This year the Academy Awards seem to have managed to steer clear of an “Oscars So White” scandal, while navigating a seemingly endless succession of negative stories that have, miraculously, still not managed to completely derail the glitziest night in the showbiz calendar. Originally coined by the blogger April Reign, “Oscars so white” was a phrase that caught on in 2015 to describe the consistent lack of diversity at the Academy Awards: that year, not a single person of color was nominated in any of the acting, directing or writing categories. That is, 0 nominations out of 35. Quite astonishingly, the same situation occurred at the awards in 2016.
Since then, cursory amends have been made, in part with a Best Picture win for Moonlight in 2017, which also won key awards for Barry Jenkins (best screenplay) and Mahershala Ali (best supporting actress), while Viola Davis won in the same year for Fences. These changes stem partly from the beginnings of a projected revolution in the Academy’s membership conducted by its then president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Since her investiture in 2013, Isaacs fixed herself the task of rejuvenating and diversifying the demographics that vote for the Oscars—attempting to change the typical member from the sort of raddled old Beverly Hills resident who thinks that Driving Miss Daisy represented progress. This has partially yielded results. Look, for instance, at the quite extraordinary nomination for RaMell Ross’s lyrical Hale County This Morning, This Evening in the documentary category: this is the sort of essayistic, blithely esoteric film that would never ordinarily have got a look-in. It’s surely the case that the Oscars’ more diverse, newer members got the film onto the roster.
But this year, the scandals that have hit the Oscars, which seem like discrete issues in and of themselves, all pertain to the central question of diversity that the Academy just cannot seem to get right. First off: the furore surrounding the appointed host for the evening, Kevin Hart, who initially refused to apologize for his past homophobic behavior, before eventually muttering a hasty sorry and resigning as host. It’s almost too absurd to say, but a lack of vetting by the Oscars has led to them having no host this year: there will be a big void in the place where a presenter should have been, because a homophobe declined to do the job.
On the topic of homosexuality and queer issues, a big song and dance has been made about the nominations this year of a number of films with gay storylines or characters, such as The Favourite or, er, Vice. But a quick glance at these nominations shows how paper-thin this is: A Star Is Born has a couple of drag queens in it e basta; the homosexuality of Don Shirley, in Green Book, is merely alluded to where it should in fact be a central topic; and the depiction of Freddie Mercury’s sexuality in Bohemian Rhapsody has been decried by all and sundry for its sex-shaming and stigmatizing of AIDS. In any case, that film’s depiction of anything is rendered completely moot by the litany of sexual assaults its director, Bryan Singer, allegedly committed over the last twenty years. Oh dear. One step forward, two steps back: the only openly queer director of a film nominated for Best Picture this year is a purported repeat sex attacker.
Blunders like these are legion for an Academy that doesn’t quite know how not to be clueless. The BAFTAs at least removed Singer from consideration for a directing award two weeks ago, before dispensing an award to Rami Malek for his performance in the same film. But Bohemian Rhapsody is still in contention for the big O. All diversity initiatives and publicity campaigns are razed to the ground in the wake of this kind of dereliction. The mistake stems from the Oscars not understanding that diversity—true diversity—participates in everything, rather than being a fenced-off issue to be dealt with alongside handing out golden statues to some film stars.
You can see this, absurdly, in the latest brouhaha to hit the Oscars, with the news that cinematography and editing would be two of four awards not televised in the ceremony this year. The news was swiftly and roundly condemned by a number of directors such as Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese, inducing the current president of the academy, John Bailey, to issue a corrective, stating that the awards would indeed be televised.
This topic may seem from the outside to represent so much pettifogging, but in reality it cuts right to the heart of awards that are trying to navigate troublesome waters of commerce and artistry. How the Academy rewards art, right down to every branch of the filmmaking industry, and how it negotiates commercial interests are clearly related to the matter of diversity making such infuriatingly slow progress in Hollywood. The Oscars, when seeking to remove cinematography and editing from the televised ceremony, were seeking to appease the channel, ABC, which hosts the broadcast (and, as noted by the writer Mark Harris, ABC is owned by Disney, none of whose films is competing for the awards that were set to fall by the wayside).
Here’s the rub: of course cinematography and editing aren’t commercially whopping prizes; it’s shriekingly self-evident that stars like Adam Driver and Lady Gaga are always going to draw greater audiences than Cold War’s Łukasz Żal. This is the part where the disconnect in the awards’ double function as a body of public record honoring excellence, and the fact of putting on a show, is most acute. Doing what’s right by everybody—and this also seems painfully obvious to me, but apparently needs to be said—must happen outside of business interests. Earlier this year, reports emerged that not every act nominated for Best Song would get to perform on the night, with only Gaga and Kendrick Lamar selected to play. Although this idea was ultimately rejected, and acts such as Gillian Welch (nominated for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) will now be permitted to sing to the assembled glitterati, this initiative participates in the same barren, specious thinking: it shows an organization trying to cut corners and find routes of compromise. And what happens when companies like the Oscars fudge like this is that smaller people, the non-famouses, and women and minorities, get thrown out with the bath water.
Representing diversity properly and being an ally—and this is something which the Academy hasn’t yet grasped— involves taking a personal hit. So, in order to best represent the interests of the traditionally overlooked (no films by women are nominated for best film or best director, yet again), the Academy patently must in future years prepare to make certain losses; it’s inevitable. If the Oscars continue to prevaricate in the face of financial considerations, it follows that films like Leave No Trace, The Rider, Can You Ever Forgive Me? or Private Life will get kicked to the curb.
Representing the industry properly, and serving the interests of diversity, involves a revolution in our awards: this is the thing to grasp. A few grand gestures, a couple of sops to diversity in the shape of a handful of nominations, are insufficient: rather, the whole system’s debt to commerce has to change, in order to do justice to the variety of people working in film, and reward excellence in something approaching a fair and balanced way. For instance, this could involve mixing up certain categories: nominating documentaries for Best Picture, say, or nominating non-English-language directors—such as Nadine Labaki for Capernaum or Alice Rohrwacher for Happy as Lazzaro—in the Best Director category. (This year, exceptionally,, there are two such nominations for best director, for Pawel Pawlikowski and Alfonso Cuaron, both of whose films aren’t in English, but this can’t be said to be a pattern) In general, if it’s recognized that the awards aren’t merely for English-language cinema, they should open out far more to different cultures. The awards could nominate ten directors every year, across a spectrum of film. Acting categories could be merged, so that women compete against men in “Best Lead Actor” and “Best Supporting Actor” categories, to destroy once and for all the idea that there’s such a thing as male or female acting.
If these ideas sound outlandish, it’s only because we have certain expectations of the Oscars; a certain image of them as a kind of fustily glamorous institution, with the gowns and the gold. But this is precisely what is the enemy of advancement: capitalism, hand in hand with patriarchy, is a machine for crushing small people. The ceremony must be liberated from its craven fealty to money, in order to serve the ailing industry it purports to reward.