The Washington Post Sunday
Oscars’ flap and the universal narrative
Can a movie ever just be a movie again?
One of the consequences of the controversy swirling around this year’s Academy Awards, which have drawn fire for recognizing exclusively white artists in the major categories, is a new way of looking at what we once took for granted as “just a movie.”
In snubbing individual films and performances from 2015, and in recognizing a plurality of movies dominated by one ethnicity and gender, the message from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was clear: When it comes to narratives we accept as universal — as representing the world we all supposedly live in — the organization’s comfort zone, like its membership, is overwhelmingly white and male.
To be clear, the academy didn’t have an enormous pool to choose from in a year that didn’t witness
such watershed artistic achievement as “12 Years a Slave,” which won best picture two years ago. But therein lies precisely the rub.
As the director Ava DuVernay observed in The Washington Post in 2012, the contemporary drama is the last frontier in the representation of people of color: Noting the enduring popularity of historical dramas and comedies, she speculated that fewer than 10 percent of movies in release each year “are contemporary dramatic representations of black people.”
Interestingly enough, it’s just that brand of contemporary drama that was ignored when Oscar nominations were announced this year. Whereas the academy has a history of rewarding movies about African American historical figures or race as an issue or problem, its members are far less willing to recognize dramas that aren’t “about” race, but happen to feature black protagonists. It’s a myopia that many observers claim led to such films as “Concussion” and “Beasts of No Nation” being overlooked (and the films “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton” receiving nods only for the white people on their creative teams).
Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs is trying to address that myopia in the rule changes she announced this month, whereby some longtime members would no longer be eligible to participate in Oscar voting if they haven’t been active in the industry for the past 10 years. Isaacs’s goal is that, by 2020, the academy’s membership will be far more balanced in regard to age, gender and ethnic identity and thereby less prone to take for granted a cinematic universe defined and dominated by homogenous narratives.
The new measures already have encountered pushback within the Academy, with disgruntled members accusing their leadership of ageism, undue haste, flouting participatory due process and, that perennial canard, “political correctness.” The specific effects of the changes remain to be seen, especially when loopholes and special pleadings come into play. But one immediate consequence will almost certainly be that everyone, from industry professionals to Friday-night filmgoers at the multiplex, will now watch movies with sharpened attention to the demographic details.
As we parse our entertainment for representational politics, it stands to reason that we’ll be policing our own tastes and reflexive reactions. And this is where things might get a little bit gnarly. As white-guy movies go, it doesn’t get much pastier than “Spotlight,” a multiple Oscar nominee and my personal favorite film of 2015. Would the addition of one African American character have improved or detracted from the verisimilitude of a story set in white, Catholic South Boston? By praising “Spotlight” for its artistry and technical prowess, am I perpetuating a bias in Hollywood toward telling white, male-driven stories? Is the price of being “woke” that pleasure now comes with an asterisk?
The question occurred to me as I was watching “Hail, Caesar!,” a new, bracingly brilliant comedy by Joel and Ethan Coen. The film features Josh Brolin as a movie studio “fixer” in the 1950s, and George Clooney as one of his stars who goes missing. An homage to bygone film genres and Hollywood’s sordid underbelly, “Hail, Caesar!” is a classic screwball caper flick that has the added benefit of brilliantly questioning the realities and norms that the Dream Factory so reliably churns out and that we blithely consume like so many Junior Mints.
“Hail, Caesar!,” by the way, also inhabits a virtually all-white world, a fact made glaringly salient by the Oscars controversy and Clooney’s recent observation in Variety that the movie industry is “moving in the wrong direction” when it comes to casting actors of color. “I don’t think it’s a problem of who you’re picking,” he said, “as much as it is: How many options are available to minorities in film, particularly in quality films?”
Clooney received some pushback of his own after making the comment, with critics asking how often he had leveraged his own star power to ensure diverse casting in his movies. (“George Clooney Criticizes Oscar Diversity, Does Not Make Diverse Films,” snarked one headline.) More actors proceeded to weigh in, bringing a simmering soup to a rolling boil just in time for “Hail, Caesar!” to plop into the pot, its sole character of color a Latin American starlet based on Carmen Miranda ( blessedly free of a fruit hat).
The great strength of “Hail, Caesar!” is that it’s unmistakably a Coen brothers movie: Its pervasive whiteness is of a piece with the filmmakers’ well-established house style, in this case deployed on behalf of a highly pitched version of Hollywood they’ve made a career of both celebrating and lampooning. But in the sensitized atmosphere of the current Oscars race, what Coen fans once saw as just another artifact of a stylized, slightly surreal artistic sensibility is now beginning to look creakily archaic— even with the brothers’ patented quote marks around it.
Of course, “Hail, Caesar!” is just one of hundreds of films that are released each year with limited palettes, as any glance at Fandango or the posters in your corner multiplex will prove. Of the eight nominees for best picture this year, five were about White Guys Doing Very Important Things — some of them marvelously well. But taken as a group, they suggest that Hollywood has yet to break the persistent habit of telling one kind of story, valorizing some characters over others and representing one reality as universal. The question for audiences, in a post-#Oscars So White world, is: How much more of this cinematic monoculture are we willing to accept?
Even while we joyfully immerse ourselves in the imaginary-yet-realistic worlds the movies create, it’s important and even healthy to realize that they’re the product of a system that historically has been deeply mistrustful of both imagination and realism.
In fact, this is precisely the kind of double-consciousness that has been the purview of people of color and other marginalized groups for the past century, as they’ve contended with a medium that has either ignored them entirely or rendered them with such contempt that they may as well have been invisible. Because of campaigns such as #Oscars So White, everyone has been invited to adopt a critically engaged vision of what audiences heretofore accepted as “neutral” entertainment, whether that means questioning a movie whose hero is yet another Man on a Mission, raising a skeptical eyebrow when a filmmaker confuses “universal” with “white,” or wondering why all of the female roles in a movie are merely decorative rather than substantive, dynamic and fully realized. This isn’t about “political correctness” or even “diversity,” with their intimations of boxchecking and scorekeeping, but simple cultural literacy.
As “Hail, Caesar!” itself suggests, movies were never “just” movies. They’ve always been texts, inscribed with the anxieties, aspirations and assumptions of the artists who made them and the audiences that embraced them. The best of those texts are magnified rather than diminished by being seen through more than one lens. The more lenses we have at our disposal, the more sophisticated we become as viewers. And the more discerningly we can assess the confections that the Dream Factory continues to whip up.