When John Krasinski read the nominations for the 88th Academy Awards, an audible gasp went through the room. Not because Idris Elba (“Beasts of No Nation”) and Will Smith (“Concussion”) missed the cut but because the only African-American representation on the night seems be host Chris Rock. Audible. Gasp. Really? An organization that began its history pandering to a society that celebrated negative stereotyping (“The Birth of a Nation”) and racial/cultural segregation (um– everything) is holding its annual, “Let’s give ourselves prizes for a job well done and televise it because the little people want to see how we enjoy being fabulous” party and didn’t invite the colored folks. The little gold statues go to the popular kids and the rest of us are just noticing the popular kids are white? Again, I ask – really? Well, duh.
So now the powers that be — and by powers I mean black people with big mouths like Jada Pinkett Smith, Spike Lee, Tyrese Gibson and that shrinking violet, Rev. Al Sharpton are asking black actors to not participate in the Academy Awards in protest.
Boycott the Oscars, are they kidding? The problem does not lie with the Academy Awards but with the studios and production companies who are not thinking about diversity. There are four factors studio and production executives consider when greenlighting a picture: 1) Popularity 2) Comfort 3) Money 4) Gratitude
POPULARITY – The execs are not the popular kids, but they want to be. They want to play with Leo and Jennifer. They want to be one of the entourage – the Turtle to Ryan’s or Bradley’s Vince. There are popular kids of color: older – like Denzel and Halle and younger like Michael B. Jordan. Samuel L. Jackson was good in “The Hateful Eight;” was he better than the five nominees? That’s the fun of debating. He’s in the club. As is Johnny Depp who could have been nominated for “Black Mass.” Do we see pirates brandishing swords calling for a parlay? No, we do not. Because that would be stupid. And not for nothing, people of color come in all flavors not just chocolate. But Pinkett Smith et al. cannot acknowledge that since Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s directing nomination for “The Revenant” would discredit the lily-white theory.
COMFORT – Producers want to work with people they feel comfortable with. You can have three or four scripts on the Black List, but if you were raised in a leper colony deep in the rain forest and only eat bark, the only way your screenplay’s getting made is if you were in the same fraternity as Joe Studio Executive. The greenlighters will greenlight films by and for people like themselves. Stories they recognize, guys and dolls. This lack of diversity is most certainly on a subconscious level, but they will be spending several years on a project – they want to like it. Let’s face it, suburban white guys whose only contact with PoC was walking by their self-segregated tables in the high school cafeteria are not comfortable spending two+ years and millions of dollars on an ethnocentric movie. Even a film like “Straight Outta Compton” was good enough to have been considered so why didn’t it receive the percentage to bump the Best Picture nominees from eight to nine? My guess is the comfort factor was not there for the older majority of Academy voters. Oh, well. It is still a great movie. Everyone involved will still get work. The studios will still make hip hop movies for a young urban audience and older members of the Motion Picture Academy will still not see them.
MONEY – Does this really need an explanation? This is a business. If the picture is guaranteed to lose money the executives are guaranteed to lose their jobs. It is a gamble and in order to take the risk, a project targeted at a diversity audience must be cheap to produce, destined for indie credibility or able to market to a mass international audience. Will Smith is international. Studios can make their money back on a good Will Smith film. Race is not a factor when explosions and action sequences are in the trailer.
GRATITUDE – Perhaps the most important factor in getting a movie made. The chuffed boycotters feel entitled to nominations. Um– why, exactly? Did I miss the memo where lucky black people should be awarded for being black, and lucky? Yes, the work is good. Deserving even. They could have been nominated for Academy Awards. Could have. Not Should have. No one wants to work with anyone who is spoiled and ungrateful. Once that reputation is part of your CV, good luck getting a certificate of participation at the 4H club flower show let alone an Oscar nomination. There are snubs and surprises every year. That’s business. That’s life for the rest of us. How many emerging screenwriters, producers, directors, actors, etc. would be thrilled to have a film made? Times that by a million and add an eye roll and you’ll have the reaction of the vast majority of people of color – all colors that is.
We go into the award season home stretch with the all too familiar specter of racism casting its shadow. Even the term boycott recalls marches and sit-ins during the Civil Rights Era that are unsettling now. It is inappropriate to compare rich black entertainment professionals to the real struggles on the streets of Baltimore, Chicago and Ferguson, Missouri. When Pinkett Smith made her statement the backlash was immediate and vitriolic. “Blacktress” Janet Hubert who played Aunt Vivian on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” from 1990-1993 has bad blood with the Smiths, but she was on point when calling BS on the boycott.
O.G. Aunt Viv (Yeah, I thought it was Whitney Houston, too at first) said it best: “You ain’t Barack and Michelle Obama. And you need to get over yourselves.” She said a lot of other shit that made me want to buy her a bottle of Hennessy but she addressed the hypocrisy of the elite, black and white, whining because they are not as popular as they think they should be when the people who matter – their fans – are struggling, starving and dying. What the boycotters don’t realize is dragging race into a popularity contest makes it worse for everyone.
Others have weighed in on both sides of the issue (Whoopi Goldberg, George Clooney, Snoop Dogg). While I agree change in the academy voting guidelines is necessary to even the playing ground, it is not nearly the overt racism alluded to. I still say it is an issue of hiring before voting. My message to Mrs. Smith is this: If you really want to be the change you want to see in the world then calling out the industry that made you rich & famous and indulged you and your feckless children is not the way to role model. PoC will get more nominations when we’re hired. I happen to know a fabulous emerging screenwriter…