Lack of diversity in Oscar awards isn’t the problem, it’s a symptom

Actor Denzel Washington won an Oscar in 2002 for his performance in the movie “Training Day.”
Actor Denzel Washington won an Oscar in 2002 for his performance in the movie “Training Day.”

I love the movies.

I watch Turner Classic Movies so often I think I might have seen their whole catalogue. I took a couple of film classes in college and got so carried away with my analysis of “La Dolce Vita” that the professor came dangerously close to accusing me (falsely) of plagiarizing the paper.

I get so geeked up over clever camera movements that my wife has to remind me that she’s actually trying to hear the characters. (“The camera followed the fleeing carjacker in one side of the car and went right out the other side in one uncut sequence! What kind of camera was that?!”)

But I’ve got mixed feelings about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith say they’re so fed up with yet another year of all-white nominees that they plan to stay away from the Academy Awards ceremony. It’s not that I don’t respect what they’re saying. I do. I’m just not sure they’ll be able to move the needle much.

The Oscars, and movies generally, reflect the zeitgeist of the American public. And since most Americans happen to be white, that’s what the awards generally reflect – the films that best mirror the world as seen through the eyes of white folks. And as any Gallup pollster can tell you, most black folks and white folks still tend to see the world from differing vantage points.

So, the occasional black actor or director or writer or film will connect with white audiences and white Oscar voters, but, as in American life more generally, that’s the exception rather than the rule.

Which brings me to the problem I have with the notion of boycotting the Oscars.

So much about movies – how you experience them, what you take away from them – remains inescapably subjective. And since the Oscars are, beneath all the glitter, little more than a popularity contest, black artists and films are inherently at a disadvantage.

With discrimination in public accommodations such as restaurants or city buses, you’re demanding to be given access to the same services or benefits as everyone else. If you’re boycotting the Oscars, you’re demanding that someone like what you’ve created.

Which isn’t to say that great black films and performances don’t get wrongly snubbed. Spike Lee’s masterful “Do The Right Thing” got snubbed in 1990 while the much safer and more soothing (to white audiences) “Driving Miss Daisy” won Best Picture. I’ve always suspected Oscar voters recognized the genius of Lee’s film, but were unnerved by its unblinking, unapologetically black vision of race relations in a Brooklyn neighborhood. Lee’s vision was not their vision. His experience was not their experience. They couldn’t relate.

Plus, there’s the fact that black films and artists aren’t the only ones who wrongly get left behind. It’s been 58 years since an Asian actress won an Oscar, and no Latina has won in 54 years.

Films by white directors and actors that raise questions and themes Oscar voters (and the broader public) aren’t ready for also get snubbed. That’s how an unnerving but undeniable horror classic like Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” netted no Oscar nominations in 1980 – not even for Jack “Here’s Johnny!” Nicholson.

A boycott might identify the problem, but only Oscar voters can patch the blind spots that call their credibility into question. They have to broaden their vision. As Tyler Perry’s success shows, they have badly underestimated the market for films with African American actors and perspectives.

There’s a bigger world to be explored beyond the mansions and beach houses and hipster circles of Los Angeles. Those stories are also worth telling and celebrating. They need to do more than give mental assent to that fact. They need to put studio budgets on the line and make the best of those movies.

Otherwise, Hollywood’s elite should consider themselves no more forward-thinking than the conservative Republicans they love to ridicule.--Eric Frazier