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Race and the Oscar Race

Robert Rich: The cruel fact is that, for the most part, in film commerce is king. A studio would rather make a film about a white man stranded on a planet than a minority stuck anywhere on earth. oscarssowhite

No one’s ever claimed that Hollywood movies reflect the breadth of society, but this year’s Oscar nominees look more like attendees of a Trump rally in South Carolina than the face of the modern American populace.

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Without a single person of color nominated in any of the acting categories for the second year in a row, a firestorm of protest and counter-protest has swept across social media. Some have called for a boycott of the ceremony, while others claim that to demand recognition solely on the basis of color is reverse racism. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there were some fantastic performances by people of color that were inexplicably overlooked. The Academy Awards have never been a paradigm of diversity, it’s just that in 2016 people feel that the climate of the times should result in rainbows rather than snowstorms.

The mainstream media for the most part have remained focused on the effect and not the causes of this oversight. As someone who has been on both sides of the issue, both as writer on Hollywood and a creator and buyer in it (as well as being a soft minority – think Keanu), this writer feels that below are some or all of the factors that caused Hollywood’s current state of affairs.

Hollywood is an exclusive club.

In order to get into Hollywood you have to get access, which quickly leads to a chicken/egg scenario. To land a role, or to direct or to write a film, you need an agent. But to get an agent you need credits. But how do you get credits without an agent?

A creator can walk in with the funniest or most compelling script, or even tape, only to hear an executive exclaim, “This is fantastic. We need to find and attach a great writer (or director) to this.” That’s because execs don’t trust their own judgement on what they read or see. If they pick a person with a good track record to pull it off, then their ass is covered if it fails. Which is why the mainstream studios do not make great original films anymore. Because great works often come from struggle and sacrifice. It’s harder to write brilliance in a Jacuzzi filled with Playmates than it is holed up in a dive apartment in Echo Park. And when people do get a big break, it could be because of where they went to school, common interests and, yes, the same experiences — which include race. It takes a long time for an old boy’s club to diversify. The most effective way minorities have been able to get noticed is to make or act in independent films that make it, or to succeed at film festivals. But then something happens because…

There is a big disconnect between film festival art and what the public sees at the megaplex.

The cruel fact is that, for the most part, in film commerce is king. A studio would rather make a film about a white man stranded on a planet than a minority stuck anywhere on earth.

Look at the legacy of top film festivals and you will see a litany of people of color rewarded and celebrated annually. But what happens to them once they go to Hollywood? Specifically, what happened to Three Seasons director Tony Bui? Or To Sleep With Anger’s Charles Burnett? Why is Cary Fukunaga directing TV and a movie for Netflix? And when they do go studio, what happens to getting their just deserts? (See Selma’s Ava DuVernay). Diverse creators often pick diverse subject matter — topics and stories important to them that reflect their own experience. It’s hard to get any film green-lit, but getting one that doesn’t have mass mainstream appeal (i.e. superhero movies) is becoming more difficult than ever. Maybe that’s why journeyman actor Nate Parker decided to take matters into his own hands and wrote, directed and starred in Birth of a Nation, a decidedly uncommercial story about slave rebel Nat Turner. The result was a feat of passion that this year garnered a standing ovation at Sundance and sold for the largest amount for any film in festival history. This is happening because…

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Studios don’t develop for the fringes, they develop for the masses.

The cruel fact is that, for the most part, in film commerce is king. A studio would rather make a film about a white man stranded on a planet than a minority stuck anywhere on earth. The money play is to go with the big mainstream star and to abandon any characters dealing with issues the mainstream can’t identify with, nor care about in many cases. That’s left for TV, which can afford to pursue more niche programming because of the stratification of audiences across hundreds of channels. Which is why this is the golden age of television.

To get an Oscar nomination you need a well-funded campaign.

An Oscar campaign is like a political election. Studios decide which films to promote and how much money to put behind them. Universal seems to have put its emphasis on Steve Jobs, a movie with a gimmicky structure and arguably middling results. Jobs was far less interesting or entertaining than its studio bro Straight Outta Compton, which ironically captured the story of a rap group nobody thought would gain mass appeal. Universal decided to back the filmic equivalent of Jeb Bush over Bernie Sanders. Was this a decision based on merit, or on color? You’d have to ask them. But the result was two acting nominations for Jobs and none for SOC, despite the fact that O’Shea Jackson was fantastic playing his father, Ice Cube.

An even more egregious oversight was Idris Elba not gaining a nom for his monster of a performance in Beasts of No Nation. This could very well be a result of the film being distributed by Netflix, an online destination more used to depending on word of mouth rather than waging sophisticated mass media campaigns. As a result, what is perhaps the tour de force acting performance of the year has been ignored by the Academy. So considering all of that and recent history, one could possibly contend….

Enough Oscar voters may be racist to skew the nominations.

There is overt racism and prejudice, and then there is subconscious racism borne of unfamiliarity and subtle disdain. Whether some voters are blatant racists or others just aren’t interested in, or identify with films that feature talent of color, the recent omissions make one wonder when, if ever, the Oscars will reflect true accomplishment. It would be a hard sell to contend that the majority of Oscar voters are racists. But it only takes hundreds to alter a vote. After director Ava DuVernay and lead actor David Oyelowo were overlooked for their laudatory work on Selma last year, and when the only nominees for SOC are its two Caucasian screenwriters, and Elba is overlooked for his spellbinding turn, one starts to wonder. (Some would add that while Sylvester Stallone’s garnered a nod for Creed, the film’s African-American director, Ryan Coogler, and lead, Michael B. Jordan, were both overlooked – although, frankly, it simply was not a very good film.)

This year’s controversy will not be lost on 2016’s ceremony host Chris Rock, who has already tweeted that the Oscars are the White BET Awards. Let’s hope the irony will not be lost on one of America’s best commentators on racial issues. It’s not like Rock has a huge career in studio films to worry about jeopardizing.

Robert Rich
Capital & Main

Robert Rich — a pseudonym — has worked as a producer in Hollywood for nearly two decades.