On the #OscarsSoWhite Controversy

Is it passe to be talking about the “Oscars so white” controversy yet? Even if it is, this isn’t a new issue. If you were talking about it in 2016, you’re not being topical so much as you’re being late to the party. The Oscars sorely lacking racial diversity has been an issue forever. The fact that people have based this year’s controversy around the omission of certain nominations isn’t an advancement for diversity, it is a sad and shallow intrusion from the mainstream into an awards ceremony that effectively should honor the best in the industry. More distressing aren’t the omissions that are upset, it’s the omissions that are still being overlooked (both by the academy AND the people purportedly fighting for diversity). So this article is going to break down two contentions concerning racial diversity at the Oscars. Firstly, this year’s controversy and what’s wrong with the outcry. Second, the entire paradigm for which the Academy accredits films with black people in them.

This year’s controversy began when people were outraged by the Academy failing to nominate Straight Outta Compton (for Best Picture), Will Smith (for Best Actor), and Spike Lee’s film Chi-raq. Jada Pinkett Smith produced a video decrying the Academy for overlooking her husband’s performance in the film Concussion. That’s all well and good, but what about this performance is transcendental? It is Will Smith in a movie of the week talking with a Nigerian accent. No one will be talking about Concussion in five years. This isn’t Philadelphia (or even Dallas Buyers Club) where we’re breaking ground on a disease ravaging entire populations of people. This is another Lorenzo’s Oil and the Smith family’s immature reaction only demonstrates narcissistic entitlement from an A-list name (something that fans of Leonardo DiCaprio are also guilty of conveying in his buildup to this year’s awards, despite the fact that Leo hasn’t had an Oscar worthy performance in two decades).

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Straight Outta Compton’s cries of robbery for failing to grab a Best Picture nomination is also ludicrous. The film, another movie of the week / biopic, was only able to haul in one nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Here is what is disturbing about this nomination: it was written by four, FOUR (4) white people. The film allegedly by and for black people was written by four white people. Put this in perspective: the dialogue, the blocking, the movements, the story (all of which was largely trash, but this is a separate discussion) was all dictated by the same majority group people are angry with for dominating the awards ceremony. The writers essentially took this opportunity to seize a portrait in time and rather than focus on the human stories of the NWA (Dre’s personal demons like when he beat up Dee Barnes, the Dre – Eazy beef at length, and Eazy’s death which they cheated and gave us the Selena ending for), instead chose to focus on the police brutality issue. In the grand scheme of things, Straight Outta Compton’s biggest contribution will be that it was the proving ground for a whole new group of young black actors (all of whom had revelation performances coming in as unknowns) but it doesn’t merit a Best Picture nomination. It didn’t merit any nominations. Least of all for Best Original Screenplay which, for this topic’s sake, might be the biggest slap in the face of all to the film and the black community.

Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is another topical film concerning the gang wars on the Southside of Chicago. Easy Oscar bait, right? Making a film on one of the biggest tragedies to befall the United States in decades seems like a home run. Spike messed this one up in a way that only he could. He chose to tell the story as a remake of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata which is a famous Greek political satire. “One of the biggest human tragedies” and “famous Greek political satire”… one does not look like the other. For reference, Lysistrata is a comedy about a group of women in a Greek city-state who come up with a plan to end war. They agree to stop having sex with the men until there is no more war. Of course this drives the men crazy and there’s a huge and funny debate on who really has the power. The last time I saw Lysistrata remade was by a Dallas theater company who produced a musical called Just Win where the cheerleaders for a winless basketball team refused to have sex with the players until they start winning and of course they do. Once again, Spike Lee chose this narrative to take audiences into one of the most violent places in the world. It didn’t tell the real story. It didn’t tell the whole story. Spike Lee’s film marginalized the heartbreaking world that exists on Southside of Chicago into a B-rate comedy starring Nick Cannon. The tragedy in Chicago is a problem for the black community, ask anyone, the story needs to be told and Spike Lee (self-appointed cinematic savior of the black community) failed to do so. He shouldn’t be allowed at the Oscars or the NAACP Image Awards or the BET Awards or the Golden Globes or anywhere else for that matter.

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While these parties have cried foul on the Academy for apparently making this year’s Oscars a whites only affair. There are others injured who have a real and legitimate claim to being snubbed and race may have something to do with it. Consider this the secret Oscars So White battle that should be fought right now. At the heart of the racially motivated snubs (call it what it is because I’m getting to that) are Ryan Coogler’s Creed and Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. Creed is one of the most powerful sports films I’ve ever seen. It is up there with the original Rocky. Ryan Coogler, argubaly the best young black filmmaker in the game right now, resurrected an otherwise dead franchise and gave it an entirely new dimension. To play the role of Adonis Creed, he enlisted Fruitvale Station’s (the film Coogler won Sundance with) Michael B. Jordan. In Creed, Coogler wrote and directed an entirely new dimension to the Rocky story. The film is about this new dimension, not Rocky Balboa. He is an accessory to this story now. He’s the new Mick. Jordan’s performance was the real story of the film, not Stallone’s. Jordan crafted a story about a boy who had to face his father’s shadow everywhere he went and all the anger and fear he had for having his life defined by a great man he had never even met. The film has a lot of subtext for the black community as a whole. Often growing up fatherless, creating surrogate families (something Creed does with Balboa in the film), and relying on a strong mother figure. The film is more than a boxing movie. It is more than a sports movie. There’s a level of self-actualization in Creed that few sports movies have ever really attained. You see Michael B. Jordan take Adonis Creed from a lost man trying to find his place in the world and realize he his own man. It is a special performance that was criminally overlooked. Instead, Stallone gets nominated (the film’s only nomination to a white party). The counter argument I have heard for why Stallone deserved the nomination over Coogler and Jordan is that Rocky is his franchise. Okay, it was his franchise that was declared dead by studios for the last decade. Without these two, it is still dead.

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Beasts of No Nation is an extraordinary anomaly. It premiered streaming on Netflix (an exclusive through them) while screening in a handful of theaters for a limited engagement (specifically so they could be eligible for the Oscars). The film written and directed by the virtuoso Cary Fukunaga (read: the guy that did all of True Detective’s perfect first season) is about a young boy (played heroically by Abraham Attah) whose family is killed by a military group in an unnamed African country and is then conscripted into a rebel group led by a man known as the Commandant (played by Idris Elba). The film is an entirely new experience. You find yourself buying into the rhetoric espoused by Elba. He is giving these boy’s strength and power that the society has taken away from them. That is up to the point where he sexually assaults the drugged out Attah. It is such a viscerally upsetting betrayal to Attah’s character Agu and to the audience. Up to now, Elba’s Commandant has made you believe that he has saved and protected these boys turning them into lions from cubs, but in reality he is just like the government they’re fighting, using them to serve his own needs. Attah’s performance is very special. To match Elba’s charisma, Attah brings a tortured conflict to his performance. He is literally fighting to survive. Every second of his existence now hinges on his next decision. If he does not cooperate, he will die. If he does not do his job, he will die. By the film’s end, Attah looks exhausted. It reflected the audience’s emotions. They had seen enough. Attah, talking to a counselor with the mannerisms of an old man, tries to hopelessly remember that he was once a little boy. For all the platitudes that the internet activist community cried about Joseph Kony in 2012, the fact that this film with its tragic portrayal of a real issue was completely shut out is a travesty. The fact that more people aren’t upset about it is a travesty. You’ll cry that Idris Elba can’t be James Bond and when no one is looking at Will Smith but go silent when Idris Elba puts on a performance that has you momentarily buying into child soldiers as a social service? There is a level of shallowness and hypocrisy shown by the amount of outright silence that has come from the overlooking of both Beasts of No Nation and Creed while expressing outcry over films like Straight Outta Compton. . If you choose to be sanctimonious about an issue, fair enough, but never be shallow about it. With all this being said, the argument made against Beasts of No Nation is that it was a Netflix exclusive and isn’t really eligible. This is a silly one. The Academy is simply fighting change. When we look back on 2015-2016, we will be talking about how overlooking Beasts of No Nation simply because it was a revolutionary production on an entirely new frontier of communicating media was a criminal act.

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The Oscars are so white. Not this year. They always have been. They always will be. It is by and for white people. At a structural and molecular level. It is by and for them. Even when black people win Oscars, it is for films often celebrating the “white savior”. What is the “white savior”? It is a film where a downtrodden black person learns something tangible (like how to be refined) from a white person (who is usually refined and ultimately learns something about themselves from helping said black person). Driving Miss Daisy, The Blind Side, The Help, Glory and 12 Years A Slave are all films which, in the grand scheme of things, relied on a narrative where black people are nothing without their white saviors. Chauffeurs, homeless, maids, and slaves. Without white people, where would they be? It’s a condescending and insulting theme and it’s awful that the Academy chooses time and again to celebrate it.

The sad truth is that the Academy (and mainstream audiences as a whole) are afraid of a strong, independent black character. Take for instance the film Red Tails. First off, the film was partially directed by George Lucas. It had Lucasfilm do all of its visual effects (which is a coup considering they don’t work with anyone). It had a great, young black ensemble cast. Despite all of this, it still tracked to tank (which it did). Why? Because the story was about the Tuskegee Airmen. It was a film about a group of young black pilots that the white USAF brass didn’t care for and wrote off killing Nazis for two hours with one of the best VFX departments in the game. It should have been a blockbuster. The other film that did win some acclaim was Django Unchained. White America took a great deal of exception with this film. Primarily because of its excessive use of the hard R. People like Spike Lee decried the film as “disrespectful” to the black community. Once again Spike Lee, sorely lacking perspective for his own community, decried a film about a freed slave walking around the South killing slave masters and racist whites for two hours (even if there’s a weird subtext about a white guy named Dr. King which is another debate altogether). It is one of the most uplifting black tales in the vein of Nat Turner. Of course White America would be upset about this film. It calls back to a sketch on the Chappelle Show where the Time Haters wind up in Antebellum South and Silky Johnson shooting a slave master. Chappelle would remark that this action had producers and network executives up in arms. White America is afraid of any kind of comeuppance. Especially the Fox News audience, they don’t like admitting they lost the Civil Rights struggle, so films gunning down their ancestors is bound to strike all kinds of nerves.

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The diversity in film debate doesn’t start or end with the 2016 Oscars. It starts with the Academy as a whole and ends with audiences. The fact is that people aren’t watching those movies with strong, black characters. When we do, we choose to honor the white players. We prefer to celebrate the black comedians who embody the perpetual stereotypes in films that have emerged as modern minstrel tales. We still refuse to see that films with ‘white saviors’ aren’t olive branches of understanding, but condescending works that tell black people “you can’t do it without us”. White America is afraid of acknowledging all of these facts, not because it will effectively force them to rethink their entire paradigm for how to view the black community on the silver screen and beyond, but because it will be forced to admit that they were overlooking the problem this entire time.

 

James Khubiar

James Khubiar

James Khubiar is editor of Justified Arrogance. He has also written for the Dallas Observer and Noisey. He attended the University of North Texas where he earned his BA in political science and MS in sociology. James currently resides in Connecticut.
James Khubiar

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