A Visiting and Revisiting Special: Boycott the 2016 Academy Awards? Pt. 1

There is a good chance that very few people in the Western Hemisphere, and a good many of them beyond, don't already have an opinion about the lack of artists of color in the Academy Award nominations this year. Whether luck of the draw or the system being broken and needing a good fix, having two years in a row where several prominent performances by non-white actors and actresses have gone unacknowledged by the Academy looks pretty bad to most people that care about these things.

My writing partner, Aaron Lowe (Working Dead Productions) and I have decided to discuss this topic in lieu of our usual back and forth conversations on a particular movie in our Visiting and Revisiting feature that we split between our respective websites. To put it out front, we are both Caucasian and male. My politics are outspokenly liberal (though I believe that a centrist position is the best way to get things done in Washington), and Aaron identifies as "pretty strongly liberal" (his words). 

So, you are not going to get a William F. Buckley Jr. vs. Gore Vidal-style point-counterpoint here. What we wanted to do was actually think through the problem and see what lies at the heart of it, determine whether a large-scale, knee-jerk reaction boycott would do any good, and see what possible solutions there could be so that not only are all sides appeased, but that the situation rights itself for the future.

1. Do you believe that the actions (to this point) of the Academy point to systemic racism, or do you feel that the list of nominees from the past two years is simply "the luck of the draw," given the fact that there have been past years where persons of color were nominated and even won?

Rik: When I wrote this question, I used the term "luck of the draw," but of course, I know it really doesn't come down to that at all. There is a nomination process that has been long in place, and it relies on the placement of nominees on each ballot after they first determine a "magic number" for each category, which itself is based on the total number of ballots divided by the number of possible nominees for that category plus one. The term "magic number" does ultimately denote a bit of luck because the selection of nominees does depend on the order in which the ballots get counted. The first candidate that reaches the required "magic number" gets the first slot on the nominee list, and so on until all the available slots for that category are filled. First come, first served.

So, do I think that the nominations are based directly on the racism within the Academy itself? I doubt it. To be sure, the Academy, like much of Hollywood, was built and is still largely based on an "old boys" network, that is -- like much of big business in America -- still terribly, predominately white and male. Yes, the USA is (as of the 2010 Census) 63+% non-Hispanic white, but the disparity within the Academy is even larger, with an LA Times study in 2012 finding that the group was likely to be 94% white, while men make up 77% of the membership overall. I think the biggest problem is that the film industry in America itself caters mainly to the white male audience. If you have 40 Oscar quality pictures released within a year (and that is pushing it; I am just using it as an example) and only a relative few are built around non-white themes or feature lead actors of non-white origin, then it makes the reality that one of those few films will get nominated a long-shot.

This is not to discount that there could be some old school, good old boy racism at play here. Maybe Hollywood isn't quite as left leaning as Fox News and its cohorts would like the American public to believe. There probably are many older members of the Academy -- and in 2012, 86% of them were over the age of 50, with the median age being 62 years old -- who harbor ancient racial resentments instilled in them since they were younger and raised in less enlightened times. I don't doubt that there are problem many in the membership who feel that way. It would be like with any slice of America that you cut, there is going to be a certain segment that leans a certain way.

I think a larger problem (in direct response to this question) is that within that older membership, that there is a likely disconnect between themes that are interesting to moviegoers today versus what those older members might want to see onscreen. It is more likely that this white, older chunk of the Academy may not be all that concerned with seeing the far fewer films per year featuring younger (or even established) actors and actresses of color in stories that don't necessary connect to that in which they are interested. These older members also might not want to see supposedly "heavier" films about African child warriors (Beasts of No Nation) or gang shootings in Chicago (Chi-raq), and they likely don't care at all about rap or hip-hop (Straight Outta Compton). In many ways it doesn't surprise me these films got zero or little attention from the Academy. The two films with black leads and/or creators that really had a shot should have been the highly acclaimed (and justly so) sports dramas, Creed and Concussion, and only Sylvester Stallone, a white actor, was nominated between them. Old white guys tend to like sports --- especially football and baseball -- but they may have reacted negatively to Concussion's casting of their beloved NFL as a secretive, villainous organization that doesn't care about the fate of its players as long as they keep the money flowing. (Which they are, but shhhhhhhhh...)

Aaron: To answer quickly, before going on to individual points: I believe the problem lies in the people, not the system. Surely the system has allowed a certain amount of stagnation to set in, but when I went to research how someone becomes an Academy member, and how the voting was handled, I found that it was remarkably fair and balanced, in the literal meaning of that phrase, not in the Fox News meaning. Obviously, the system favors those films and individuals with the largest amount of exposure, which leads to the predictable roundup of popular crowd-pleasers, but that’s the nature of popularity contests. In reality, a contender can come from anywhere, and the system itself is, essentially, colorblind.

I tend to believe that the average Academy member is not as racist as this year’s scandal would imply, and I doubt there’s a conspiracy here where large groups of white-haired old men decided to exclude performers of color. It’s just another case of a large group of people making individual choices; choices that they maybe don’t realize are quite so exclusive. I might be giving these people too much credit, but generally speaking I don’t assume people are mustache-twirling villains. That doesn’t really come as any consolation, and in fact may be worse; if people were doing this consciously we could easily say it was wrong, but if people are doing this with good intentions, it’ll be harder to fix.

The demographic argument about the Academy –that they are older white men and stuck in their ways- rings a bit false to me. Let’s say the median age right now is 66; this means these people came of age during the civil rights movement, and they likely came out of leftist leaning film schools in the 70s; George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, for example. George Miller is in his seventies and he just made one of the most feminist -- not to mention energetic and truly wild -- action movies of all time. I know those people are outliers, but when we talk about how old the average Academy member is, it’s not as if they were raised in the antebellum South. 

But here’s another problem; people recognize and feel comfortable with what they know. There’s no big conspiracy here, but people making movies form relationships with people they get along with, and people they enjoy working with, and the entire system becomes a bit closed off and incestuous. It can be hard to break into that world. I don’t automatically assume racism when I hear about a writers’ room that is primarily white, or male, or what have you. I do assume that whoever put that room together was more interested in having a room full of people that he or she was comfortable working with than in having a room made up of diverse voices. I think that practice is being seen here, writ large. Academy members see things their friends worked on, they vote for things their friends worked on, or speak to their life in some way. And since the Academy is made up of so many older white men, you see a pretty whitewashed selection of films.

To answer another point you bring up; Hollywood is definitely not as left leaning as Fox News would like Middle America to believe. Hollywood is the very definition of capitalistic; they go where the money is. The problem is, the source of the money is changing, and the entertainment industry is incredibly slow to realize this. Look at the continuing controversies over the removal of strong female characters from the promotional materials for films such as the new Star Wars film or The Avengers. The entertainment industry just isn’t ready to accept the fact that there might be money in catering to, or at least acknowledging, a market other than 18-40 year old white males.

2. Do you think "Affirmative Action" should apply to supposedly exclusive and invite-only clubs, such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science?

Aaron: I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the term “Affirmative Action” and what it implies. I understand the motivations behind it, and they are truly noble, but it implies (whether accurately or not) a certain amount of racism on the other side of the coin. When people talk about Affirmative Action it’s usually implied that those benefitting from it aren’t quite deserving of the help; that they’ve only been included due to their skin color or ethnicity or gender. Of course, that’s exactly what has been happening with white people for hundreds of years, but it still carries a negative connotation.

The problem here is that Affirmative Action is completely unnecessary in this case. There’s no reason to invite members into the Academy based solely on the boxes they fill out on the census form. There’s also no cap to the number of members the Academy can have, so there’s no real reason to exclude anyone. There are plenty of talented and deserving individuals that the Academy is ignoring. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs issued a statement promising to overhaul the Academy’s membership process, and actively recruit a more diverse crowd, which seems to me like a great start. They’ve done this in the past, when they tried to recruit a younger audience in the 60’s, and that seemed to work well for them at the time.

Rik: I feel Affirmative Action is still very necessary in the public and government sector. But should it be mandatory for private clubs and organizations? I'm not sure that anything should be done about that. If a particular group wants to keep their practices and meetings to an invited group only, I don't see the problem with that. But I also know I would not want to belong to such an organization if their inclusion process was based around standards that were openly racist or sexist. I know that I wouldn't want to belong to a club that was "men only," because what good is anything if there is not a chance of women being involved? (There is a certain irony that so many men brandish an oversized and often outspoken fear of homosexuality, but then really just want to hang out with other guys 90% of the time.) And what good is an organization that doles out awards to the best films within a calendar year if it doesn't have a membership that can recognize a certain portion of those "best films" because it is imbalanced?

3. What do you think would be a good, or even the best, solution towards broadening the membership of the Academy and making it at least reflect the demographic breakdown of America?

Rik: My solution for the Academy membership is to blow it up! By that, I mean make it much, much larger than it is right now (currently only 6,000+ members). I would switch it from invite-only to including all "active" members of the major Hollywood trade unions and guilds. This would include the Screen Actors Guild (including CON-AFTRA; they are combined now), the Directors Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America, the American Society of Cinematographers, the Producers Guild of America... all of them, as long as they are represented by one of the categories in which an award is given. Anyone that is a current member of the Academy but may not be active in one of the unions or guilds is allowed to remain (you have to give them some reason for living), but this will allow the Academy to include most of Hollywood's artists. Yes, it will put their membership at over 200,000 members (at least), and there will be logistical problems involved in developing a new nomination and voting process and the screening of nominated films, but that is their problem. If you want the Academy to represent the industry, then that is the quickest way.

Aaron: Honestly, that seems like such a logical idea that I was honestly surprised it wasn’t how the process worked already. Being a member of one of those unions automatically means that you are working as a professional, and have had at least one credit within the past year. I have to imagine that such an influx of younger, more diverse members would make an immediate impact.

To read Part II of this discussion, please click here.


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