It’s heartening that Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith, and, as of this morning, her husband Will Smith have publicly denounced the Academy Awards, declaring that they will not be attending this year’s ceremony. The Oscars, though seen as a pinnacle of artistic achievement, really amount to cherries on top of a bowl of them. They represent more success to those who have already had so much of it—success in getting a movie made, and then success in getting it sufficient attention to yield Oscars, either by selling a lot of tickets or wooing critics, or, most frequently, some mixture of the two. It’s high time we reevaluate how much we invest in their importance.
Taking issue with the racism that manifests itself when you charge a gaggle of white people with designating supremacy is an effective inroad to tearing down an antiquated institution that, even by its own narrow standards, rarely gets it right. This year is particularly egregious, as it’s the second in a row that the Academy has failed to nominate any actors of color. Monday night, the Academy’s president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs (who’s black, and much more responsive to this criticism than previous heads) seemed to respond to Lee, Pinkett Smith, and the social media outcry (via April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite hashtag) in a statement, saying, “We need to do more, and better and more quickly. We recognize the very real concerns of our community, and I so appreciate all of you who have reached out to me in our effort to move forward together.”
I would like to suggest an alternative method to dealing with this problem: Stop caring so much about the fucking Oscars. They matter only as much as we make them matter. They are a farce. They transform making art into a competition, and because of the cultural stock placed in obtaining them, they have spawned an entire film subgenre of Oscar-bait—movies that seem to be synthesized to do what an Oscar movie does, as opposed to, you know, actually communicating something. They foster anodyne, middle-of-the-road fare like The Danish Girl (mannered, insincere garbage) and The Theory of Everything (and, really, anything starring Eddie Redmayne), while routinely ignoring work that challenges, work that says the previously unsaid, work that goes where other work hasn’t. Good movies starring and created by black people go unrecognized, yes, but so do good movies, period.
The Oscars are also a game. One must apply to be considered for them, and one must campaign if he or she is to have any success in obtaining one. In a roundtable with fellow New York Times critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis last week, Wesley Morris summed it up like this:
In the case of both Creed and [Straight Outta Compton], I just don’t think the campaigns were there for these movies. Just as I don’t think they were there for Selma the previous year. And as nauseating as that sort of thing can be, that’s how these things work: positioning, narratives, spinning, hype, overexposure, wanton whoring.
See, on top of the problem of white people giving awards to white people is the problem that these awards aren’t entirely based on merit, but on external factors that have nothing to do with the quality of art. “Prestige” comes down to how well one sells the idea of prestige. This is no secret, and yet somehow that doesn’t matter to those who are hungry enough to participate. Melissa Leo’s successful 2011 campaign didn’t prove that she’s a great actress (anyone who’s watched her already knows that), but that she is a shameless one.
The Oscars are important, you might argue. They drive business, they make stars, they foster more opportunities for the sort of people who are cunning enough to finagle a way into the Dolby Theater—who thus, perhaps, have talent worth indulging, right? And wouldn’t having more black people honored create better roles and jobs for black people? Maybe, but not necessarily. Octavia Spencer, who won Best Supporting Actress in 2012 for playing a maid in The Help, later that year told Vulture that her trophy hadn’t yielded much opportunity: “The reality for me was that I thought my phone would be ringing a lot, and it wasn’t,” she said. She’s worked steadily since winning (unlike Mo’Nique), but her roles haven’t exactly been those you’d expect from an Oscar winner (for example, she appeared on a string of episodes of CBS’s vulgar sitcom Mom). In 2013, Forbes pointed to an honors thesis from a Colgate student, which “found that male actors experience an 81 percent bump in salary after nabbing an Oscar...while actresses see almost no financial benefit following a win. In fact, their careers may even take a bit of a dive after bringing home a statuette.”
In many cases, then, especially for women who could actually benefit from a potential pay bump given the wage gap, an Oscar amounts to little more than a trophy for a game well-played, presented by the people who rigged it. With his recently won trophy under his arm, Spike Lee’s gesture is particularly shrewd—he’s using his boycott to focus on the larger, more important issue at hand. In his Instagram caption announcing he would not be attending this year’s ceremony, he echoed his call for diversity made during his acceptance speech for his honorary Oscar in November, writing:
As I See It, The Academy Awards Is Not Where The “Real” Battle Is. It’s In The Executive Office Of The Hollywood Studios And TV And Cable Networks. This Is Where The Gate Keepers Decide What Gets Made And What Gets Jettisoned To “Turnaround” Or Scrap Heap. This Is What’s Important. The Gate Keepers. Those With “The Green Light” Vote.
Pinkett Smith, meanwhile, seemed firmly invested in the awards process, calling for a separate system of acknowledgement:
The Academy has the right to acknowledge whomever they choose, to invite whomever they choose, and now I think that it’s our responsibility now to make the change. Maybe it is time that we pull back our resources and we put them back into our communities, into our programs and we make programs for ourselves that acknowledge us in ways that we see fit, that are just as good as the so-called mainstream ones.
But could Pinkett Smith’s program properly honor women auteurs, given how few of them are even afforded the opportunity to make movies? Would her program be adequately inclusive to LGBT people of color? How about people with disabilities? What about Asians, do they count? In other words, would her parallel be fair? Could a hierarchical system ever be fair in the first place? Certainly, the Oscars could never please everybody. No awards show could, by definition. That’s the point.
But the bigger message of these stars and the #OscarsSoWhite tweeters, is that the Oscars could be fairer. They certainly could, but to what end? Would sprinkling some color in the nominees, say Creed’s Michael B. Jordan and/or Chi-raq’s Teyonah Parris (who are both joys to watch) make 2014's Best Supporting Actress Lupita Nyong’o less “disappointed?” Would giving nods to wooden, unpolished performances by the trans actresses of Tangerine satisfy people sufficiently? Is the gesture of representation more important than its fruits?
While fixing the Academy may on its face seem like an achievable task, the system it upholds will always be prone to disparity and corruption. It will always yield disappointment. It will always be fundamentally silly to hand trophies to people whose careers reward them routinely with more useful tools like wealth and fame and a platform for self-expression in front of a global audience. The only way to enjoy the ceremony at all, in my experience, is to not take it seriously, to laugh at and not with.
If you have hope in this situation improving, look no further than the anonymously sourced New York Times report from last night regarding the proposed changes to the Oscars. Potential changes include making the number of Best Picture nominees a firm 10, and even “open[ing] the acting categories to a larger group of nominees, say, eight or even 10.” That seems to imply that the Top 5 actors in any given category would, of course, be mostly white and only by lowering the standards for excellence could diversity be achieved. That’s appalling. The problem isn’t the number of nominees, it’s the system’s entire underlying mindset.
Instead of attempting to fix a broken method of evaluating artists’ worth, I wish more people abandoned all investment in the Oscars’ importance. If you do enjoy them, enjoy them for what they are: ornamental nonsense. I wish more people thought like Spanish director Luis Buñuel, who famously said, regarding his Best Foreign Language Film nomination for 1970's Tristana, “Nothing would disgust me more morally than winning an Oscar. Nothing in the world would make me accept it. I wouldn’t have it in my home.” Buñuel was an early member of the surrealist movement, whose “real purpose,” he explained in his 1983 memoir My Last Sigh, “was not to create a new literary, artistic, or even philosophical movement, but to explode the social order, to transform life itself.”
Buñuel didn’t win for Tristana, but he was nominated a few years later for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. A few weeks before the ceremony, he sarcastically claimed to a reporter that he would win because he paid $25,000 to win the award. His prediction turned out to be true “ironically,” he wrote—ironic not because of the movie’s quality (it’s brilliant and daring, an Oscar winner that actually deserved the designation) but because of his seemingly self-defeating prank. Buñuel did not attend the ceremony to pick up his trophy. Of course he didn’t. He had better things to do.
[Image by Jim Cooke]