issue but it’s not possible. If anything, the forced tokenism likely results in vote splitting.

One argument is that the Oscars have never really mattered anyway, but that’s a massive oversimplification. The Oscars and its adjacent ceremonies serve several critical functions to keep the movie industry you know and love alive. Mainly, they incentivize studios to bank roll films that don’t have high box office potential and direct film audiences to the kinds of movies that don’t feature superheroes and explosions.

But while the Oscars have these positive effects, there is the flip side that the Oscars also discourage films from being made. In the last few Oscar cycles, the backlash in the press from anything that doesn’t conform to narrow standards of wokeness has enforced a mechanism of rewards and punishments that prompt films to conform even more. Want to get experimental with your casting in ways that might border on whitewashing? Want to write a villainous character who’s black? Want to tell a story where a black person played a historical role that wasn’t heroic?

Three of the last four Oscar races were essentially decided by the mortal sins of:
A) A white character enjoying jazz (La La Land losing to Moonlight)
B) Having a racist character who got fired during his job have some form of redemption because racist people should never have story arcs (Three Billboards of Missouri losing to The Shape of Water)
C) Portraying a black person eating fried chicken within the context of an evolving relationship that was wrongly pinned by media as not true to history (Green Book won but faced backlash)
D) A story involving people of color triumphing over a white war story (Parasite)

Long story, short: The best way to make a story that will have a chance at the Oscar is to be a film maker in one of the favored categories: LGBT, female, or a person of color. If not, you apparently have some sin to atone for.

In the past year, the Academy announced diversity quotas for a film to be considered for a Best Picture nomination. This is a decent compromise if it can satisfy the public and provide opportunities for the disenfranchised. The problem is that it likely won’t stop an entertainment media for pushing false narratives when requirements are not met.

Think of the original Oscars So White movement in 2014 and 2015. Though it was assumed that the Academy Awards had a history of short-changing black nominees, the Oscars had actually awarded nominations to 30 black actors over a 14-year period, which amounts to 10.8 percent of Oscar nominees. That’s within 2 percentage points of the US population that is black according to the 2010 US Census. It’s not perfect representation but it’s hardly the crime that it’s been portrayed as.

The problem is that the media and it’s subsequent activists have put the results of Oscar nominations and wins through an inaccurately microscopic measure of diversity becomes the biggest headline of the year when Hollywood fails by this metric to nominate enough people of color in the acting categories.

The year 2013 saw 12 Years a Slave win Best Picture at the Oscars and even 2014 had Selma among its nominees but the cynics pointed to one measure and one snub in particular — David Oyelowo in the Best Actor category — as evidence that the Oscars as an entire body had failed. Will Smith, who had been nominated for Oscar twice and lost to black actors (Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker), went so far as to suggest that the movement had gone backwards despite the evidence.

The 2016, 2017, and 2018 Oscar seasons doled out glass ceilings galore: three films nominated with predominantly Black casts in one year (Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Fences), the first female cinematographer (Rachel Morrison in Mudbound), Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis breaking record after record for nominations by a black acting nominee, the first superhero film nominated for best picture that was set in Africa (Black Panther), the first black horror film (Get Out) nominated, and Spike Lee winning his first competitive Oscar,

When the number of actors of color dipped down from an average of 5.3 over the previous 3-year period to just two in the 2019 Oscar season (Cynthia Eviro and Antonio Banderas), the headlines once again went negative as if none of the writers of these articles had a memory that extended more than a year.

This year, the Academy Awards nominated a total of nine Oscar nominees of color from films such as United States vs Billie Holiday, The Sound of Metal, Minari, Judas and the Black Messiah, One Night in Miami, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Predictably, the headlines are overhwelmingly postive about this development.

The question is over whether these positives will set another wave of false expectations that are mathematically irrelevant to the representation equation in the first place. How many fewer than nine nominees will the Academy have to nominate for the 2021/2022 Season to avoid being shamed? At the 2021 Screen Actors Guild Awards, four actors of color won in the cinema categories and subsequent articles are projecting that a new glass ceiling could be set in four non-white actors winning at the Oscars. But that was never the original goal and it certainly taints the races at play. Are the fantastic performances of Carey Mulligan in Promsining Young Woman, Anthony Hopkins in The Father, and Maria Bukalova no less worthy now?

When the Oscars are under an external pressure to avoid being dominated by media coverage in the wrong ways, this is where we are: The age of the asterisk. Whenever a black actor is nominated, there is legitimate reason to question if the nomination is an attempt to placate the media or if it is the result of a thorough judgment. Whenever a safe black story (generally a period piece that champions unheralded black figures) comes out, we have to wonder is it being praised because it’s a legitimately great film or because it currently has the highest probability out of any genre to appease a voting body that needs to appease their white guilt. Diversity has never been a bad thing but the current efforts to push for diversity are laid bare this Oscar season and it’s turned these awards into a futile exercise.

I’m a freelance journalist w/ work in 3 dozen publication and doer of other stuff. Patreon: http://www.patreon/com/okjournalist Twitter: okonh0wp

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