There’s a difference between a Great Film and an OK Movie. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences strives to honor the prior. Even though “Greatness” is subjective, and Oscars often go to films that may not represent the absolute best, the Academy Awards remain the high watermark for cinematic accolades.
Every few years a controversy about a lack of African-American nominees arises. Sometimes it’s warranted, sometimes it’s not. Last year’s omission of Ava DuVernay from the Best Director nominees renewed the controversy. It continues this year with the omission of Straight Outta Compton from the Best Picture nominees, culminating in Oscar ceremony boycotts and the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag protesting the lack of diversity.
Disclaimer: I’m an American white male. It’s an unspoken rule that I’m not supposed to be talking about this. With this brand of controversy, I’m supposed to just shut up and say, “Yeah, that really sucks.” But, the thing is, the controversy is misguided. You can take what I’m about to say and twist it into something about race, accuse me of unconscious bigotry, or in some way choose to wave a sanctimonious flag about how I shouldn’t be saying this. But, as an artist and an appreciator of cinema, I watch films objectively and apply my own standards.
Here are a few examples of justified controversy: 1) In 2014, Dear White People got no attention from the Oscars -- even though it was the best American satire since Network. 2) In 1992, John Singleton became the youngest and first ever African-American nominated for Best Director, but his film Boyz n the Hood, got no Best Picture nomination. Instead, one of the five nominees was Disney’s Beauty & the Beast, which is an atrocious oversight. 3) In 1990, Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture, yet Spike Lee’s masterful Do the Right Thing didn’t even get a nomination.
As for unwarranted controversy, this year it’s centered around Straight Outta Compton. Is it a Great Film? No, it isn’t. It’s an OK movie. It doesn’t come close to the creativity and effectiveness of Boyz n the Hood or Do the Right Thing, so the controversy is completely unjustified. Straight Outta Compton suffers from an uneven narrative, caricature rather than character, obvious attitudes, tonal flaws, forced emotion, redundant scenes, and a 2 hour and 30 minute runtime. The second scene was so stuffed full of cliche mother/son dialog I found my eyes wandering. With the exception of Jason Mitchell’s performance as Eazy-E, which was wonderful, it was just another movie. The same goes for 2014’s Selma. It was OK, but not great. There were scenes that evoked a powerful response, and in the end I was in tears. But, I attribute that to David Oyelowo’s performance delivering Dr. King’s final speech, not the effectiveness of the narrative. The movie was uneven and had an inconsistent sensibility, thereby removing any supposed controversy over director Ava DuVernay’s omission as a Best Director nominee. Should Oyelowo have been nominated? Yes, 2014 was a solid year for acting, so you could swap him in for any of the other nominees and it would have been deserved.
The same applies to this year’s The Martian. Like Straight Outta Compton and Selma it relies on story concept long after exhaustion, rather than telling the story effectively. If you’re going to make a movie that lasts over 2 hours, you’d better have a good reason. These films do not. Instead, they attempt to trick the viewer with melodrama while clumsily riding their concepts to the end credits. The fact that The Martian has 7 nominations, including Best Picture, and Straight Outta Compton doesn’t, absolutely speaks to a bias amongst voters -- because neither movie deserves accolades. Why would one OK movie receive nominations while the other didn’t?
We often see this occurrence described by bloggers and industry writers as a “snub”. It’s an irresponsible term used as clickbait by substandard journalists without examining the implications of the word itself. Snub implies both conspiracy and lack of dignity amongst the Academy’s voting body. The word alludes to the Academy Awards being doled out by a committee of decision-makers, rather than what it is: a voting process of secret ballots by over 6,000 members. It implies that every voting member has a preference for all-white films. Does the case of Straight Outta Compton vs The Martian indicate a preference for “white” movies or does it indicate a preference for Science Fiction? I don’t know. It would be irresponsible to pontificate. It’s from this sort of question that controversy surfaces.
In an attempt to increase diversity, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, changed Academy membership privileges. Starting in 2016, if an Academy member hasn’t been active in the film industry for the previous ten years they can no longer vote for Oscars. This is, I believe, an attempt not to diversify, per say, but to keep current the cultural outlook and perspective of the voting body. It’s a smart move because every year the Oscars fall under some scrutiny - if not for their lack of diversity, for their lack of recognizing dozens of worthy films.
One such film from this year is Cary Joji Fukanaga’s Beasts of No Nation. It should have been nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Abraham Attah), and Best Supporting Actor (Idris Elba), but received none. In contrast to these oversights, the Independent Spirit Awards saw fit to nominate the film for Best Picture, Director, Male Actor, Supporting Male, and Cinematography. It won both acting awards. In the same night the Indie Spirits gave a Best Supporting Female award to Mya Taylor, a black trans actress, for her work in the movie Tangerine. Did the Academy overlook these films due to their subject matters and primarily black casts? Was Beasts of No Nation overlooked because it was a Netflix Original? It had the required theatrical run to make it eligible. Did they overlook Tangerine because it was shot on an iPhone 5s? It also had the required showings to be eligible for nomination. Does the Academy have a snooty attitude towards non-traditional Hollywood filmmaking? No matter the reason, these omissions speak to the Academy’s dwindling relevance.
We will have to wait to see how things go. There is very early buzz for the Sundance hit Birth of a Nation, a film by a black director, Nate Turner (who also plays the film’s lead), about an 1831 slave revolt. The distribution rights were sold to Fox Searchlight for the largest pricetag in any festival’s history. Fox is holding onto it until next awards season. Is it legitimately a Great Film? For 17.5 million dollars it’d better be. We’ll find out next winter.
But, Selma, Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation, and Birth of a Nation are four films in hundreds. That only four films have gotten attention, by way of quality or controversy, speaks more to the lack of quality “black” films being made than it does to the lack of diversity in Academy voting. The truth is, films with a strong black presence both in front and behind the camera simply aren’t being made at the same rate as movies with a mostly-or-all white cast. Look at it from a math perspective: if 1000 films are made in a given year, at most ten will get a Best Picture nomination. That’s 0.1% of total movies that receive awards recognition, and even in that small percentage the quality is often questionable. If within those 1000 films only 20 films are made with strong African-American representation, the odds of those films being well-made are slim for the sheer fact that making a good film is extremely difficult. Does this put more pressure on African-American filmmakers to stand out? Absolutely. But, to give acclaim and praise to a film simply for getting made is not only counter-productive to the concept of defining a standard of greatness, it is condescending to the filmmakers that made it.