Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Tuesday, March 26, 2002

oscar! oscar! ... oscar?

Oscars 2002: Somebody make it stop!: ... Look, I'm very glad when we finally honor our African-American artists. I just wish it happened a little more regularly, instead of in one big token Big Gulp: "See? We do too give them awards. Lots of them. See?" Let's stop treating our citizens of color like they are a separate people from us. If Sept. 11 showed us anything, it's that we're all Americans together, and our black friends are just as excellent at being overprivileged celebrity fuckwads as anybody else. Let's just bump up with this consciousness and be done with it.
----- Cintra Wilson, Salon, March 25, 2002

OK, my one and only statement about the Oscars, as such:

I think that, regardless of anything else, Halle Berry would probably have taken the Best Actress award. She did win the Screen Actors' Guild award, which is a mild indicator of what may happen with Oscar -- the SAG branch of the academy is the one that nominates, although the entire academy votes for the award once nominations are determined. (It is a moderate indicator; of the eight female SAG award winners for leading actress, six have gone on to win the Academy award.) It's also the type of role that Oscar loves to honor: difficult, meaty, playing successfully against type, and a role that showcases acting talent. I suspect that the history making aspect of it didn't really crossed anyone's mind -- I'm not sure that anyone quite realized that a black woman had never won for best actress, because everyone was focused both on the fact that it was the first time in 30 years that three blacks had been nominated, and because everyone was focused on the fact that Sidney Poitier was going to be honored and it had been 40 years since he'd won.

And had Sidney Poitier not been getting honored for his contributions to film, I'm not at all sure that Washington would have won.

Now. I am absolutely not saying that he didn't deserve to win. I am absolutely not saying that anyone else deserved to win any more than he did. What I am saying is that his role is of a type that doesn't normally take home the big prize, no matter what the race of the person playing it. For a villain to win, the role has to be complex, compelling, dominating, and mesmerizing, all of which that role was. It also typically needs to be released late in the year, generate the sort of buzz that makes Academy members feel that they must see it, and make a hefty amount of money. To be sure, at approximately $80 million after 11 weeks in general release, "Training Day" took in a fairly nifty gross. October 5 is, however, a bit early, especially since it peaked in release in October, and trailed off through November. By the time most Oscar-season movies were being released, "Training Day" was in second-run theaters or gone. Given that the movie also didn't break $100 million, it's unlikely that Academy members felt compelled to see it -- in fact, it's almost the definition of the sort of film that Academy members don't go see; a gritty urban film about evil and the corruption of innocence. Denzel Washington, notably, did not win the SAG for "Training Day", which was taken by Russell Crowe. (Interestingly, it seems to be a somewhat stronger predictor for men and Oscar, so far ... although not precisely in the same way. All eight SAG award winners have gone on to win Oscar, until this year; however, apparently the potential nominee themselves determine the proper category, rather than the studio, which means Benicio del Toro won the SAG for best actor, rather than best supporting actor for which he won the Oscar. But I digress somewhat.)

That said, enough Academy members saw the film so that Denzel Washington was nominated, and frankly, that says a hell of a lot about the Academy, and the regard in which they hold him, and how they felt about this role. The Academy does not like nominating villains. The Academy is especially uncomfortable about this type of role, with the Evil (if morally complex and periodically ambiguous) Black Man. It's pretty much the prototype of the sort of role that the Academy would run from; that they could get past all of that and still nominate his performance is stunning in and of itself. (And all that said ... the people who nominate for the acting award are, substantially but not entirely, the people who nominate for the SAG Awards.)

All that said ... you wonder, if the Academy had not been honoring Sidney Poitier this year, what would have happened with that award? If someone hadn't been saying, every so often, "Well, they're going to give Poitier an honorary Oscar this year, and it's been 40 years since a black man, Poitier himself, won for a leading role." I'm not saying that it's the only reason he won; I'm not even saying that it was or was not a factor. I am saying that ... for the older Academy members, at least, the ones who have been so resistant to the whole thing, it may well have been on their minds. (Of course, you can say that about any of the various contributing factors. Had Russell Crowe not won last year, would he have won a second in a row? [Well, Tom Hanks did, so why not?] Had Russell Crowe not been a titanic ass at the British Academy awards, would he have won? It's really impossible to say how the various confounding factors affected anything.)

It's also interesting to note that the Oscars are alone among the various industry awards in this type of situation. It's nothing unusual for a person of color to be nominated for a Tony Award for performances on Broadway, or to win. It's not even notable when one of us wins an Emmy Award for television. We're positively ubiquitous in most categories at the Grammy Awards, despite its peculiar attempts at what might be considered segregation. (Yes, R&B/soul/soul gospel are all specific types of music. Nonetheless, given the way that NARAS divides up things according to ethnic subtypes -- Latin Grammys, anyone? -- it's hard to see it as anything other than an attempt to both pander to a market and yet segregate. And as with anything that tries to do both, it's indifferently successful. There are separate awards for ethnic music, but various minorities also appear in the different nonethnic categories, as well. Lenny Kravitz, for example, pretty much owns the Male Rock Vocal Performance Grammy, with a streak stretching back four or five years. And Alicia Keyes won most of the big awards this year, and Lauren Hill took them all a few years ago. Grammy has succeeded in the peculiar achievement of highlighting ethnicity and making it a nonissue, all at the same time; that may only be possible in the type of art that music is.) Alone among the industry awards, Oscar has severe problems in seeing minorities as worthy of note.

The film industry is, of course, entirely aware of this. The efforts that they're making to raise the issue's profile, and to do something about it are literally almost painful to watch. (The Screen Actors' Guild SAG fights for diversity program is especially painful, in some ways, although it is interesting to see the history.) Everyone affiliated with the issue seems to be aware that in 2002, they really should be doing better, but nobody seems quite sure how they're supposed to get there, or what "better" in this context would be, necessarily.

Many black leaders, like Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said before Sunday's ceremonies that they were concerned that the presence of so many black nominees might convince Hollywood that its racial problems had been solved. Not until the presence of black nominees becomes unremarkable, he said, and until there are also just as many black faces behind the camera and in executive suites will the issue be put to rest.

Let's not just focus on Oscar's problem with blacks, however. To do so would be especially narrow minded, given the issue at hand. How many Hispanics have been nominated for acting Oscars? How many have won? How many Asians? The only Asian I can think of offhand is Haing S. Knor. Oscar isn't just horrible with blacks, it's horrible with pretty much all ethnic minorities, and this is also a reflection of the business behind Oscar.

It would perhaps be better to say that the issue will not be put to rest until we are to a place when we no longer notice the ethnicity of the actor being nominated. When we no longer think, "black Oscar winner Denzel Washington" or "black Oscar winner Halle Berry" because it's no longer useful or necessary to think in those terms. In some ways, it doesn't seem fair; it seems like we're asking Oscar to lead where society at large has yet to go.

And yet ... and yet, if Tony and Emmy and Grammy can do it ... why not Oscar?

Posted by iain at 11:43 AM in category



Two comments: one, i think that it is still a big deal when people of color are nominated or win TONY awards. Given the infrequency at which shows starring black performers are recognized in the major category.

You would probably also need to factor in the fact that Russell Crowe isn't American and our jingiostic year of the american took hold.


Posted by TeKay at May 20, 2002 05:21 PM

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