Why the Oscars Matter

I saw a number of people on Twitter dismissing the Oscars as irrelevant. That was their way of expressing frustration over the Oscar nomination’s incredible whiteness and (in categories not specifically designated for women) maleness. Their frustration is a good one, but their critique is incorrect. The Oscars are very relevant. Not just because their results drive the industry (or at least the part of the industry trying to make something other than superhero blockbusters) but because, in an increasingly shattered culture, the Oscars represent one of the few mass-culture moments. Even those who don’t watch the broadcast (or the movies awarded) are likely to hear about the results. And those results help sculpt our perceptions of and our relation to the greater culture.

The lack of color and femininity amongst this year’s Oscar nominees is not a good thing at all. But the problem isn’t that the well-reviewed and well-received movie Selma failed to earn a nomination for any of its black cast or for its black, female director. These kinds of snubs happen to good movies all the time. Indeed, the history of what didn’t win or wasn’t even nominated is as rich, if not richer, than the history of the winners themselves. No, the problem is: Selma was about the only place from which there could’ve been a nomination for an actor of color or for a female, black director. What other Oscar buzzy movies featured black leads? Latino leads? Asian leads? Middle Eastern leads? Women directors? Women cinematographers. Etc. Etc.

I have nothing against the many white actors or the male directors who were nominated. They are all surely talented and deserving. But is it a fair competition when the opportunities for people of color and women are so slim? I mean, even if you put aside the fact that Robert Duvall was nominated for playing pretty much himself (according to many critics) instead of David Oyelowo for playing a nuanced Martin Luther King (again, according to many critics), you have to ask the question: did the role Robert Duvall play have to be played by a white man? Could the judge not have been black? Or Latino? Or Asian? Or, good lord, an Asian woman?

You could do that exercise for several of the nominated roles. But not all of them, of course, because biopics dominate the Oscars once again. Even Selma is a biopic. Why are there so many of these “looks back?” Do we, culturally speaking, need so much celebration of Great Men in lieu of original storytelling? Is, for instance, The Imitation Game really all that culturally critical? Or did it get made because it was considered “mainstream” arty while movies that didn’t feature white actors or weren’t produced and directed by white guys (Alejandro González Iñárritu aside) weren’t considered mainstream enough and thus never received the opportunity to be made?

We have to be cautious of the word mainstream. It usually just means: what the powers that be deem inoffensive. And if the powers that be are predominately of one gender and one race…?

That’s the problem. The Oscar voters are just the symptom. The malady is in the system itself. When so few Oscar-type roles go to people of color and so few women or people of color are given the opportunity to direct or be cinematographers, etc., the pool of Oscar contenders becomes very white and very male. And that’s bad for our culture. Because a diverse people deserve a diverse art.

Art, after all, is one of the most vital ways humans connect. Through our art, we should be connecting with all of America and the outside world. Instead, because of a lack of opportunity, we are continually connecting with the same old, same old.

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