Wednesday, January 20, 2016

that's what makes us americans

Robin Thede made a point I liked last night on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore; she said, referring to black people of course, "You can't say in one breath how proud we are when Hale and Mo'Nique and Denzel and all those people win but then when we're not in there say that we don't care."

On the one hand, I agree, it's a little two-faced. On the other hand, they should care all the time. And, so should we. So should everybody. As I said yesterday, the racial makeup and the racial prejudices in the Oscar nominations and the Academy membership do matter. Mary McNamara explains it well--and this was why I didn't get into critiquing her yesterday. She writes in the Los Angeles Times:

...a growing chorus wants to know why anyone really cares. With all the troubles in the world, do we really need to worry that a bunch of relatively rich and privileged filmmakers are mad that their movies didn't get an Oscar nomination?

So what if the nominees for Academy Awards continue to be overwhelmingly male and white; professional basketball is overwhelmingly male and black. What does it matter?

Well, it matters because film is art, and art matters.

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, the images we choose to create and share reveal who we are--our hopes, our fears, our secrets, strengths and shortcomings.

When we praise and reward certain stories or images, whether by big box office or gold statuary, we reveal what we as a society value, the kinds of people we find interesting, the characteristics we revere and revile. We show the paths we hope to choose or avoid and the lessons we have learned, or not learned, from history.

#OscarsSoWhite matters because there is reason for one portion of our society to think that people like them are being dismissed, automatically relegated to the bottom of the ballot, if they are put on the ballot at all. And not just when it comes to nominating actors or filmmakers for awards. Metaphorically, it's the same treatment they feel on the streets, in workplaces, everywhere.

#OscarsSoWhite matters because we--you know, the WASPy Americans who have consistently held the positions of power since long before this was a country--recognize those most like us first. It is natural. Unfortunately, the world in which we live is not one where everyone around us is like us. Some would lament this. I do not. I feel, we are better off for having differing people and types of people around us, whether it is those of different races than our own, different ethnic or national backgrounds, different religious upbringings, people from different neighborhoods, people from different states, and they might as well be from different worlds the way we relate between us sometimes. One side angry because the other doesn't see them. The other angry because that side is angry. And, all too often it comes to violence. But, it doesn't have to go so far to matter. It doesn't have to involve the loss of life or limb to mean something.

#OscarsSoWhite and #BlackLivesMatter are echoes of one another, two sides of a coin that has far too many sides.

It just became oddly appropriate that I have a screener of Bridge of Spies playing as I write this because what it seems like we have sometimes in this country is a Cold War between (to simplify terms) the races. Black versus white. White versus black. The Cold War turns into a Hot War sometimes. Ask Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Michael Brown, Natasha McKenna, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Oscar Grant, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, Emmett Till, and so many more.

Too many more.

Not to mention all the times we cross the street to not walk past a suspicious character because his skin is dark. The times we pulls our shopping bags closer in the mall food court because a black family is sitting at the next table. And, I could go on. I could go on to ridiculous lengths, describe every damn instance where we act differently because of the colour of the skin of the person nearby.

Years of slavery created a nearly intractable system of economic disparity. So, white people, on average rose. Black people, on average, got left behind. But, the Protestant Work Ethic tells us--and we Americans love ourselves some Protestant Work Ethic, even if we have never heard of it by name--that being poor is the fault of the individual failing to, well, try hard enough. Poor means lazy. Poor means criminal. And, we set up people of colour to be poor. Then, we blame them when they cannot manage to rise to the standards we decide are appropriate.

If you allow people to be badly brought up and their habits to be corrupted little by little from childhood, and if you then punish them for crimes to which their early training has disposed them, what else is this, I ask, but first making them thieves and then punishing them for it? (Thomas More, Utopia)

That we promote white films over black films is not the problem but a symptom of the problem. That we vote for white actors over black actors is not the problem but a symptom of the problem.

The problem is far larger.

But, I am hopeful in this instance because, as McNamara says, film is art. Art can inspire. Art can change the world. If the Academy can change its membership and be more inclusive--and really, I think recent years have proven that this trajectory is already in place--and Hollywood can follow the same trajectory and make more films that are not just, as McNamara simplified it in her previous piece--"white men facing adversity"--maybe more of us will see these films, more of us will start to empathize with more people that are not like us.

Blasco and Moreto (2012) demonstrate that movies fuel empathy. And, I believe it. I've felt it. I've lived it. To identify with all of the various characters of the various films I have seen, I have had to... I almost said that I became someone closer to them. But, that is both entirely false and entirely true. I have argued before in this blog that every film, every viewing, changes who you are, who I am. But, the optimist in me would like to assume that the better you (or me) that awaits on the other side of a good film... or a bad film, was there all along, like Flik's rock in A Bug's Life, just waiting to become a tree. To mix several metaphors.

There will be more on this topic tomorrow, and I will stay with the Academy through the coming weekend (future readers, today is Wednesday), but the short of it for now is this: boycotting the Oscar broadcast will not do much. The time to act is this summer when the Academy moves to invite new members. It has been inviting a diverse crowd each year of late, but the numbers need to be higher. As Tom O'Neil at Gold Derby points out, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (they hand out the primetime Emmy Awards) has some 16,000 members. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (they do the Grammy Awards) have some 20,000. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences only has about 6261 members. Flooding the Academy with new members would overhaul an aging organization and make it more relevant to a world that has changed faster than it has.

1 comment:

  1. It's a big deal in Ireland when Irish actors or directors win Oscars. So I can understand the African American community, and other minorities, feeling excluded. For better or worse this sort of recognition is important. I hope the campaign is successful.

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