Saturday, February 27, 2016

Shades of Oscar

I have a love/hate relationship with the Oscars. As a film buff who has been on a years-long quest to see the best films ever made, The Academy Awards list of winners and nominees provide me with a basic road map of that journey. Even if they may not have been the very best of a given year, they are almost always an excellent sampling of the extremely good. Almost. I'm not a fan of either Gone With the Wind or The Deer Hunter, for example.
The difficulty - particularly in the last decade or so - is that the majority of the films nominated were given a very limited release at the very tail-end of the eligible year, so I find myself scrambling to see all of the nominated films so that I can be "in the know" by the time of the awards ceremony. I usually don't manage to swing it, and I won't again this year.
Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian (two of my favorite films of the last year) were not released in "Oscar season" and were given a wide release to audiences who had an opportunity to (and did) thoroughly enjoy them. Personally, I think that if a movie can can stay fresh in the minds of the Academy's nominating committee for more than two months, that's a sign that it is a superior film.
I saw Spotlight the week it came out. Likewise: The Big Short. (As a side note: if only one-third of the people who Star Wars 7 see The Big Short, I believe that big banking will never pull the wool over the American public's eyes again.) Brooklyn and The Room were gone from the theaters before I got a chance to see them. I caught Bridge of Spies on DVD from the scarlet-colored cube rental machine in my neighborhood. (They aren't paying me to say their name, so why should I?) I think I will try to catch The Revenant tomorrow morning. I've been putting it off, because it looks like the kind of film where you kind of have to steady yourself to watch it. (I'm also not as taken with Leonardo DiCaprio as the rest of the world.) So, once again, I find myself unable to give my opinion of which of the nominated films is the best, because I will only have seen 75% of them by the time the envelope is opened and the winner is announced.
Here's what I can say:
Since the Oscars allows for up to ten films to be in contention for Best Picture, and they have only nominated eight - I can think of at least two films that I saw from 2015 that were left off of the list.
And this is where the #oscarssowhite hashtag comes in. Those two films are Chi-Raq and Straight Outta Compton. (I haven't seen Beasts of No Nation or Tangerine yet, but I know those films are on many others' lips as well. I'll speak only to what I have seen, though.)
The films are not nominated. The directors of the films are not nominated. None of the actors in the films are nominated. Comparing those films, those directors, and those performances to the other nominees in the other categories (those that I have seen), would I say that their omission is unjust?
I would.
Do I think that the nominating committee for the Oscars is racially biased or racist?
The answer is yes to the first and - brace yourself - yes to the second as well. Hollywood, too.
How can I say that?
Simple. I can say it because I am racist. Too.
Now, let's not get too excited here. I'm not a card-carrying member of any racist organizations. I don't even want to be racist. At all. I just recognize that I am. And sexist. And homophobic. Transphobic, too, I expect.
In the musical Avenue Q, there's a song called, "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist," and it's a very funny and clever song. (If you don't know it, Google it now.) People laugh and think, "Gosh, that's true! They sure are!" Nobody wants to admit that they might harbor any racist thoughts - even subconsciously - because they are terrified of being vilified for owning up to them. They probably would be. I probably will be to a degree. (Low readership of my blog may be my saving grace.) We are quick to jump from one outrage to the next, and, while some things warrant our outrage, some may not.
People have been quick to call the Oscars racist, and the Oscars have been quick to flatly deny it. The truth may lay somewhere in the middle.
But it's my blog, so let's get back to what makes me racist. Well, I'm white. (Predominantly. For all intents and purposes.) I have been treated as a white person all of my life. Most of the people I see in the movies and on television over my lifetime have looked like me. (Well, better-looking versions, anyway.) Even though I grew up on the Southern Ute Reservation and went to school with many other students who were Ute, Navajo, Hopi, and Hispanic. My experience as a young, white man was still not the same as theirs. I couldn't say how many of my fellow students were also white without flipping through my old high school yearbook - which I lost years ago - but I wouldn't say we were at all in the minority. My point is: I have been a white guy all of my life, and I have benefited from that pretty much all of my life. Sometimes I was aware of it. Sometimes I was not. When I was aware of it, I felt bad about it, but I didn't very often do anything about it. Sometimes that was because I didn't know what to do, and sometimes that was because I knew my "help" would not have been welcome.
But let's leave my cowardice and inaction aside and actually talk about my racism. Now, I'm not what you'd call actively racist. "Passively" would be more accurate. "Unintentionally" might as well. Louis CK has a bit about "casual racism." You should Google that, too. I tend to pick the movies I will spend my money on based upon my preferences, and I know that those preferences are influenced by my life experience. I am far more inclined to select a film with a white, male, heterosexual, cisgender lead actor/role, because I am a white, male, heterosexual, cisgender person. That is a racial, gender, sexual, cis bias, and - because I am exerting my influence (in this case the dollar value of admission and popcorn) from my position of privilege - that is also racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. It's not overtly so, but it's there. And, if I want to live in a world where everyone is treated the same regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, or gender identity, then I have to recognize that I have certain biases - biases I don't want to have but that I DO have.
I do.
I'd like to get rid of them. I strive to get rid of them. Maybe someday I will, but I need help. And here's the thing: I'm ashamed of my biases enough on my own. I don't need anyone's help in the shame department.
I believe that people should be treated equally regardless of gender, race, gender identity, or sexual preference. I just know that I have some old prejudices rattling around in my subconscious, and - if I don't address them - they can manifest themselves as biases. 
Let's say that each of my biases is like a stain on a different wall in a room. I want to wipe away the stains, but I need to turn on the light to see where to clean. Well, if every time I turn the lights on someone screams "Look at those stains! What a terrible person you are for having stained walls!" I'm going to turn off the lights and flatly deny that there are any stains there. 
Imagine instead if that screaming person stood by and said, "I appreciate that you see the stains and are making an effort to clean them. Good job." And, if they occasionally pipe up and point out when I've missed a spot, I don't need to feel defensive, because I know it's not judgment. It's help.
The Oscars, Hollywood, the movie-buying audience: we all have stains on our walls. They aren't going to go away by turning off the lights and pretending they don't exist. And those of us who are critical of the lack of representation in Hollywood and among the awards need to steer the conversation away from derision and toward awareness.
There's also the old "chicken and the egg" argument about representation in the media: Are there so few diverse films to see, because Hollywood won't make them, or does Hollywood not make them because nobody goes to see them?
Probably both.
So, let me end this post by turning it over to you, dear readers:
What movies or performances did you see in 2015 that should be up for an Oscar but aren't? This discussion has been about representation, but don't necessarily limit yourself to that. Share your favorite movies of 2015. 

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