Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Blackening a white Oscars

Hey, my movie won best picture!

But I've talked enough about that. So instead, let's spend my recap of the 87th Academy Awards talking about the elephant in the room.

Oscar heard the uproar about too many white nominees this year, and boy did it respond. But the strength of the response itself smacked of overcompensation, and that might even be worse.

Naturally, there would be a slew of African-American presenters in any given year at the Oscars, since the Oscars are always PC conscious, and because African Americans make up a sizable percentage both of the country and of Hollywood. But this year? It got ridiculous as the evening wore on. Which would not be a bad thing at all, except that it was so obviously a reaction to accusations of racism that it must have made the presenters themselves feel like they were involved in some kind of sordid campaign to convince the world the Oscars are colorblind.

It wasn't just black actors who are having a moment who were presenters. It was even some we hadn't heard from in a number of years.

With a little help from the interwebs, here are the black actors who presented, performed or were in some way prominently referenced last night:

Oprah Winfrey
Kevin Hart
Eddie Murphy
Octavia Spencer
David Oyelowo
Kerry Washington
Zoe Saldana
Jennifer Hudson
Viola Davis
John Legend
Lupito N'yongo
Terrence Howard
Chiwetel Ejiofor
Idris Elba

And Dwayne Johnson also kind of counts.

That's a pretty significant effort to showcase black faces. Some of those folks are in their prime (Hart, Saldana, Washington, Ejiofor, Elba), but some are kind of on the back burner (Murphy, Howard, Davis). You can be sure that the show's producers turned to at least two or three of them merely because of the color of their skin -- and they had to know it. At least once they saw how the evening turned out.

But there was still something weird about how the show handled this apparent deference to its members of color. Take the moment with David Oyelowo. For starters, didn't Neil Patrick Harris actually refer to him as a nominee? That got things off to a bad enough start, since Oyelowo was famously snubbed for his portrayal of Martin Luther King in Selma. But then it turned out that he was also being used to deliver a joke about the poor quality of the remake of Annie, starring Quvenzhane Wallis and Jamie Foxx. When they could have chosen any of last year's poorly received films to be the punchline of this particular joke, they instead chose one with black actors in two of the central roles -- and then chose a black actor (a snubbed black actor at that) to deliver the punchline in order to take the sting out of it. Of course, he was supposedly chosen for being British -- not for being black.

Then what about the weird part where Harris told poor Octavia Spencer -- who had the sorry task of having to play along, all night long, with Harris' labored joke about predicting the winners -- that she couldn't leave her seat even for a snack? And lingered on that particular line for laughs? Like the husky Spencer doesn't have the ability to control her own eating habits? (Incidentally, it wasn't the only line directed at a husky black woman that appeared to be making fun of her weight -- though Harris did explain that his lame comparison of Oprah Winfrey to American Sniper's box office, which amounted to her being "half the room," had to do with her net worth, not her girth.)

The real sigh of relief must have come when Selma won one of the two Oscars for which it was nominated -- and Common and John Legend gave the best acceptance speech of the night. (Why they were accepting, when they didn't actually write the song, I have no idea.) Their performance of the song "Glory" brought the house down, and reduced the aforementioned Mr. Oyelowo among others to tears. With that kind of incendiary display just having occurred, it would have been a major disappointment to see the peppy "Everything is Awesome" take home the award, in the very next ten minutes of screen time no less. So it was certainly the most serendipitous turn of events that the Oscar voters actually had the good sense to award this song, one that has so much more weight to it than the Lego Movie song, which exists merely as satire. It almost makes you wonder if there wasn't someone backstage, engaging in a last-minute envelope switcheroo upon realizing just how necessary it was in that moment for "Glory" to win.

But I don't think anything like that happened, and you know why? At a core level, I don't think the Oscars are actually all that racist. There have actually been a veritable parade of black winners in recent years, from Jennifer Hudson to Mo'Nique to the aforementioned Ms. Spencer, not to mention the Oscars honoring 12 Years a Slave (and by extension, its black director, Steve McQueen) last year. That's been the weirdest thing about the uproar this year over the lack of black nominees, because it comes immediately following a year in which a righteous historical epic about racial inequality won the top award. Just because that type of movie is not going to be honored two years in a row does not make the Oscars racist.

Would it have been great to see Ava DuVernay be the first African-American woman nominated for best director for Selma? Sure it would have been. And if the nominations were chosen by a committee of old white men who got together to hash these things out -- and we sometimes discuss them as though they are -- then she surely would have been. Those dozen old white men would have been smart enough to know that it was a good opportunity to make such an historic nomination for DuVernay's achievement. (One I will finally be able to appreciate myself when I finally see Selma this weekend.)

But the Oscars are voted on by individuals, a whole lot of individuals, who come in all sizes, ages, packages, and yes, colors. They choose nominees from movies they've seen, by and large, and Selma didn't get its wide release until January in most parts of the U.S. They had their screeners, to be sure, but they also had to watch a bevy of other late releases.

The Oscars are at their most racist-seeming when they so obviously pander to their critics, as they did the other night. They are also pandering to those proud members of the Academy they believe they've offended ... and then making them help in the effort to save face.

The thing is, as the "Glory" victory proves, the Academy recognized it made some oversights this year, and compensated for them in the best way possible -- voting a great song to victory, and giving the first major motion picture about Martin Luther King at least one Oscar.

That's how you really show your character. Let's hope it was enough to make up for the first way they tried.


Theis said...

Thanks for all your interesting posts.

Just a quick correction, John Legend and Common actually wrote the song "Glory" but for some reason they were listed under their real names - John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn. As Nate Silver tweeted: "Sorta weird that Common and John Legend get identified by their real names when none of the actors do."

E.g. Michael Keaton who's real name is Michael Douglas.

Derek Armstrong said...

Interesting ... it could have been their own preference to be listed that way in order to be taken more seriously. Musicians tend to maintain dual realities more than actors do. When a musician has a stage name, that's clearly what it is, and they continue to be known to their friends etc. by their real names. When an actor takes a stage name, it's part of an orchestrated delusion that this is their actual name, so they undergo more of a transformation into that person. Everyone knows that Lonnie Lynn wasn't dubbed "Common" at birth and most can probably assume "Legend" is a fake last name, but Michael Keaton could have been born as Michael Keaton ... especially since his birth name is also the name of a famous actor.

Thanks for commenting! Totally didn't know about this.