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The Oscars Are Bad, Even When They're Good

How the Academy teases diversity to manipulate us.

On January 15, 2015, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their nominations for the 87th Annual Academy Awards, a slate of creators so ethnically singular, it made Friends look like the United Nations.

Most notably, every single one of the twenty nominated actors were white. Upset social media users quickly united under cultural commentator April Reign's #OscarsSoWhite hashtag to express frustration that, in an era when 49% of moviegoers were people of color, 100% of nominees were not. The Academy offered no official response. The following year, they again nominated twenty white actors. The #OscarsSoWhite movement continued. (It's worth noting that, perhaps as a consolation prize, Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu won for Best Directing both years.)

But by 2017, things seemed to have changed. Seven actors of color were nominated. Fences, Moonlight, and Hidden Figures were all nominated for Best Picture. Then, in spite of a clerical error almost as suspicious as the Iowa caucuses, Moonlight was awarded Best Picture. The voices of the people, it seemed, had been heard.

And then, in 2019, Green Book won. The outrage was palpable. How could this condescending, white savior narrative have won? Weren't we past this sort of self-congratulatory white narratives? And yet, here we find ourselves in 2020, with only two actors of color nominated (and two Scaretts Johanssens), an all-male Directing category, and—with the notable exception of Taika Waititi and Bong Joon-Ho—most Best Picture nominations going to white filmmakers as well.

Some have speculated that this is an overcorrection, that the Academy feels they've done the necessary work of diversifying. Others feel that it is a cultural regression spurred by the rise of Trumpism. The real answer is much simpler: This was the plan all along. It's what the Academy has always done. It's a multi-year cycle, designed to keep progressive moviegoers thinking that the Oscars are relevant, while keeping their conservative base placated. And we fall for it every time.

It goes like this: The Academy spends two to five years nominating the usual pablum—mostly white, high-budget dramas (directed and produced by white people as well). These films are already mandatory viewing—everyone's talking about them, so you have to see them. During these years, a handful of lower-budget films with more diverse casts get nominated in order to temporarily stave off criticism and prevent the nominations from being entirely homogenous. These films rarely win the most prestigious categories—an indie film might win, for example, Costume Design.

Then comes a special year (or two) in which The Oscars Are Different. Smaller movies with a message are nominated. Diverse casts are celebrated. The public raises a collective eyebrow in contemplative appreciation, as if watching a Super Bowl commercial featuring an interracial couple. This is followed by either a return to homogeneity or a self-congratulatory year in which—having temporarily convinced the public that they have cured racism or sexism, or that they suddenly understand art—the Academy gives awards to heavy-handed simplistic narratives that mimic the intensity of art films without any of the nuance.

Take, for example, the early years of the millenium. 2000 and 2001 saw only three actors of color nominated, with the massive-budget Gladiator taking home five awards in 2001. In 2002, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry took home Best Actor/Actress, with many nominations for smaller-budget films such as Gosford Park, In the Bedroom, Mulholland Drive, and Monster's Ball. 2003 saw only one actor of color nominated and few small-budget films, leading the way for the self-congratulatory year: Crash and its condescending approach to racial politics took home Best Picture in 2004.

This technique is used to suppress not only ethnic diversity, but gender diversity, progressive politics, and independent filmmakers. These are, of course, interrelated, as those shut out by the gatekeepers of mainstream cinema have historically found a home in independent cinema. In earlier eras of ethnic ubiquity, it was used to suppress artistic, independent filmmaking—the playbook was written long before #OscarsSoWhite presented a new challenge.

If the Academy has made progress, it's almost impossible to observe. Halle Berry remains the only woman of color to win Best Actress. Only one woman (Kathryn Bigelow in 2009) has ever won Best Director (and only five have even been nominated). Only three actors of Asian descent (one of whom was a woman — Miyoshi Umeki in 1958) and one actor of Arabic descent (Rami Malek in 2019) have won Oscars for acting. Precisely zero indiginous people have won Oscars for acting.

The trouble is: It’s impossible to say that the Academy Awards don't matter. A nomination guarantees an extended theater run, increasing profits and the likelihood of success for the artists' future projects. And winning an award provides those benefits in even greater abundance. This is, after all, why the Academy Awards exist in the first place. They are a mechanism by which the businessmen of the film industry can increase profits for one another.

Money isn't the only way they keep us engaged. It's the prestige, the reputation, the reach. An Oscar-winning film is guaranteed to be seen by a broader audience. Especially in the case of smaller independent films, it is an opportunity to reach a part of the populace that would have never considered or even heard their message. Representation matters—we know this to be true. But they know it, too. And they know that by keeping it a finite resource they can make sure it remains precious and valuable. Marginalized people can't avoid needing to be seen—it's too important, even if it comes from a system that keeps them marginalized.

Filmmakers who have been excluded by the Hollywood system have long found alternative modes of reaching an audience — art house theaters, film festivals, and, most recently, streaming platforms that risk less and benefit more from distributing a varied array of programming. But the Academy Awards remains a legitimacy-donning monolith, the mainstream validator of quality for much of America. And, again, they maintain that status not only by catering to the middle of the bell curve but by periodically re-enticing the fringes.

The question remains of what can be done to break this cycle. Social media shaming, and before that, sternly worded blog posts (and before that, damning editorials) have failed to produce lasting results, instead feeding into that very cycle that inspired them. A large-scale boycott, large enough to significantly affect advertising returns, is unlikely to materialize. There is simply too much money to be made, so there is plenty of money to be spent ensuring that every late-night host, news anchor, culture blogger, entertainment reporter, and even politician is talking about it.

And so, we have to watch, because, again, everyone is watching. That's the tautology that has kept the Oscars relevant for nearly a century. Even worse today: It’s not enough to watch. Viewers must also keep a running commentary of outrage and mediocre jokes on social media, providing a free source of advertisement (and ruining Twitter for any abstainers for at least 24 hours). And those who don't actually sit through the three hour slog of self-satisfaction will still read about the winners the next day, making plans to see them while they're still in theatres.

Non-participation is only useful for self-preservation. The only way to make an (admittedly minor) difference is to actively support the kind of cinema that's being suppressed. Buy independent films instead of just watching what's on Netflix. Share lesser-known films with friends. If you must see an Oscar winner in theatres, buy a ticket for a movie that was snubbed instead, then sneak in. And this Sunday, do yourself a favor: Slip the three-hour commercial and watch Dope, the best movie of 2015 (it wasn't nominated).

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