This is the tag line in the post-Oscar nomination ads being prominently run in New York and California for “12 Years A Slave,” a strong Academy Award contender (nine nominations, including best film).
Although there is room for disagreement, and the ad has the virtue of all clever advertising that it conveys different messages to different markets—Haven’t seen the film yet? “It’s time!” Desperate to see the best movie you saw in 2013 finally get its due? “It’s time!” When will the question of whether the most honored film of the last 12 months will win the biggest honor of them all be answered? “It’s time!”…or almost time, as the Oscar ceremonies are coming up on March 2—the consensus is that “It’s time” is mainly aimed at Oscar voters, and the message it conveys is, as Slate puts it, “it’s time for a movie about slavery, and with a significantly black cast and crew, to be recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.” Film critic Phil Hammond puts it slightly differently:
“The ad not only can be interpreted as shining a light on a very dark period in American history, it also shines a light on the Academy’s fairly dismal record of awarding its top honor to any movie about the black experience. In fact there has been only one Best Picture winner in the 85 years the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been handing out Oscars that even remotely qualifies in this regard. In 1968, In The Heat Of The Night, a murder mystery set against the racial divide in a small Southern town, won Best Picture and four other Oscars just a few days after the assassination of Martin Luther King (the ceremony was even postponed two days out of respect). The votes were in before the King assassination, but it seemed then that “It’s Time” would have been an appropriate way to describe that victory. However, outside of lead actor Sidney Poitier — who also co-starred in another racially themed Best Pic nominee that year, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner — this movie featured a largely white cast, white producer, screenwriter and director (Norman Jewison).”
If so many in the industry are interpreting the ad this way, it is fair to assume that this was at least one of the ad’s objectives, and on the assumption that it was an objective, your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz today is this:
“Is appealing to Oscar voters on this basis fair and ethical?”
I can see strong arguments for each position.
Con: No, this kind of appeal is unethical to its core. It attempts to make Academy voters responsible for rectifying perceived past slights that may not be slights at all, with the goal of making “12 Years A Slave” the beneficiary of industry guilt, not just over the relative scarcity of honors to films made by blacks about the black experience, but over the phenomenon of slavery itself. This is unfair to the other nominated films and artists, whose work should not have to suffer because past films were unfairly passed over. The Academy Awards, in theory, are supposed to recognize film-making excellence, not politics, affirmative action, quotas and reparations for slavery. The campaign, in effect, is cheating. It says that the subject matter of the film makes it deserve an award more than the other films, regardless of craft and art. Was “Schindler’s List” honored because it was time for a movie about the Holocaust to be recognized, or because it was, in the judgment of the voters, the best film of the year? If it was not the latter, then the Oscars have no integrity.
Pro: Sure, it’s ethical, because the Oscars have no integrity and never have pretended to have any. Like all such award shows, they are about publicity and commerce, not objective artistic judgment, which is impossible anyway. The judgments on the awards, every one of them, with a rare exception, are subjective calls based on collective biases on which banana is superior to which apple, pear and pomegranate, or not. Awards are given out because the voters feel bad about botching a previous award that was more deserved, or because a performer is dying, or old, or a pretty average actor who finally turned in a powerful performance that is his last shot at winning anything. Awards are won because the Hollywood establishment agrees with it political message, or because the movie made a lot of money—and they lose because Hollywood doesn’t like the message, or the movie tanks because the public was too dumb or shallow to understand it. Nobody ever put out an ad that said “It’s time” that the Academy awarded a non-honorary Oscar to Cecil B. DeMille, Glenn Close, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, or Alfred Hitchcock, but maybe they should have—the failure of the Academy to single out their performances while giving out honors to inferior artists for inferior work is a disgrace. If it could be said without laughing that the Academy was capable of making an objective assessment of excellence, of course such an appeal would be unethical. But it isn’t. Since the Awards are good at only one thing: pointing at something and saying, “Hey, this is good!”, the argument that’s its time a film about slavery got pointed too is legitimate, and not unfair at all.
By the slightest of margins, I think I fall into the Con camp, not because the approach isn’t justified by the reality of the awards, but because it defies their mythology and the illusion. Hollywood is about fantasy, and the community has agreed to support the fantasy that the Oscars are chosen on the basis of objective excellence, not politics, sentiment, popularity or guilt.
I think Fox’s “It’s time” campaign undermines the Oscars themselves, based on a “It’s for a good cause” rationalization, and thus it is wrong.