MCN Commentary & Analysis

Do You Want To Build A Straw Man?

I like Mark Harris. I respect Mark Harris. I care what Mark Harris thinks.

Unfortunately, Mark Harris has become one of the media’s most aggressive spokeshammers for the “everything is a nail” coalition.

I read his most recent Vanity Fair piece, “Conventional Oscar Wisdom Has an Almost All-White Best-Actress Lineup—For No Reason” with real curiosity.

I seemed to be the only one, a few months back, willing to note that we were looking at a pretty Oscar-So-White kind of season of Academy nominations. Fifteen years ago and until the last few years, I have been one of the few journalists willing to acknowledge that racial prejudice at the Academy was a real thing and that it had a real effect on nominations and wins. I am also one of a very few writers who is willing to suffer the indignation of the Academy for pointing out that the “2020” expanded invitations to women and people of color has failed to add very many black American filmmakers, even with over 3,000 invitations going out in the last five years.

But apparently, that doesn’t keep me from being just another racially insensitive idiot to Mark Harris and others.

He references the Penske-owned Gold Derby as one of the progenitors of the idea that, this season, there are four white women at the top of the Best Actress list of likely Oscar nominees, while four women of color fight it out for the last slot, aka “The Black Slot.”

We just launched our Gurus o’ Gold chart here at MCN and, indeed, we have almost the same Best Actress list.

“This is how a narrative gets entrenched,” Harris writes. “There are those who are in, and those who are fighting to get in, and the implicit notion of a quota—the idea that there is one spot for ‘diversity’—becomes a way of not looking at the performances.”

I absolutely believe that there was “A Black Slot” or “A Slot of Color” in years past. But the most significant change to The Academy and its choices is not the expansion over the last 5 years. It is not a reaction to #OscarSoBlack. It is the expansion to 10 and then, as-many-as-10 Best Picture nominees.

What the Best Picture expansion did, unexpectedly, was to pull away many of the constructs that were demonstrably part of Academy voting in the past. The most significant of these broken constructs is financial. The theatrical gross of movies stopped being a blockade to nomination and even to wins. With this, a wider array of titles got in… and with that, a wider array of other nominees in top categories, like Actress.

There have only been five women-of-color nominated for Best Actress in the last decade. Sidibe, Davis, Wallis, Negga and Aparicio… Three of whom were first-time movie actors. For Negga, it was her film breakout year. Davis was the only established Oscar player, already nominated for Supporting Actress (an award she won on her second nomination).

Supporting Actress has a better track record, with twelve nominees of color in the last ten Oscar outings. Still, half of those were for breakout or first-time performances as well.

That’s 17% penetration by women of color in the two female acting categories.

Meh. Not good enough.

I agree with Mark on that level, for sure. In terms of population, double that, or 33.3% is the floor for where these numbers should be.

But the question remains—and is at the core of the Harris screed—why are we in this place? Is it old white men in the Academy? Old white women? Journalists who box up the season into a horse race and don’t take performers of color seriously?

Or… maybe… are there not enough films with enough support in the community that is almost always the conduit to Oscar nominations made starring women of color and are not comedies, horror films or musicals?

BING! BING! BING!

The four white actresses who top the charts this season are in heavily promoted films. Two established their positions back in Venice and Telluride. One is an Oscar winner making a comeback in a stunt performance as Judy Garland. And the other is an actress whose stature keeps rising and may well get two nominations this season. The other two are late entries, but both are multiple Oscar nominees, and one of them has an Oscar and is a producer of the film for which she is being touted.

The four actresses of color that Harris feels are marginalized by the media, leading to marginalization by Academy voters, are in movies that are marginal for multiple reasons. Sorry. Just what it is.

Cynthia Erivo has a lot of support (as she did last year)… but Harriet is not a great film, even if Tubman is an important American hero, and while $35 million domestic is okay, it’s not a breakthrough.

Awkwafina is a well-liked comedic actress in a dramedy, The Farewell, that grossed $18 million and has been embraced more by media than by the public and was released in July, which is not a great Oscar launch position.

Alfre Woodard stars in Clemency, which has yet to be ben released. So while I am a true Alfre Woodard fan, going back to Cross Creek 26 years ago, the only position she has in this season has been created by the media. No one else has seen the movie.

Lupita Nyong’o is an Oscar winner, but her excellent performance is in a horror movie, Us. And although Universal supported Get Out into the Oscar race in a big way, that doesn’t mean that horror movies— even deep ones—are to be suddenly expected to garner Oscar nominations aplenty.

If you want to know the ugly story of this season and Best Actress, it is that there are so few strong parts for women in leads that one of these marginal movies is likely to produce a nomination. Among the actresses whose films failed to connect—and would likely leap ahead of any of the “Marginalized Four” if they had—are Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman, Kristen Stewart, Naomi Watts, Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, Emma Thompson, Felicity Jones and women of color Jodie Turner-Smith and Mindy Kaling. Still floating, though unlikely to grab a nod, are Elisabeth Moss and Florence Pugh (who is seen as a strong contender for Supporting Actress).

The four actresses of color who are presently seen as “in the running for the last slot” are there because of the media as much as for their own excellent work. But the “last slot” has nothing to do with marginalizing them by race. It is a win for every one of them to still be getting serious media attention as potential nominees. And it has nothing to do with their race, gender or performances.

If the Oscar writers were all talking about, say, Felicity Jones in one of the Oscar slots and these four actresses of color were consistently 6-9, then I would agree with Harris that something bad was happening… because I think it was pretty clear since Telluride/Toronto that The Aeronauts, starring two wonderful actors who are also wonderful human beings, was not really going to fly. Likewise, Streep in The Laundromat.

But that isn’t what is happening.

The reason is that an unusual pile-up of actresses of color is hanging around the five-to-eight slots of Best Actress, and journalists like these performances more than all the other also-rans, as well feeling energy in the industry around movies like A24’s The Farewell. Journalists are rooting for Lupita Nyong’o to score again. A generation grew up enamored of Alfre Woodard. And as noted before, Cynthia Erivo got touted for a long time for the mediocre flop, Bad Times at the El Royale, and for her small, powerful turn in Widows, which got no Oscar nominations, even with the pedigree of the deeply respected Steve McQueen and Viola Davis.

I am sorry that some idiot in New York is still living in 2002 and exposed his stupidity to Mark, who wrote, “The rationales I’ve heard are fairly grim. There’s the ‘They’ll all cancel one another out’ argument, which really needs to be permanently retired, since it’s premised on a horrific underlying assumption that blackness is such a salient characteristic that choosing more than one of those actors, who give performances that could not possibly be more different, would represent a kind of redundancy in the minds of many voters.”

There will be people on the fringe who never change. And anyone still making this argument is living in the past. I haven’t heard this from anyone, including old white people, in years.

Harris makes the argument that Nyong’o in Us = Kaluuya in Get Out, but no one is making a serious Best Picture argument for Us and I doubt Kaluuya gets a nomination without Get Out being a heavily-promoted Best Picture contender.

Harris also compares Erivo in Harriet to Zellweger in Judy, which is an absurd Oscar comparison on its face. Judy Garland is Oscar bait well before you see the film. And Zellweger is an Oscar winner who dropped out for a long time and is making a comeback. Erivo has made three films and is playing a historic hero, not a beloved Hollywood icon.

Remember Felicity Jones’ Oscar nomination for her excellent performance playing current feminist superstar Ruth Bader Ginsburg? No, you don’t. She didn’t get the nom. Why? The movie was turgid. And it also did the same modest business that Harriet did, a little less domestic and more international.

Also utter nonsense comparing Clemency‘s position in the race to Bombshell or Little Women. I’m glad Mark has seen the film, but here in L.A., there was one small screening at five in the afternoon in October. Screenings for release and only awards started November 21, all in little screening rooms. Bombshell screened more than a half dozen times for guilds and press and whomever in big rooms like the DGA main screen, with superstar Q&As, weeks ago. Little Women premiered for guilds and press with a variety of big October screenings which were filled to the gills and has continued to screen over the last few weeks. I love Neon, but there is no equivalency here.

Harris concludes, “Why not proceed, right now, from the premise that nobody has a slot and go with the five performances that most surprise and move and dazzle you?”

I will paraphrase the great Chayefsky… “Because it’s the Oscars, dummy.”

More succinctly, it’s already near over. New York Film Critics Circle votes in twelve days. LAFCA and Golden Globes announce in seventeen days. Add on the two days since Mark published his piece on November 20, if you like. But this harsh reality is true for every movie and every actor and everyone who might get a nomination for anything, regardless of race, gender, religion or budget.

And dare I point out the status by late November of the actresses of color who have been nominated for Best Actress this last decade? Gabourey Sidibe and Quvenzhané Wallis’ films started at Sundance. Ruth Negga’s started at Cannes. Viola Davis’ was an August box-office smash. And Yalitza Aparicio was part of the massive Netflix first-Oscar push that began in Venice.

None of them was a late surprise. None rose up the charts late. Negga was the most unsure nomination of the five… but she was certainly in the discussion for month after month. She was #3 or #4 on the Gurus charts from November launch on.

And none of this says that racism is a non-issue in Hollywood or even in some percentage of the Academy.

But let’s not marginalize the very real issues of race and Hollywood by raging about a straw man, like media marginalizing actresses of color based on the circumstances of this single season. There is enough racism in the world without overstating it, no matter how passionately.

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