Sunday, February 23, 2014

Academy Awards Week 2014: Why Diversity Matters at the Oscars. Has the Academy Measured up this Year?

On July 30th, 2013 Cheryl Boone Isaacs was named the first female black President of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS).  Over the years this position has been held by countless white males, and in a shift under criticism AMPAS who oversees the Academy Awards moved in the right, not white direction, with Isaacs as President.  AMPAS came under fire last year when the statistics of the members were released, stating that 94 percent were white, and 77 percent were male.  Some of the most shocking statistics cited in the LA Times were the following:

• Some of AMPAS 15 branches are totally white and male.
• The Academy’s executive branch is 98 percent white, as is its writer’s branch.
• Of the Academy’s 43-member Board Of Governors, just six are female,and Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a 25-year public relations. executive and former head of publicity for Paramount Pictures and former President of Theatrical Marketing for New Line Cinema, is the one black person or person of color.
• 62 percent of AMPAS Members have had a movie made in the 21 Century; 11 percent (over one in 10) have a movie-related history that’s not known.
• A whopping 54 percent of AMPAS members are over 60, and another 25 percent in their 50s; that’s 85 percent of the Academy membership that’s over 50 years of age.
While this year will be seen as a turning point by many AMPAS officials, they are already off to a problematic start even though they named their one diverse female member President. AMPAS and its members of the Academy had the opportunity to nominate several films, actors/actresses, and other crew who were both qualified, and from diverse backgrounds, but in many ways they missed the mark for honoring diversity this year.
Many bloggers/critics dubbed this the year of black cinema, with films like Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniel's The Butler, and 12 Years a Slave.  Three films about the black experience all directed by black directors, but only one made a dent at the Oscars.  12 Years a Slave was the most critically acclaimed film of 2013 it has 9 Oscar nominations, meanwhile American Hustle and Gravity have 10. Many predicted 12 Years a Slave, would be the most nominated film, it has been everywhere else, but it missed nominations in Cinematography, Score, and the two Sound categories.  I predicted at least 12 nominations.  The film has been met with resistance because of its "torture porn" characteristics.  You should let that quotable phrase sink in as I explore the other two films about the black experience, which did not gain one single Oscar nomination. 

Lee Daniel's The Butler, scored a 73 percent on, and made 116 million at the domestic box office.  Both of these elements, along with being a Weinstein Co. film, sound like something which adds up to not only Best Picture, but a nominee in several categories.  Lee Daniel's The Butler received 0 Oscar nominations, not even one for early favorite Oprah Winfrey in Supporting Actress.  What happened? The film was shut out at the Globes, but had three nominations at SAG, including Best Ensemble, and also had two BAFTA nominations.
Fruitvale Station had even stronger reviews, it score a 94 percent on, but its arguable weakness was it box office, which was only 16 million domestic.  Fruitvale did decently with Critics Awards but was mostly singled out for Outstanding New Filmmaker Awards for writer/director Ryan Coogler.  Michael B. Jordan was only cited as a nominee at the Independent Spirit Awards, and past Oscar winner Octavia Spencer only was a winner at the National Board of Review, which had its worst year as a predictor in the acting categories.  What happened?  Fruitvale was also a Weinstein Co. film, did the company have too many irons in the fire?  Their campaigning for each film was solid. 
Both of these films were summer releases so it appears out of site out of mind was the problem, but the each deserved some attention.  It almost feels as though the Academy could only handle one film about the black experience, and even now as the awards are 6 days away many voters have stated they have had a hard time with that film, because of the nature of the brutality, guess what folks slavery was brutal.
Now that you have processed, or let it sink in that people have described Slave as "torture porn" its time to examine one of the best films of the year.  Back in October some obnoxious Vulture writer proclaimed 12 Years a Slave as the front runner, ever since then every critics group seemed to jump ship, and the film got left by the way side for the most part.  Sure 12 Years a Slave did well with minor film critics groups but the major ones all but ignored it.  New York went for American Hustle, oddly.  LA went for Her and Gravity.  The National Society of Film Critics went for Inside Llewyn Davis.  How did the most critically acclaimed film of the year not win a top prize?  Even if you look at the Globes, it only won Best Picture (Drama), at the Broadcast Film Critics Association it only won Best Picture, Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  Slave was the most nominated film at BAFTA this year, and only won Picture, and Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor).  Every time it wins these Best Picture awards, it feel like the people pick it more out of guilt rather than love of the film.  At the end of the day if you look at Oscar "experts" at, the only "sure fire win" at the moment is Best Adapted Screenplay.  Slave will most likely also win Picture, Supporting Actress, and possibly Production Design or Costume Design (based on the guild award winners.)
Am I saying this film should win because its about black people, no, but as the campaign, that so many people hates says "If not now, when."  Slave is not Roots, get that out of your mind, this is the most honest story about the black experience during slavery from the point of view of someone who experience it Soloman Northup, not a white plantation owner, or a debutant in Gone with the Wind.  Slave is also directed by a black man, and written or adapted by a black screenwriter.  Does Hollywood's squeamish nature around the violence prove too much for their white guilt, probably.  Slave deserves to win this prize, its a fantastic film.  At the end of the day in a year cited as "the year of black cinema" AMPAS missed out on honoring films about three different black casts, told from black directors, and in many cases black writers.
The Academy has also missed the mark with celebrating women.  Its sad when Frozen will be the only kind of Best Picture winner, directed by a female, but the Academy recognizing this and Brave back to back in the Best Animated Feature Film category shows minor progress, but in cartoon form only.
This year the Academy had the chance to nominate two women in Documentary Feature Sarah Polley for Stories We Tell, and Gabriela Coperthwaite's Blackfish, both were snubbed, but expected to be nominees.  Most of the winners/member of this branch are men so these two women missing out is not surprising, but Blackfish was probably one of the more popular documentaries of the year, and gained a lot of ground because of its cause.
Then there is the screenwriting categories which was poised to have a surge in female nominees, but only ended up with three Julie Delpy for co-writing Before Midnight, and  Robbie Brenner and Melissa Walleck for co-writing Dallas Buyer Club.  Saving Mr. Banks had two female writing nominees, but was snubbed, Enough Said was an original screenplay with a single female writer, it too was snubbed.

Many people also expected Thelma Schoonmaker to garner a Best Editing nomination for The Wolf of Wall Street; she has been nominated for seven Oscars and won 3 in this category (Raging Bull, The Aviator, and The Departed).  Wolf had broad support, and ACE (American Cinema Editors) nomination, which Dallas Buyer Club did not.  Schoonmaker's snub is an interesting one since she has done so well over the years, but like usual the editing category is mostly filled with men.
While there are many female nominees in other technical categories, the Best Picture race has advanced the story of two women this year.  Gravity's nomination is a big step forward, while directed and engineered by a male (Cuaron) it is one of the few Best Picture nominees in the past few years to focus solely on a woman.  Philomena is the other Best Picture nominee which focuses on a central female character.  Were there other options, Saving Mr. Banks was one, Blue Jasmine Blue is the Warmest Color, but after that you get into much smaller films like Frances Ha, and Short Term 12, which unfortunately never had a shot. Women in Hollywood only seem to succeed if they tell a story about men.
Enter Kathryn Bigelow, her Oscar winning turn as Best Director for The Hurt Locker (much deserved) tells the story of a men.  Her follow-up Zero Dark Thirty focused on a woman's journey, and the film, and the film along with Bigelow, should have have won Picture and Director, but Bigelow was snubbed as a nominee.  How do you win in this game, well you have to play the game, and pander to what makes these majority white male voters feel comfortable. 
At the end of nest Sunday if 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture next week, it will be a massive win, but if it loses it will be as Paula Abdul says the Academy "take two steps forward" with the election of Boone Isaacs, and then they "take two steps back" with the loss here because voters failed to understand the significance of the moment.  This is a milestone, and should be recognized as advancing film forward.

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