Why am I writing a post about the Oscars that isn’t about predictions or discussing the quality of the films in contention?
Well, it could be because I haven’t seen a bunch of them yet. But it could also be because the Oscars are racist. You’ve probably heard. Following last month’s nominations, which saw every best actor category occupied by a white actor, controversy gathered like a grey cloud over the lack of diversity the biggest movie awards in the world supposedly continues to display. Spike Lee is boycotting (as if he wouldn’t at the first sign of a racial anything), there are calls for black presenters and host Chris Rock to stand down, and high profile actors like Will Smith and his wife, Jada, have admitted they won’t attend the ceremony on February 28th (even if he insists his role in the debate is minimal).
But what’s actually going on here? Is this really a case of the Academy Awards being racist in their choices, or is it simply further commentary on the culture in which we currently live – a culture in which people just love to be offended.
Let me present you with a scenario. If the situation was completely reversed, and every Best Actor/Actress and Best Supporting Actor/Actress nominee was non-caucasian, what would the reaction be? Would there be any such outrage? Would it even be acceptable to complain about it, or would that itself be deemed racist? I suspect it would be the latter. Charlotte Rampling spoke up recently about the plan to boycott this year’s ceremony, exclaiming that it’s racist to white actors – that perhaps the case is simply that the actors nominated really did give the best performances this year (you could argue Michael B. Jordan deserved a nod for Creed, but it’s hardly a massive snub). When pressed further on the subject of introducing quotas to the awards system, Rampling went on to say “Why classify people?”.
Which is exactly it.
Diversity and equality is massively important. Of course it is. No-one’s arguing that. But if we start putting quotas on things like awards, what do they really mean anymore? It would just create further division and we’ll be descending into the kind of nanny state that would rather have schools who don’t allow winning or losing in sports for fear of upsetting the children. If everyone’s a winner, no-one is.
If we must reserve a certain number of nominations for black actors, even if none of them deserve it (whether that’s actually the case or not this year is purely subjective), isn’t that unfair to those who give performances which really deserve recognition but because they’re white they’re overlooked? It’s unfair to reserve places for anyone, any race, and by doing so here would only present black actors as a “special case”; as actors who deserve special treatment simply because of their race, which is exactly what people like Spike Lee and Will Smith don’t want.
It’s a delicate subject with roots that go back through painful centuries of oppression, and I’m hardly going to sit here and pretend my opinion is the full stop in the argument. Neither would I want anyone reading this to think I’m being unsympathetic. It’s not about saying one side is wrong and one side is right (even labelling them “sides” feels problematic). It’s about gaining perspective. By labelling the nominations as racist and unfair, how must that make the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio feel? One of the greatest living actors sans-Oscar who prepared for his role in The Revenant by eating raw bison and sleeping inside animal carcasses, and his peers are implying that maybe he shouldn’t be receiving nominations because he isn’t diverse enough. Okay, with even further perspective we can’t feel too sorry for a man who has all the money in the world and looks every man would kill for, but it still must sting a little.
As it must sting Bryan Cranston, Matt Damon, Michael Fassbender, Eddie Redmayne, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence, Brie Larson, Charlotte Rampling, Saoirse Ronan, Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Mark Ruffalo, Mark Rylance, Sylvester Stallone, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rooney Mara, Rachel McAdams, Kate Winslet and Alicia Vikander.
The Oscars don’t always get their winners right – in fact, they often get them completely wrong (Birdman over Whiplash and Boyhood, are you kidding?), but it’s not because they’re racist. It’s because the people choosing the nominations aren’t actually secret movie wizards who know all. They’re regular old farts who sometimes don’t even watch the films they’re voting for. At the end of the day, instead of getting so upset about the lack of diversity, why not get upset about how The Oscars really aren’t as important as they used to be.
I’d still take one, though.