| January 13, 2020
I’ve been explaining this for years. People don’t want to understand.
Next year’s Oscars are already down to 60 films being taken seriously. By March, the number will be down to 45. By the end of July, the number will be down to about 30. About 23 of those 30 (or so) will go to war through the August/September festival corridor. By mid-October, those 23 will be 12 and there will be about 7 films left with a legitimate shot at riding this train hard.
Seeing the movies will matter. Media reaction will matter. Audience reaction will matter. But in that pre-Labor Day window, modestly well-informed observers should be able to figure out the majority of titles that will end up being nominated for Best Picture in January. And in Gurus o’ Gold, the members have consistently figured that out before the fall festivals at a rate around 70% or better.
A subgroup of this kind of analysis is looking at movies that are by/for people of color and women. Obviously, this has been a huge issue for years. For good reason. Things are slowly changing. They must keep changing.
But back to the exercise…
There is this odd perception in the world that Academy nomination voting is some kind of shared decision between 8500+ Academy voters to make a statement about something more than the movies they prefer, drawn from the movies that have been shoved in their face in the months leading to the week of voting.
People in my position – writing about this stuff – have to be careful with how we express our sense of things. I think we all know, when pushed, that there is no monolithic “they.” Yet, it is our job to be experts… about what 8500+ people think… with almost no legitimate form of measurement. Yet there is a real feeling that one gets when the tone about a movie or a performance is changing. It really has to do with each of our small windows on all this showing some uniformity. When you hear something the 3rd time, the 6th time, the 8th time, it feels like something is happening. And maybe it is. And maybe it isn’t.
And then there is the history of all these years of award-giving. There are truths in history. And there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. There is a variety of depths of analysis and conceptual skillsets and interest in mining for something other than confirmation of our preconceived beliefs amongst strategists and journalists.
Fifteen, twenty years ago, I do think there was a sense of slots for people of color amongst nominees and extreme events needing to be in play in order to see women get nominations out of the then-expected categories. Nowadays, I hear none of that sentiment.
I’m sure there are cultural biases that are hard to quantify, manifesting in the choices of what movies to see and prioritize, as well as in how voters see elements that break the traditional molds as thrilling or pushing against their comfort zone. But I don’t think Academy members (there are always a few exceptions) are actively choosing not to vote for movies, actors or below-the-line efforts because of the gender or race of the talent delivering the work.
I often read, “Well, Actress X is better than Nominees 1, 2, and 3, so the reason she wasn’t nominated must be gender-bias or race-bias.” Even if I believed that those biases were actively coursing through the veins of The Academy, I would still point to any number of other factors that might factor in a non-nomination. To whatever degree gender or race biases might exist, there is a lot of other stuff in play through the season in every category.
There is no facility for the voting group to say, “Hey… we have too many familiar faces of the same color or gender and let’s make some room for others.” Individually, each voter controls their vote and can regulate it based on whatever their personal priorities are. But “they,” the voters, have shown little appetite for politically-driven voting, much as they have eschewed lifetime achievement award type choices.
I read things like, “the message being that even when we’ve got an open slot, there’s absolutely no way we’re going to look beyond a narrow catchment of supermarket aisle Hollywood royalty” or “for some reason they have been deemed unworthy of acknowledgement. It reeks of ignorance, and generates an image of the voting body as ginned-up newspaper barons decked out in soiled cricket whites.”
But again, this is ass-backwards argument, perpetuated by the false notion that there is a “they” out there making decisions about who they will deign to see as worthy of their votes based on some kind of willful thinking.
There is no such thing as an “open slot.” It is the parlance of Oscar chatter when a number of people have decided that 4 slots of 5 are locked down. But it isn’t a fact. It isn’t a mechanism for voter decision-making. It’s the same way that box office tracking, which is meant for internal use by studio marketers, has become a weekly measure of public expectations when it is ill-served for that purpose. And thus, it is often wrong. But as a result of journalists thinking they have more real insight than they have, box office is almost always about poorly set expectations instead of actual performance.
Awards voters don’t get to vote against anyone. They don’t “deem (anyone) unworthy of acknowledgement.” That does not mean that institutional bias isn’t real and that it should not be complained about and combatted. But someone’s vote for Todd Phillips was not a vote against Greta Gerwig. That is not the context of voting.
Moreover, a “good” Oscar year for inclusion, as last year was seen as being, was a function of three movies. One, If Beale Street Could Talk, was the next film from a Best Picture winner. One, Roma, was a stalking-horse from Netflix, which used enormous resources to not only get nominations in the expected categories for a well-regarded Alfonso Cuarón drama, but to get 2 Supporting Actress nominees into their mix. And the third, BlackKklansman, was from the legendary Spike Lee, who had gotten a Governor’s award just the year before. All inside players with enormous institutional support.
The year before, we had Oscar regulars Denzel and Octavia, plus a hard push by Universal to push Get Out into Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Actor… which was a huge get for a genre film, which also happened to be made by a black filmmaker with a black lead. The year before, regulars Denzel and Viola (in Fences) and Octavia and more from Hidden Figures coming together at Fox, and the remarkable run of Moonlight c/o A24.
My point is, it’s almost always familiarity and/or big money involved with every film that ends up with these kinds of nominations. One more year before these (88th Oscars), A24 pushed Room past the expected nomination for Brie Larson and ended up with Picture, Director and Screenplay nominations as well. All white people… just as indie.
So did we have films and candidates in acting of color or female directors who had the kind of familiarity that Oscar tends to go to, regardless of gender or color? Well, we had Greta Gerwig, whose film got 6 nominations, but not Director. Jamie Foxx is an Oscar winner. That’s about it.
I have loved Alfre Woodard since Cross Creek, which she was nominated for in 1983. (Steenburgen, too, who won in 1980 and has never been nominated since.) She certainly should have been nominated again for Passion Fish in 1993. She is a well-loved veteran actor. But she isn’t Denzel or Viola right now and most of the Academy wasn’t voting in 1983.
This year’s schedule, before Sundance and Cannes happen, already has Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights in June, Spielberg’s West Side Story in December, Eddie Murphy in a likely theatrical hit in Coming To America 2, Michael B. Jordan back in Without Remorse, Will Smith as the father of the legendary Williams sisters in King Richard, Denzel in Joel Coen’s take on MacBeth (produced by Scott Rudin and distributed by A24), and Viola Davis in the film version of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom… and that is the start of the list. That is a loaded year of high-profile Oscarbait projects that also happen to have leads and full casts of color. We won’t know until we know… but next year is very unlikely to be nearly as SoWhite.
As for female directors… that is less clear to me from here. Not thinking we will have anything from Greta, Kathryn or Sofia. I’m not about to start setting expectations for Patty Jenkins because she has Wonder Woman 1984 coming. There will certainly by films of value directed by women. But I don’t have enough intel on what may move into the highest positions at this point.
Don’t confuse social media with Oscars. Every year, there are new people who become part of the nomination family. But mostly, history repeats. That does inhibit inclusion to some degree, but sometimes you get Moonlight. And I have to say, social media told me I was crazy when I said Hidden Figures would be a Best Picture nominee starting in September. They changed their minds sometime in November and, amazingly, forget that they once thought it unlikely. I didn’t think it was going to get there because it was about 3 black women. That was a great story, whatever race or gender is fighting to get respect and success. And the actresses in the film are all incredibly compelling personalities… again, just because they are.
The trick to all of this is to acknowledge and to make changes to the organizations that have, undeniably, had troubles with institutional racism. But also not to get caught up in the idea that racism is the primary driver of every circumstance that doesn’t feel great.
And let’s get down to it… do we really feel good about the idea of Academy voters committing to voting for at least one person of color or a woman in every category, regardless of whether the voter feels that person did the best work of that year?
And I have to say also… do we really think that voting for Todd Phillips for Director was an afterthought for those who voted for him to be nominated today? I think Joker is pretty much an all-in or all-out kind of film. You may hate the choice, but I don’t think you would find many voters who voted for the directing they loved and had an open slot and just threw Todd in there instead of embracing, say Greta Gerwig, flipping the coin in the air. In the Venn diagram of it all, I would bet that there is not a lot of crossover between Love Todd and Love Greta.
The industry has done a little better lately. Not nearly enough has changed.
For me, a couple more nominations for people of color and/or women in gender-free categories would not make me feel much better about the overall state of things. It’s easier to have those noms and not have people freaking out all over the internet. But I don’t want Hollywood and The Academy to be waiting on Denzel and Viola and Octavia and Barry Jenkins and Cuarón (working in Spanish) and Guillermo and Alejandro to make the industry seem less racist every other year. I would love to see another 7 or 8 films a year that fit in that Oscar ideal, made by people of color and/or women. Because they won’t all make it.
And then we can get out the pitchforks and torches to burn down The Academy if they can’t find something to love in all those inclusive movies. If your line to getting the torches is closer than mine… okay. A bit further away… okay. But please, take all the facts into consideration before you rage. I will try to do the same.
Congratulations to all the nominees… and to everyone who made anything that people loved this year. It was a very good year.
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