Old ideas reign on the big screen

2015-02-22 15:00

The academy quietly practises a white-male narrative that reflects a hierarchy at work in the film industry

There’s something about awards season that inevitably rubs the shine off the glitz and glamour of pop culture.

Putting aside Kanye West’s Grammy rants and the drunken debauchery of the Golden Globes, there is something about the recognition of some over others that shows just how far we still have to go in terms of making the big screen match the picture of real life.

This year, there has been a significant outcry about the lack of diversity in the nominations for tonight’s Academy Awards. Of the 127 nominations at this year’s Oscars, only 25 are female and only nine not white.

These imbalances are staggering, and while we’d like to comfort ourselves with the knowledge that 12 Years a Slave swept the Oscars last year, shooting the gorgeous Lupita Nyong’o to A-list status, this is the exception and not the rule.

The problem is twofold. Writing in The Nation, Oscar-winning documentary film maker Peter Davis asks: “What do you expect from an institution whose members are 77% male?” This question suggests a top-down problem. Secondly, when he asked a studio executive why there were no women screenwriters nominated, she told him: “[Women] don’t get hired, so they don’t write screenplays and [don’t] get produced.” This suggests that there is a bottom-up problem too.

Whichever way you swing it, these nominations reflect a hierarchy at work in the fabric of Hollywood. And as much as 12 Years a Slave and The Help are good films, even they fit the white-male narrative the academy quietly practises.

There are good films, and then there are good female and good black films.

In his article, Davis explains that where women are concerned, things are actually getting worse. In the early days of the academy’s work in the 1920s, women held prominent positions as scenario writers and screenwriters.

Davis cites Anita Loos, author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, whose screenwriting efforts saw 101 out of her 105 scripts made into films – an almost impossible feat for anyone (especially female screenwriters) in the 21st century.

In other categories, the same fate hangs over aspirant film makers. David Carr of The New York Times wrote that “the director of Selma, Ava DuVernay, is a black woman who found the studio backing to make a movie that is great cinema, not a history lesson”. And yet, despite critical acclaim, DuVernay and lead actor David Oyelowo were snubbed when the nominations were read out.

Instead, the struggles of white male characters stood front and centre of what the Academy believes to be critical viewing for a modern, global audience. With stunning clarity, Davis says: “What remains both sad and scandalous is that the cinematic contributions of half the population to our sense of ourselves, to our joy and entertainment, to the cathartic effects of art itself, are simply, mostly, not there.”

This has very real consequences for how we see ourselves. Our films and our stories shape us.

A young black woman should be able to look up at the big screen and see a high-definition picture that reflects where she could be, and the Academy needs to recognise this. If it does not, it continues to send the message that the art, the work and the lifestyle movies project is made only for some.

And let’s just stop with the “efforts towards diversity” line. In a statement following the negative response to the nominations, the president of the academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is black, said she “would love to see and look forward to seeing a greater cultural diversity among all our nominees in all of our categories”.

This statement confounded rather than comforted me because, surely, if the president wants more diversity, it happens – because she is the embodiment of the academy’s ethos and leadership. But clearly, this is not the case.

Isaacs seems to be yet another diversity figurehead, one used to cover up the academy’s archaic views. There is a loud echo from 1939, when black actress Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for her role in Gone with the Wind, but was made to sit at a separate table.

The age-old message is clear. We’ll try, but not as much as we should.

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