With the pomp and circumstance of the weekend’s Oscar extravaganza quickly fading it’s time for the annual deluge of op-eds and finger wagging about the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards.
The din of outrage over what attributes the winners have (or should have) becomes more intense every year. 2015 marked the year that conversations about minority representation finally drowned out the red carpet scrutiny over who-wore-who. Some colours are simply never as in as others during awards season.
The usual fervor over LGBTI stories and actors took a backseat, however, as people questioned whether or not Hollywood is telling enough black stories and rewarding enough black people in the movie industry.
The trending hashtag #OscarSoWhite continued the real world unrest in the United States sparked by the shooting of Michael Brown and the Black Lives Matter protests throughout the country. The message is clear: people are tired of seeing the establishment pat itself on the back year in, year out.
The numbers don’t lie, prior to Sunday in 87 years and 2,947 statuettes given, only 31 winners have been black. Only 7% of Best Actor winners have ever been black men – a percentage that still holds true into Oscar’s 88th year.
Selma actor David Oyelowo summed up the frustration by saying ‘we as black people have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, for when we are not being leaders or kings or being in the centre of our own narrative driving it forward’.
Gays have a similar problem. Only a small handful of Oscars have ever gone to gay actors. Jodie Foster and Sir Arthur John Gielgud weren’t publicly out when they took home the prize, and low-key newcomer Linda Hunt’s personal life wasn’t a topic of public interest at the time of her 1982 win.
Sir Ian McKellen remains, to this day, the only openly gay man to ever be nominated for Best Actor for 1999’s Gods and Monsters and – surprise – he didn’t win. Like always, representation of LGBTI people of colour remains infinitesimally small.
Oscar’s love for black narratives set in bygone eras full of insurmountable obstacles of prejudice is analogous with the emotional torture porn in mainstream and critical daring gay stories. In order to achieve mainstream critical success a movie with gay themes has to have one of the few pre-set endings pointed out by Emma Teitel of Maclean’s: ‘one of them dies’ or the twofer caveat, ‘sometimes both of them die’. All while being played by straight actors to boot.
While inroads to Oscar gold on behalf of disenfranchised groups have been made in recent years the flaw doesn’t rest with the Academy for honoring the films they like best. It lies with our assumption they should represent us and honor us when as a cursory glance at their demographics show that they aren’t us.
When the mostly white, mostly straight, mostly American, mostly male, Academy rewards movies that centre around white, straight, American male narratives, we shouldn’t be surprised.
The bigger injustice is that we’ve bought the Academy’s line about rewarding excellence in filmmaking without ever thinking about it critically. The Academy’s concept of excellence as a democratic decision boils down to movies they liked. Even for filmmaker folks in the Academy, a movie they like will more often than not be a movie they relate to as white, straight, American men.
Why, exactly, do we so badly want the approval of the people who thought that Forrest Gump was a better movie than Pulp Fiction?
With the myriad of new options that we now have to choose and watch movies there is little wonder the Oscars have becoming synonymous with excluding different kinds of talent rather than promoting it. In recent years we have been able to sample just about everything at low cost, we’ve been able to read Twitter reviews and IMDB scores on the fly and become film aficionados in our spare time.
Perusing the sometimes lacklustre but always brimming collection of LGBT titles on Netflix is enough to wonder if the best gay film of 2014 really is one in which Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t so much as kiss a member of the same sex. To watch a handful of independent movies on your streaming service of choice is to know for sure that the Academy isn’t always right. Between films about a blind Brazilian teenager (pictured) or a murderous French nudist there’s a great chance that the 2014 movie that speaks the most to your human experience might not even be in English.
Because queer cinema (and black cinema, and Asian cinema, and Canadian cinema, and any group underrepresented by the Oscars in any of the ways that they intersect) exists outside of the mainstream, to experience it is often to go without the compass of a major awards ceremony or high profile critics to let us know what’s good and what isn’t.
Because these are often indie movies without budgets for marketing or a space in your local cineplex it often takes a little more work and research to find out what we want to watch.
The beauty of existing outside of the mainstream is that in this sense we get to be our own Academy. We vote with our dollars and choices on Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, independent video stores, or any of the other ways that we can support artistry directly and discover films with strong female protagonists, three-dimensional black characters, and realistic gay romances — all the stuff the Academy doesn’t quite understand.
While perhaps Oscar’s record low ratings may inspire some small changes over the next few years it remains doubtful that the 6,000-plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will suddenly change their definition of excellence to include films they might usually find inaccessible. That’s ok. All we have to do is change our definition of excellence to include films outside of the Oscars.
You can follow Travis Myers on Twitter here.