The Politics of Oscar

By Chris Balboni
Reader Contributor

Every year, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences vote for what they consider to be the best films of the year. This inevitably upsets people, and within hours of the 2016 announcements for Oscar nominations, major media outlets across the country were gathering their annual pitchforks. Even the president of the Academy, Cheryl Isaacs, was disappointed as one of Hollywood’s biggest elephants in the room was put in the spotlight once again: Race.

A dearth of non-white nominees isn’t a new controversy to the Oscars, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that, in a year where films like “Straight Outta Compton”, “Beasts of No Nation”, and “Creed” generated heaps of critical praise for black performers and filmmakers, the list of uniformly white nominees in many high-profile categories looks short at best, and racially biased at worst.

The perception that the Academy is comprised of old white men is not unfounded: The organization dates back to a time when that very demographic owned most of Hollywood, and while the current roster in not available to the public, research done by the LA Times in 2012 showed that the organization’s by-invitation-only membership of 6,000 is roughly 94% white and 77% male, with a median age of 62. Recent years have seen a concerted effort at inviting in more gender and racially diverse members, but with only a few hundred invitations per year and membership guaranteed for life, it’s hard to believe the make-up of the Academy is changing at anything short of a glacial pace.

Still, finding an undeserving nominee in any major category is impossible with “Mad Max,” “The Revenant,” “The Martian,” “The Big Short,” “Brooklyn,” “Room,” and “Spotlight” all vying for Best Picture. Not only that, but the names nominated for best actors and actresses, leading and supporting, are some of the most talented players in the industry: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Rooney Mara, Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and many others.

If the Academy represents anything, it’s the spine of Hollywood. That spine is at a critical crossroads right now: The worst thing it could do in response to this year’s outcry is to institute a token minority nominee to major categories in the future, further alienating an audience comprised of millennials that don’t care what color or gender characters are, as demonstrated by the attention they’ve given to the increasingly diverse world found in television right now. Yet, the film industry will struggle to stay relevant if it can’t find honest ways to communicate with its audience, and we all know what happens when a major industry all but ignores an audience (R.I.P. major record labels). There’s a balance to be struck, but the Academy isn’t likely to find it until their least relevant voters finally die of old age, and by then it may be too late.

Make no mistake: There are many, many amazing films and performances nominated this year. I’ll watch (secretly hoping for the Mad Max win that won’t happen), but will keep in mind that art is forever relevant, not awards. After all, it’s Sam Jackson’s Jules Winnfield that the youngest generation has adorning their walls and can quote verbatim, not Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi.

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