Cocoon saying that the part Brian Dennehy was cast in could just as easily have been played by James Earl Jones. Okay, so what? Does that mean producers and directors are obliged to cast black actors to compensate for the overt racism of the studio years and beyond? Yet the one obvious career that symbolizes the dearth of quality parts for black actors is that of Viola Davis. She’s one of the great actors of this generation, and yet her career has been mired in character parts like maids and drug addicts. So yes, there is a problem, but I don’t know that instituting a quota system in the Academy Awards is the way to overcome it. The bottom line seems to me that the way to get an Oscar nomination is to make a great film. And the only thing the Academy owes the maker of that film is to consider it when voting. Are the Academy members all racist? That seems pretty far-fetched. But even if some are, guaranteeing a certain number of slots to black actors and directors is not going to fix the problem. And though I believe strongly in affirmative action in other walks of life the fact remains that this is an award, not a college admission or a job opening.
Even Spike Lee, who is one of the most vocal about the absence of black filmmakers in the awards the last two years, knows that it is not the awards themselves that are at fault. “The Academy Awards is not where the ‘real’ battle is. It’s in the executive office of the Hollywood studios and TV and cable networks. This is where the gate keepers decide what gets made and what gets jettisoned to ‘turnaround’ or scrap heap.” His reaction has been to boycott the awards ceremony this year. Jada Pinkett Smith also had a terrific comment to add to the discussion. “Begging for acknowledgment or even asking diminishes dignity and diminishes power. So, let’s let the Academy do them, with all grace and love, and let’s do us differently.” On one hand, it’s important to acknowledge the apparent racism inherent in the system, but on the other it seems equally important not to make the wrong decision in how to solve the problem. The problem is systemic racism and sexism in a country that has been simultaneously taking steps to address the problem while still teaching its white children that they are “better” than non-whites. One only has to look at the current presidential primary race to see this bifurcation in action. At the same time, however, colleges have become breeding grounds for black students who have learned the wrong lessons from this struggle and melt down emotionally over things as insignificant as inappropriate Halloween costumes.
The lives that blacks lead in this country are not parallel with those of whites, and on the whole they never have been. That is the reality. It’s not fair, but that’s where we’re at. I applaud people like Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith for continuing the struggle for equality in all areas of American life, including the arts. But it is still a struggle, and everyone needs to understand that. A quota system in the arts is not the answer. Movements like Black Lives Matter, while making some serious missteps similar to college campus infantilism, are also important. And it’s equally important to recognize that there is movement. On Steven Colbert’s Late Show the other night, he asked guest Lawrence Fishburn about the controversy, and the actor had this to say. “It’s gotten better. We still have a lot of work to do, but it’s gotten better. It’s a very, very complicated thing. And personally, I just can’t wait to see how Chris Rock handles it as the host of the Oscars.” This, it seems to me, is the kind of measured response that is necessary in this struggle. The more it can be exposed, and talked about, and even made fun of, in a way that is not emotional and angry, is going to continue the pressure not only on those who are in a position to do something about it now but, more importantly, inform those who will be in positions of power in the future. And taking into account the inevitable infusion of blacks at the executive level, a change is definitely gonna come.
As for the awards themselves, it is yet another year without a genuine blockbuster film that threatens to sweep several categories. In fact, there is a sense of nostalgia inherent in all of the films nominated for best picture. There is Steven Spielberg’s historical drama of the Cold War in Bridge of Spies. The Big Short takes on the financial disaster of 2008, while Spotlight deals with the exposure of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church as reported by the Boston Globe in 2003. The Revenant is an action film set in 1823, and Brooklyn is an historical drama set in 1952. The Martian is new science-fiction but the sci-fi Mad Max: Fury Road is also a throwback, a revisiting of director George Miller’s initial concept for the series. Room is the only modern drama of the bunch. If I had to pick a favorite for the awards, at this point I would probably lean toward Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant, simply because he and his film Birdman won awards last year, and it seems the Academy may also finally decide to give an award to--as much as I hate to say it--Leonardo DiCaprio. But ultimately the field seems wide open in all the categories, and with the extra attention of Chris Rock as host and the racial controversy surrounding the awards, February 28th looks to be a very entertaining evening.