As always, the Oscars telecast will be one of television’s great spectacles. Too much attention will given to what actresses are wearing, to how Jennifer Aniston will be breathing the same air as Brangelina, and to whether or not Neil Patrick Harris lives up to the absurd expectations we set for emcees. (No NPH, you can’t top Ellen’s selfie. Don’t even try.)
What we won’t discuss – at least not for any longer than we need to – is the incredibly flawed system (and Academy) that determines the so-called best movies, performances of a given year.
Every year the Oscars nominations incite people and this year that has anger resonated more than anyone could have predicted. The lack of recognition for Selma, its director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo is deeply wrong, damaging and glaringly political. Equally disheartening are the overwhelming number of nominations for white men for the movies they made about white men, their lives and their problems.
Welcome to Hollywood.
As someone who cares far too much about an awards show where the results are determined by middle-aged white guys, I was not surprised by the 2015 Oscar nominees. It only added to my feeling of disappointment in the film industry that has left me bogged down for a while now.
I’ve spent the past month processing why I am so disappointed by the current Oscar nominees and with Hollywood. While I am genuinely glad about some nominees (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Julianne Moore), I don’t particularly care about the majority of films the Academy has singled out as the best of 2014 (The Theory of Everything, Boyhood, American Sniper). My frustrations have been building over the past several years when I could not be bothered to care about movies such as Avatar, Argo or The King’s Speech.
Why, after so many years of obsessing and loving this stupid awards show, do I kind of hate the Oscars right now?
My answer to that question began to fall into place for me after one incident.
In early January, my dad complained to me about Selma. He was angry about the allegedly inaccurate portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. Because of these inaccuracies, my dad refuses to see Selma, one of 2014’s most significant movies. I ignored my dad’s view about Selma because it is a ridiculous complaint that follows every movie based on a true story. Since our initial argument, my father and I have been engaged in an intense back and forth, sometimes yelling, sometimes sharing with each other article after article about the debate surrounding Selma.
At a certain point, I realized my dad’s opinion about a movie he would never see wouldn’t change so I was prepared to give up on the fight. Until my dad countered Wesley Morris’ review of Selma by emailing me Maureen Dowd’s January 17 column, which is easily the most problematic piece I’ve read about Selma. (He also called Dowd “my girl Maureen Dowd,” implying she is the columnist I turn to for meaningful culture critiques.) The backlash surrounding Selma has very little to do with faulting a movie over its creative liberties. It is about a specific demographic perceiving that their history has been misrepresented. (Gosh. That must suck.)
Too many people view cinema through a “clueless white gaze” – it is, unfortunately, how we are conditioned to see movies and to some extent, how we are conditioned to create movies so that they can be sold to mass audiences. Selma dismantles the white gaze, making audiences aware of what the film industry could be if more unrepresented voices can make movies.
But the anger surrounding Selma’s snubs (and my debate with my father) only scratches the surface of the much larger problem with the Oscars.
The Oscar nominations always come down to politics – who has the best campaign, who has the strongest studio support, which actor has the best surrogates while they build their acting cred on Broadway. You don’t need me to tell you that the Academy Awards is a constant parade of white guys jerking each other off.
I am not frustrated with the Oscars simply because the movies I like don’t get nominated. I am not frustrated simply because industry politics impacted the reception of Selma or that not enough women aren’t nominated.
My frustrations with the Oscars became amplified sometime around 2010, the year the Best Picture nominees increased from 5 to 10. Since then I have cared little for the majority of the Best Picture nominees. Why? Because as more films are recognized, the more redundant everything feels. Even if the nominated movies have nothing in common, the stories being sold to me as the best Hollywood can offer revolve around white men. And that’s boring.
Increasing the number of Best Picture nominees has allowed for some unlikely nominees over the years, but it also exposes the flawed system behind the Academy. It is not that the system was a secret; it was just easier to mask.
The Oscars telecast itself has become more about shielding the realities of a deeply problematic awards show and industry from the public than actually about the year’s best cinema.
Of course, I will watch the Oscars tonight. I will get excited about the outlandish moments. I will tweet snarky things. I will be thrilled with Julianne Moore finally wins an Oscar. And I will hold my breath because as soon as the show ends, an endless stream of criticisms will roll out across the Internet. Everyone will voice what was good and bad about the telecast. Tumblr will provide the gifs. Someone will inevitably post a list about what can be done better next year and how the Academy can improve.
Then nothing will happen because Hollywood – and even how we write about the industry – is trapped in a cycle.
We’re already planning the 88th Academy Awards before Neil Patrick Harris even cracks his first joke tonight. We’re already trying to predict what movies will be nominated next year. We’re already mentally preparing ourselves for the moment in January 2016 when not enough women and minorities receive the nominations we know they deserve.
Perhaps what we can take from all of this is that people talk about Oscar snubs far longer than they talk about Oscar winners. Every debate that has surrounded Selma and the 2015 Oscars can (and should) finally push people to demand change from an industry that routinely limits itself in favor of playing it safe.