The Destructive, Useful, Unethical Presumption of Bigotry, Part 2: The Oscar “Snub”


For the second time in nearly two decades, and for the first time since 1998, the Oscars will be awarded to only white acting nominees. This, then, if you listen to the caterwauling race-baiters, is because Hollywood is racist. The Academy’s voters just hid it well since 1998, that’s all. Does that make any sense to you?

There are few more infuriating and transparently illogical examples of an unfair slapping down of the race card than looking for bigotry in the notoriously arbitrary, bias-soaked, essentially meaningless choices for “best” in the various Academy Award movie-making categories. Yet the race card sharks were up to the task.  Naturally, the authority on the subject was Al Sharpton, he whose own performance quality on his MSNBC TV show is so amateurish that it would be shut out in any community theater awards.

“In the time of Staten Island and Ferguson, to have one of the most shutout Oscar nights in recent memory is something that is incongruous,” Sharpton told The Daily News. Wait, what??? Incongruous is the assertion that the nominations for film-making excellence should be influenced in any way by how many blacks are killed resisting arrest. Anyone who finds that to be a logical argument for why more black actors should have been nominated for Oscars is useless to any rational discussion of the issue. I want a show of hands.

The significance of the lack of blacks among the Oscar acting nominations is exactly the opposite of how it is being represented. It is emphatic proof that the voting isn’t rigged, and that as stupid as the nominations and awards so often are, they are at least honestly stupid. Does anyone really buy the argument that the same Academy that rolled over like a dying whale when it was told that “it was time” to give the Best Picture award to “12 Years A Slave” last year suddenly turned into a white supremacy group 12 months later? It’s largely the same old, rich, white-guilt-ridden, Democratic, pompous, Obama-supporting group of under-educated knee jerk liberals that have run Hollywood for decades. Is it logical that the same people that gave “Captain Phillips” supporting actor Barkhad Abdi an Academy Award for convincingly portraying a Somali man (he is a Somali man, and one who had never acted professionally in his life) while stiffing Tom Hanks, who not only left it all out on the set in his wrenching portrayal of Phillips, but also dared to play an icon like Walt Disney last year and pulled it off, became suddenly insensitive to diversity a year later? That was the epitome of  throwing a minority group a bone and disrespecting the Academy’s own membership to do it. No, I don’t believe Abdi gave anything close to a great performance; I believe a skilled director made an amateur look good playing the one role he could possibly play.

The Academy usually uses the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories to pick up cheap nods of approval from the diversity crowd, choosing to ignore the undeniable fact that affirmative action has no place in any awards system supposedly based on merit, no matter how unreliable. Those categories are typically stuffed with foreign stars, multiple races and nationalities, those with disabilities, dwarfs, ancient stars of yesteryear—honestly, was Gloria Stuart’s bit role in “Titanic” not a turn that anyone from Betty White to my grandmother could have done equally well?—and children. The typical group of nominees in the supporting categories  look like the cantina scene from “Star Wars.” Just once it contains conventional choices, and the EEOC bean-counters cry foul. How silly. How insulting.

Further proof that this was accidental and random and not racist is the fact that Tinseltown voters aren’t complete slugs. They know that assuming racism based purely on the colors of participants has been the theme of 2014’s Democratic politics, Obama Administration rhetoric and pundit smears. A white politician criticizes a black President’s failed policies? That makes him racist. A white cop shoots a black kid who’s charging him, or causes an obese middle aged black man resisting arrest to have a fatal reaction to an excessively violent arrest: it’s presumptively racist. Snubbing the white guy who played Captain Phillips: hey, it happens. You know how awards are. Not nominating the guy who played Martin Luther King in “Selma”? Well, what do you expect from an Academy that’s 90% white? The Academy also knew that the Sony hacks revealed studio execs making racially insensitive jokes. If they were going to pick the year to let their racist proclivities out of the bag, this was definitely a strange year to choose for the honor.

This tendency to presume racism here is more than absurd; it’s harmful. African Americans believe it, a lot of them anyway. Thus they will believe that any time they don’t get a job when they were interviewed by a white potential employer, it’s because of racism. Any time they don’t get a bonus from a white supervisor, it’s not because their performance wasn’t good enough, it’s because they were discriminated against. Look at the Oscars!

OK, let’s look at the Oscars:

There’s are good reasons the Academy is overwhelmingly white, and racism isn’t one of them:

1. Hollywood was created by Jews, and the industry is still disproportionately Jewish. I would love to see the proportion of Oscar acting nominations and awards that have gone to Jews, not that the public usually knows, or cares for that matter. Why is this? It’s culture, that’s all. Some cultures have a special affinity for the performing arts; some for business. The Jewish culture has both.

2. Do you want to know another minority that is grossly “over-represented” among Oscar winners? Gay men. I guarantee it.

3. Most movie actors come from theater, and live theater is a white thing. Broadway audiences are about 98% white. Regional theater audiences are almost entirely white (also mostly old.) Because of the persistent income disparities between whites and minorities, economics makes live theater patronage difficult or impossible for the average non-white family (and nearly impossible for white families too.) My biggest competition in Northern Virginia is a regional theater that charges over 80 bucks a seat. Its audience is lily white.

4. Lilly white audiences mean a predominance of lily white plays. Less than 10% of plays are written by black playwrights, which means that less than 10% of plays are about blacks. One reason for this: black audiences are difficult to attract to white theaters, and black theaters have a hard time surviving.

5. If your family doesn’t see plays when you are a child, the chances are that you are not going to develop a passion to be in them.

6. For the blacks who do develop an interest in acting and have a talent for it, there’s a myriad of problems white actors don’t face.  I’ve mentioned the dearth of roles and vehicles, but the worst impediment is money. Acting is a profession for rich kids, people with trust funds and adults with sugar daddies (or mommies) or wealthy spouses. Most theater is non-Equity, which means the pay is impossible to live on (and Equity rates are hardly a gravy train). For economic reasons, good black actors tend to unionize, which then places them at a competitive disadvantage with equally talented white performers who just like to act and don’t have to worry so much about the pay scale. This hurts a lot. A play with an all-black cast will cost five times or more the acting fees of an all-white one, if the theater isn’t an AEA member, and in communities like mine, Washington D.C., most companies are not.

7. All of these factors add up to significant impediments to the development of a substantial black acting pool, and it affects Hollywood casts, and, by extensions, the awards.

Of course, all would have blown over if only “Selma” had received the expected number of nominations. There is no reason, however, why Selma’s small number of nominations should be attributed to racism when favorite films of the public and critics have been ignored by Oscar voters literally since the awards began. Ah, but if the disappointed artists involved are black, we know its because of racism, right?

Come on.

In particular, the diversity crowd is outraged that “Selma” director Ava DuVernay didn’t get a nomination, which would have made her the first African American woman to be nominated for Best Director. Some points on this controversy:

  • This is the “it’s time” argument again. You know when it’s time to nominate the first of anything? When that individual earns the nomination on merit, and not based on diversity, or the fact that “it’s time.” Any other rationale diminishes the legitimacy and the integrity of the awards. One African American actor—I’m not bothering with his name because the suggestion doesn’t deserve that degree of respect—actually suggested that there need to be racial and gender quotas, since Hollywood is too bigoted to award fairly. Again, this is such a logically and ethically flawed position that I marvel at anyone’s ability to hold it. The reason the Oscars have value is because they are supposedly a measure of artistic worth. Once they become something else, like a mandated acknowledgement based on politically expedient racial and ethnic categories, they have no value.
  • The current conspiracy theory is that white voters “got back” at DuVernay because she intentionally misrepresented a powerful white man (Lyndon Johnson) as an impediment to the Voting Rights Act rather than Martin Luther King’s indispensable and supportive ally. [Go here to find out how fair that portrayal is.] This has really inspired some pundits to soaring rants…here’s The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon:

The most infuriating explanation was that attacks against Selma’s historical accuracy hurt it. In recent weeks, the film has suffered a bit of backlash from a segment of predominantly white liberals loyal to the legacy of President Lyndon Johnson who were none too pleased with the film’s portrayal of his reluctance to help Dr. Martin Luther King and seeming lack of empathy to the voting rights of blacks. …But the backlash against Selma for its apparent historical inaccuracies, and the idea that they’re the reason DuVernay and Oyelowo were snubbed, is hypocritical bullshit especially when the likes of The Imitation Game and especially American Sniper—two films with accuracy issues of their own—were showered with nominations Thursday morning.

Somebody please explain to this guy the crucial difference between fictionalizing a story based on real events, and recklessly misrepresenting important historical events and individuals. The massaging of events in “Argo” doesn’t matter—the audience wouldn’t have known about the story at all without the movie. The use of two fictional FBI agents as composite heroes in “Mississippi Burning” doesn’t matter, because the characters are openly fictional. The misrepresentation of American patriots like John Dickinson and Charles Wilson in “1776” matters a little, but it’s a musical, for heaven’s sake: if you can’t figure out that if the Founders are singing the Declaration of Independence, the rest is probably unreliable too, you’re beyond help.

The fake conspiracy theories supposedly validated in Oliver Stone’s “JFK” do matter, because they are presented as factual, they are lies, and because they warp the public’s trust and understanding. Similarly,  “Selma’s” deliberate misrepresentation of an American President’s courageous efforts to make a major civil rights advance that all the marches in the world couldn’t have achieved without him are not “apparent historical inaccuracies” as Fallon dishonestly terms them. The portrayal was divisive, designed to tear down Johnson in order to burnish King, and irresponsible. That would have been enough to lose my vote. Others who don’t care about entertainment making the public ignorant about their country and the history of civil rights are welcome to feel otherwise.

  • It looks as if this episode may be a classic example of Hanlon’s Razor: “Don’t assume malice as an explanation when incompetence will suffice.”

From Variety:

“When the DGA Awards nominations Tuesday failed to include “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, Twitter talk ascribed the omission to possible racism or sexism. But within the industry, Paramount’s gamble to send “Selma” DVD screeners to Oscar and [British] BAFTA voters, but not to the guilds, was believed to be a major factor…

“This was not a ‘strategy ‘; it’s what we were able to do with this movie within the timeline of when it was finalized and received,” said Paramount’s longtime awards consultant, Lea Yardum. Studio reps bristle at the suggestion they dropped the ball or aren’t supporting it: “We love this movie, and we’re supporting it with every ounce of our beings,” said Yardum.

DuVernay delivered “Selma” on Nov. 26, and screeners were sent to BAFTA and AMPAS [Oscar] voters Dec. 18, after Paramount paid a premium for sped-up service, since it usually takes up to six weeks to prep DVDs for voters.

Because of the DVD timetable, Paramount  focused on screenings for voters in New York and L.A. The screener issue was underlined when “Selma” was a surprise no-show in Producers Guild nominations.

The movie opened in a limited run Dec. 25, widening Jan. 9. Other Christmas debuts, including “American Sniper,” did send screeners in time, but the prints were ready earlier, sources confirm….

Sources said there were other factors in the decision. Many voters give their workplace address for packages, to protect their privacy; since many businesses had closed down on Dec. 17, Par execs wondered if they would reach enough voters. The second factor was whether the cost of shipping to guild voters in the middle of voting would pay off, since there was no guarantee recipients would watch the “Selma” screener — or vote for it. In fact, BAFTA gave the film zero nominations, though voters were sent the screeners.

Got that? A likely reason that “Selma” didn’t get the nominations it expected was that many voters probably hadn’t seen the movie, because the screeners arrived so late. They voted for it for Best Picture anyway, though.


13 thoughts on “The Destructive, Useful, Unethical Presumption of Bigotry, Part 2: The Oscar “Snub”

  1. I haven’t seen Selma, yet. Why ever did she have to make Johnson a villain, or at least not a civil rights supporter? Was she just too pissed off about Vietnam? Has anyone read anything about her justification for this? Heck, I didn’t even like the liberties they took with The Lord of the Rings. But to take such liberties with historical fact — as they did in Lincoln — just pisses ME off. Partly because I wasn’t looking for things to be “made up.” If I had been when I saw Lincoln, I would have gone to see Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter instead.

    If the African American community wants to be offended by awards shows, which have about as much to do with reality as Abe killing vampires, I keep wondering why they and we keep avoiding trying to fix the real problems that affect American society at the ethnic/racial level.

    • “The script was the LBJ/King thing, but originally, it was much more slanted to Johnson. I wasn’t interested in making a White-savior movie…”

      Imagine the reaction if a white director who slanted the story against King had said “I wasn’t interested in making a Black-savior movie”

      In other quotes, she’s made the nauseating “this is our truth you can have your truth” statements. Yechh. To hell with her.

  2. Complaining about not enough black people getting Oscars is like complaining about a restaraunt not hiring enough cute ginger waitresses. I mean, for fuck’s sake!

  3. If the 1st step towards color blind systems is being comfortable with Black actors winning awards that were rightfully earned, then the 2nd step is certainly being comfortable with Black actors not winning awards when they weren’t rightfully earned.

  4. I saw some commentators from Screen Junkies talking about the awards, one of them said something akin to “We missed a Golden Opportunity to nominate a black female director.” and the other guy was “Fuck that, either the movie was great or it wasn’t, this one wasn’t. You wanna know what I think the biggest snub was? Lego Movie for animated picture.”

    Some people get it.

  5. “One African American actor—I’m not bothering with his name because the suggestion doesn’t deserve that degree of respect—actually suggested that there need to be racial and gender quotas, since Hollywood is too bigoted to award fairly. Again, this is such a logically and ethically flawed position that I marvel at anyone’s ability to hold it.”

    IF this is how the rest of society works, why would anyone think the Oscars should be different? From entrance to good colleges to getting jobs after college to promotions and so on race and gender quotas have been established (in hard or soft form). This is the same thinking that is behind California’s school anti-discipline bill. Rejecting such quotas outright is considered a bigoted opinion and is banned in many schools as hate speech. The race and gender quota idea is so entrenched in education indoctrination and Democratic politics that it is not surprising at all that a large number of people would think that the entire world should work that way. Don’t you think several members of the Supreme Court think this way?

  6. I’m pretty sure I’ve already done this rant…but the Oscars are not really an attempt to award the best of filmmaking, acting, whatever. That’s how they present themselves, but it’s the thinnest of veneers.

    The Oscars are a promotion by major studios to sell second-tier movies (second-tier as far as profitability, not quality.) They are no different than when McDonald’s decides to spend a month focusing on advertising their breakfasts.

    Blockbuster, CGI-filled sequels and remakes are already going to make a capillion dollars at the box office, mostly in the Summer. Awards season is where the studios dump less lucrative projects, aka “Oscar-bait” films…and the accompanying awards buzz provides free publicity for said films. A few of those Oscar-bait films catch fire and make blockbuster money, and the rest, at least, get some kind of boost by association. It’s a profit-maximizing scheme, a giant commercial, and we all get to watch!

    Once you realize this, everything about the ludicrous, months-long “awards season” (encompassing DOZENS of different awards shows) makes perfect sense.

    -Moving the Oscars further into the Spring makes sense, because the Holidays have evolved into a second blockbuster season and the studios want to maximize profits all year by hyping the Oscar-bait films at whatever time of year is the most dead.

    -Remember when people complained that The Dark Knight didn’t get a nomination? They “fixed it” by expanding the Best Picture category…a fix that allows them to include the occasional big-money movie when necessary, but without reducing the number of Oscar-bait films that are obligated to get some shine.

    -Now it makes sense why Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was nominated for Best Picture, despite being one of the year’s worst films. It was made and destined to be Oscar bait, and Lord knows what kind of backroom deals (or just mutual understanding) made it possible for the nomination to still happen after it became clear that the movie was crap.

    -Oscar-bait films have smaller budgets, so bankrolling a bunch of them and then shining the awards-show spotlight on them can be as good an investment as making a Twilight movie. Even if only a couple of your low-budget films end up making 50 million dollars…that’s mostly profit.

    In light of all that, my cynical take on “Selma” is that the studio decided that it was going to make oodles of money without needing Oscar noms, due to the MLK holiday, black audiences, school field trips, etc. So they prioritized other films. It’s not like the Academy is some meritocracy where the cream is going to rise to the top (I say that not knowing if Selma is really that good, but still.) And I suspect that they are loving the controversy anyway, if it gets people talking about the Oscars as if they are legitimate awards, and talking about movies in general.

    • “-Oscar-bait films have smaller budgets, so bankrolling a bunch of them and then shining the awards-show spotlight on them can be as good an investment as making a Twilight movie. Even if only a couple of your low-budget films end up making 50 million dollars…that’s mostly profit.”

      I wonder if the principles from Moneyball, Sabrmetrics I think, could be analogized to another set of rules governing the best way to game the actors and stories you run in a given a year…

      That perhaps the biggest name actors with the biggest budget CGI movies are actually less profitable than a hand full of lesser stars spread across several stories?

  7. All of your points are well taken, but I’m writing especially here about “Selma” and its treatment of LBJ. ANYONE who knows ANYTHING about that time and LBJ’s presidency knows for a fact that without LBJ the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would never have even come to a vote. LBJ was known for having about a dozen phones on his desk, and he personally called Congressmen and others in his Administration all the time about civil rights and the war in Viet Nam. (When NPR started playing the tapes of his conversations about Viet Nam it was new history: his concern for US soldiers was heartbreaking, his conflicted attitude about how to run the war… it’s all there, and it humanizes him. History will be kinder to LBJ on Viet Nam… eventually.)

    But regarding the Voting Rights & Civil Rights Acts of 1965, the real history has NOT been hidden: anyone who lived through that period, anyone who has read anything about that period, knows absolutely that LBJ twisted arms, threatened, cajoled, and demanded that Congress pass those laws. Absent LBJ (if JFK were still in the White House, or worse, Nixon, e.g.) those laws would never have been passed. They are the great legacies of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and anyone who purports to tell a part of the history of the civil rights movement and PURPOSEFULLY demeans LBJ while doing it deserves no award. Indeed, such person deserves nothing but contempt.

    I do not imagine for a minute that the absence of a best director nomination had anything to do with Academy members’ understanding or knowledge of what this film did to LBJ, and how unfair it was. It probably WAS just that they got their DVDs late. After all, Hollywood is not known for its collective acumen, power of analysis, knowledge of history, or high IQ.

    Anyone using the race card on this non-nomination — regardless of who got what when — is a charlatan, period. And we’re just full up with ’em.

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