Monday, January 18, 2016

Ranting On...Jada Pinkett Smith and the Oscar Boycott

I watched Jada Pinkett Smith's tweet today announcing her boycott of the Oscars, followed by Spike Lee's post stating that he would also be boycotting the Oscars, and am sitting here perplexed as I have a lot of feelings about this, and want to be as matter-of-fact as possible.  I hadn't really touched upon yet another year of #OscarsSoWhite, but I will spell out that I do think it's unfortunate that this is the case again.  I don't believe in rewarding a performance or a film just because of someone's racial identity, but it says something that Hollywood didn't create enough strong product this year that gave people opportunities to really shine, and that's unfortunate for all of us because diversity in art can be a powerful forum, and this has been a problem for decades, if not the entirety of the history of the cinema and many other art forms.

Because I lay this problem at the feet of Hollywood, not as Pinkett Smith and Lee did at the feet of the Oscars, since the Oscars are only the messenger here, not the provider of the product that is being acknowledged or merited as "the best."  The reality is that there were very few films that were in the realm of an Academy Award that featured African-American actors or directors behind the camera in 2015.  In fact, by my count, the only films that were remotely in the traditional Academy wheelhouse (I'm not counting movies like Chi-Raq or Tangerine, where any hope of a nomination would be dashed by low distribution or content) were Concussion, Straight Outta Compton, Creed, and Beasts of No Nation, and it's easy to pick apart all four of these films and their Oscar chances.

After all, Straight Outta Compton's writing nomination is the actual surprise.  A harsh rap epic wouldn't have done well with an all-white cast, and there is literally no precedent for the film being included in the Best Picture category.  Creed admittedly felt like a film that might crossover to Oscar, but let's not forget it was a boxing sequel starring an attractive younger man (which is usually poison for a body that likes their men over-40 and past-their-physical-prime) that didn't get acknowledged by any other awards bodies.  Concussion managed a Golden Globe nomination, but Will Smith wasn't really making a big play for a nomination, and the film itself was terrible and couldn't capture the zeitgeist despite starring one of the planet's biggest movie stars and being about a major part of pop culture.  And Beasts of No Nation, arguably the film with the most momentum, is a film that is challenging the distribution model that has kept Hollywood extremely well-fed for over 100 years; the Emmys may have embraced Netflix, but the film industry with its gigantic budgets and tent-poles seems less inclined to throw itself in with exclusively digital content, at least in a major category.

This argument held far more weight last year when a film like Selma, which is exactly in Oscar's wheelhouse, missed out on nominations for acting and directing-that felt like about the right time to lead a movement against the Academy, though as I've discussed before Selma lost a lot of buzz and momentum by having a truly terrible distribution model in terms of picking up awards.  This year, though, it feels like the Academy is just in the wrong place and the wrong time and is taking Hollywood's bullet rather than someone acknowledging that black actors (and for that matter, and in many cases far more so, Latino, Asian, and GLBT actors) didn't have a great many opportunities this year.  And it's not like the Academy hasn't been deeply diverse in some of its other choices-the Academy's president, ceremony producer, and Oscar host are all African-Americans this year, as was one of their Governor's Award recipients (oddly enough, it was Spike Lee).

It also feels, and this may be unfair but I have to call it the way I see it, that Jada Pinkett Smith is the wrong person to be delivering this message this year.  While she's a very recognizable name in Hollywood, an actress that will guarantee major headlines from every entertainment-based website on the internet, she's also making this complaint the same year that her husband was up for an Oscar and missed.  I'm reminded of the 1975 Best Actress field, when Ellen Burstyn proposed boycotting the category due to the dearth of strong roles for women, only to have Louise Fletcher challenge it would mean more in a year where Burstyn had a picture competing.  I feel this way about Pinkett Smith-would we have had this conversation this year if her husband had been nominated?  Does the Best Actor category become more valid if Will Smith is a part of it?  And if so, please name which actor should be excluded in favor of him.

That's part of the reason these sorts of protests bother me.  I don't like being on this side of this argument, defending a lack of diversity, but the reality is that I hate when people complain of snubs when they don't name-check specific actors or people that should not be included.  It would mean more to me if Pinkett Smith specifically cited an actor that should be excluded in favor of her husband or Idris Elba or Straight Outta Compton or even herself.  But that will never happen because she knows that would make this protest unpopular.  It's easy to blame someone, but it's a helluva lot harder to offer up a solution, which this protest doesn't do.  I would have a lot more respect for Pinkett Smith or Spike Lee if they were out there stating Leonardo DiCaprio shouldn't win an Oscar or a nomination in favor of Will Smith-that would be a solution, albeit one that might put them at risk of people having an easy way to disagree with them.  People frequently want to throw awards shows under the bus because Nominee X got excluded, but they rarely state who should have been excluded (particularly, it's worth noting, amongst lead male actors), and that feels disingenuous.  I respect Pinkett Smith for wanting to bring a light on the lack of diversity in film, I really do, but I feel like this is the wrong way and year to do it, and it undercuts Ms. Pinkett Smith's magnanimity in particular when her family stands to personally gain from such a protest.

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