What can an Oscar do, anyway?

steps back to ponder on the signifance of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences in light of the recent nominations and the ensuing diversity controversy

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If you pay attention to Oscar season, which begins as early as October and runs until February every year without fail, you’re liable to be inundated with complex and lengthy arguments of a seemingly paradoxical nature – often emanating from the same persons at once. The arguments? The Academy Awards are pointless, obsolete and unworthy of our attention and conversely the Academy Awards continuously eschews its responsibility to reward good films and focuses on the lowbrow at worst – middlebrow at best – and is decisively averse to minorities.

For the casual Oscar enthusiasts, the journey to the Oscar podium begins with the nominations and ends on the day of the ceremony but more obsessive observers understand the complex series of events that turns a film or a performer from a contender into a nominee into a winner. This complexity becomes embroiled with the general complex, often random, machinations of the film industry and even more complex and problematic issues of American culture.

The nominations for the 88th Academy Award nominations were revealed just 11 days ago, and the nominations have launched as is typical, multiple articles. This year the myriad complex strands have crystallised in passionate cries of the Academy Awards being a racist venture to be boycotted. What began as a small, if notable, ripple in the film world became a legitimate issue as the Academy went into panic mood. Last Friday the president of the Academy Cheryl Boone-Isaacs (incidentally, an African American woman) announced plans for the Academy to more aggressively work towards more diversity. It was as if the Academy had gone into panic mode. And panic mode is never good.

What was significant about this year, though? More devoted Oscar fanatics would remember this is particular strand of Oscar malaise, its lack of diversity, is not new. Key moments of its existence were the 2014 ceremony, the 2010 ceremony and particularly memorable the 2005 ceremony – the Academy’s inability to reward films by minority groups, particular black American groups has been recorded before. (As has its similar, and sometimes equivalent strands of its inability to recognise films by Asian minorities or LGBT minorities or women). Oscar repudiation has a long and complex history.

But, what does it mean? If anything? Moreover, does it affect anything? Each time the argument of Oscar’s ineffectiveness in any facet the question of Oscar’s value rises. Why even bother writing about the Oscars anyhow? Aren’t they just a glorified popularity contest? (As technically, the same way elections and any prize depending on voting for a human winner boils down to popularity in key ways?) What’s the value of the Oscar anyhow? The critical intelligentsia will decisively say zero. But one disregards the Oscar at their own peril. As the largest group of film related creative persons in the world, the American Academy has become a barometer of approval for American films. Awards like these judge the pulse of the masses in relation to popular cinema. In the century old history of film as a medium, not a single one of the films nominated for a major Oscar has been lost in its entirety. Tens of thousands of the silent from cinema’s early days have been lost to time, not some part of every Oscar nominated film remains. And why is that? It’s the time capsule nature of the Awards that render them essential, even if in the way we fancy thoughtful mementos. And, it’s to this value most complaints of the Oscar are rooted. For, if the Oscars represent a time capsule of popularity of film in a particular era – what does it say if the time capsule is homogeneously male? Or homogeneously heterosexual? Or homogenously Caucasian?

To answer that question, however, is to be cognisant that by its very nature the Academy Awards treasures homogeneity. The Academy is not a single evil bloc that gives and takes away at once as so many of it critics suggest but it is made of thousands. But when the votes of the thousands (just under 6000 to be exact) members are counted, they’re not being counted for how they are different but how they are similar. It is the sameness across these thousands of voters which is recognised and rewarded and thus the Academy Awards, like any prize which depends on a group finding a winner, values consensus. And consensus is, by nature, the enemy of diversity.

If every Academy Award voter includes three outré options in their ballots, it’s the commonality of the non-outré options and no the common ones which will be remembered. What that analogy should point to is how the Academy despite being massively popular exists in deference to other factors. What might be of more significant question is what films the Academy has available to choose from. By resting the lack of diversity in the nominations solely at the feet of the Academy is to ignore other more intrinsic problems in American film like the lack of significant directors of money getting their films funded. The Academy as the golden man representative of the film industry is an easy target but it’s difficult not to find a trenchant laziness in holding it responsibility for larger, and more insidious problems of studios not hiring as many Black or Indian or Asian or Native American filmmakers or performers. It is, also, easier to blame the Academy than exorcise the complex and difficult to parse issues of institutional racism and bigotry that has marked American civil society that inevitably results in less women and ethnic minorities venturing into the industry.

The difficult to parse question is parsing through the Academy’s existence as an effect more than the cause. It’s easy to see the popularity of the Academy as the maker of and breaker and bastion of tastes, but the correlative relationship between the industry and the members means the consensus nature of Academy Awards mean the nominees are a rewarding of those films most loved by the general masses of the academy and not loved individually. It goes from the gender and ethnic of the makeup, but it goes further to who can be invited to the Academy. And who gets invited to the Academy depends on who is active, or was once active, in the industry. Are writers, directors, costume designers, actors of the ethnic minorities being hired as much as white ones? It’s not a Hollywood problem and using Hollywood as a synecdochic representation of the entire movie industry in the U.S. creates its own kinds of problems. Although the part of the ladder with most visibility, the Academy exists in a space where it’s least likely to be able to make changes on their own. When producers and studios don’t invest as much in getting those films seen, or having them advertised as potential contenders the prize becomes a case of the best film of those seen regularly and the case becomes critically one caused by visibility. Too few are seeing those films, and why is that?

The most thoughtful response to the boycotting controversy has come from John Singleton, Oscar nominated for his excellent direction of Boyz n the Hood, who summed it up thus:

It’s like every year people complain. People even complain even when we have a lot of nominations. It is what it is. I’ve been in the game for 25 years. You never know — it’s the luck of the draw for you. To me, I’m not surprised. I’m not disappointed either, as much as other people are disappointed.

…I know there are other works that will be recognized by a more diverse Academy and I know there will be other years when work that is really deserving doesn’t get recognised.

Singleton isn’t letting Oscar off the hook but touching on the randomness of consensus voting. The Academy did not sit down as a monolithic being and decide to not nominate Idris Elba or Michael B. Jordan. And what does it say about the industry that those two are the only names easily mentioned as viable contenders? If there are only two to choose from, surely their chances lessen. And surely that points to something larger than the Academy.

The crystallisation of the paradox is that the Academy gets accused of being pointless and obsolete even as every year the announcement of their nominees leads to a slew of critical think-pieces opining on that same perceived obsoleteness or the temerity of their lack of rewarding a) good films or b) diverse films or c) challenging films or d) comedic films or e) non-period films and so on and so on and so on.

The Oscar statue remains as the most popular entertainment statue and even as critics quibble about its fluctuating rating (more an effect of the myriad mediums for keeping up with the ceremony than a lack of interest) it still generally records higher numbers than the Emmys, the Tonys, the Grammys, the VMAs. And that’s just counting legal viewers, not those streaming illegally online or watching on youtube the day after. That gold man is popular.

But where does that leave us? In a paradoxical world where the Oscars are important but not that important. The value of the Oscar remains tremendous, and even as many “real” film fan will repudiate it, it’s hard to argue that it continuously and continually presents an entry point for many young people to film, as something more than just popcorn fodder. Its value is seen in the way that the Oscar nominated silent films from the 1920s are more likely to be available today than those that were not. It’s a cultural footprint that will remain for ages. Its subjectivity, however, prevents it – like any real situation which maps art into a parameter of good or bad – from being decisive in its choices. It can’t please anyone, it can only please the arbitrary consensus who have voted for its winner – and sometimes, not even then.

It’s hard not to want more from the Oscars, more attention to smaller films, and diverse films and even better films as tenuous as that word better might be but it’s equally essential to recognise the inherent limitations in any body like the Oscars which exists in the consensus and thus in the inevitable dirty word called “mainstream”.

Likely, we’ll tune in on February 28 – if not for the movies then the gowns or the speeches or the jokes or just peer pressure. We might make our predictions or hope for our favourites and when that Best Picture gets crowned – the one about the journalists, or the bear mauling, or the stock market, we can appreciate that the winner is merely a representation of a subset. Its place as a winner will live on. But so will all the great movies of 2015. And so will the challenging state of truly reaching a diverse situation for artists across mediums. Oscar can’t fix our diversity problems for us, though.

Right now the suggestion being thrown about to expand the number of acting nominees to ensure the batch is more diverse makes me shudder. Is the way to fix diversity to dilute the significance of a nomination making the potentially non-white new nominees feel as if they are being offered pittances the way? What more if the nominees are expanded and it still doesn’t solve the problem. Oscar’s race problem can’t be fixed from the inside out. The chances for diversity need to be so overwhelming and common that Oscar can’t help but ignore them. When there are scores of minority performers and films to choose from, Oscar will continue being its consensus self but the consensus will then be more diverse. The problem isn’t the Oscars. The problem is the industry around it.

The Academy can’t award what doesn’t exist. And right now, a wide variety of films featuring actors, directors, writers, producers, designers of colour don’t exist. That’s our real issue.

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