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How Oscar Turned From Gold to Ivory

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 24/02/2016 Jeb Harrison

It's not uncommon for Oscar winners to use their acceptance speech as a bully pulpit for political issues. Given the recent uproar over the unabashed chalkiness of this year's nominees, we may be hearing a few more contrite, if not downright apologetic, acceptance speeches from the winners. We may even see a few outright rejections, a la Marlon Brando. 2016-02-23-1456248270-1772040-oscars2016actorsactressesmontagec.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2016-02-23-1456248270-1772040-oscars2016actorsactressesmontagec.jpg
Of course it's not the artist's or producer's fault that the Academy chose films about white people, featuring white people, and mostly made by white people, nor is it the artist's fault that the Academy has become so monochromatic over the years. Even so, some may look at this year's prize as slightly tainted, now that the Academy has been "exposed," so to speak. So it won't be surprising if some actors and filmmakers take this year's Oscars as an opportunity to help chart a new course for the Academy, not to mention the industry in general.
It's easy to imagine what a more diverse Academy and the Oscars will look like in the future, but how it will be achieved is anybody's guess. Some may encourage adopting the approach that some literary awards seem to be moving toward, which increasingly categorizes the work according to the social profile of the author. Who would be surprised if we started to see the Academy award Oscars for "the best documentary by an aboriginal, bisexual, disabled New Zealander" or "best animated short by a heterosexual female Peruvian under the age of 40?"
LA Times correspondent Mary McNamara points out that "Awards are objective measures of excellence, goes one argument; female writers and directors or actors of color should not be shoehorned onto nominee lists just to provide some politically correct vision of diversity."

George Clooney, in a Variety article, points out that "If you think back 10 years ago, the Academy was doing a better job. Think about how many more African Americans were nominated. I would also make the argument, I don't think it's a problem of who you're picking as much as it is: How many options are available to minorities in film, particularly in quality films?"
McNamara echoes that sentiment: "The problem with the overwhelming male-whiteness of this year's Oscars is not white males and their stories, it's the millions of other people and stories that should be part of the powerful force of American cinema and continually are not."
American cinema; if there's one thing this year's best picture nominees have in common, it's real, albeit mostly white male, America. With the exception of Mad Max: Fury Road, all of the nominees for best picture are distinctly American stories, and four out of six of them are interpretations of actual events.

  • The Revenent - Trappers vs. tribes vs. grizzlies in the Rocky Mountain west
  • The Big Short - The bad mortgage bust of 2007
  • Spotlight - A team of Boston reporters goes after corrupt Catholic priests and their lawyers
  • The Martian - NASA loses track of an American astronaut on Mars
  • Bridge of Spies - The American side of the Cold War
  • Room - Girls held captive in an American backyard
  • Brooklyn - An Irish/Italian immigrant love story in the white melting pot

It follows, naturally, that many of the actors in the best picture category are also nominees for individual awards. Still, only two male actors (Leo DiCaprio and Matt Damon) are in films that are also nominated for best picture. Same goes for female performances: two out of the five nominees appear in potential best pictures.
What of the other films that delivered this year's finest performances? Again, with the exception of Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years, American stories are prominent.
  • Trumbo - Bryan Cranston as vilified screenwriter and suspected communist Dalton Trumbo during the red scare
  • Steve Jobs - Michael Fassbender as the archetypal tech version of Horatio Alger
  • Carol - Cate Blanchett, Manhattan, a department store, forbidden love in the fifties
  • Joy - Jennifer Lawrence as the female Blake Carrington in her own American dynasty

This dominant thematic thread is carried through the other major categories too: white American stories made for white American audiences. Isn't it ironic how these films, though years in production, came out against the soundtrack of the masses chanting "make America great again?" There seems to be a strange synchronicity, no doubt completely coincidental, between the content of this year's Oscar offerings and the general mood of the so-called silent majority. Or perhaps we should be giving credit to the marketers who are monitoring the pulse of public sentiment. These films wouldn't be so prominent if the studio bosses and their minions didn't think they would sell.
At least it's evident from the Academy's reaction, and the threatened boycott, that the homogeneity of the last two years is about to change. This year, regardless of who we pick to win, it's clear that our choices in the coming years should reflect America as it is, and not how rich and powerful studio executives may wish it to be.

OSCARS © Vincenzo Lombardo via Getty Images OSCARS

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