The Accidentally Racist Oscars

The Accidentally Racist Oscars

The Oscars have, for the second straight year, failed to nominate any actors of color. It’s not that they’re trying to be racist. It’s just that they can’t help it.
Hans Fiene
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The nominations for the 88th Annual Academy Awards were released Thursday morning. For the second year in a row, the Academy handed out a whopping total of zero nominations to non-white performers in the four acting categories.

After accusations of racism from the mainstream media and Twitter’s “OscarsSoWhite” hashtag sullied last year’s awards, it’s hard to understand how the eternally progressive Hollywood community behind the Oscars couldn’t correct last year’s error and offer a measly one of those 16 nominations to an actor of color. How did this happen? How did this group of racial-diversity-embracing liberals offer up the exact same offense this year?

To answer that question, imagine you’re a person who really values religious inclusivity. In fact, you value it so much that your second favorite activity in the world is inviting Muslim and Jewish folks over to your house for dinner.

The problem, however, is that your favorite activity in the world is serving your dinner guests a piping hot plate of barbecued pork. In fact, you love doing this so much that you can’t stop yourself from offering the aforementioned porcine cuisine to dinner guests you know have religious objections to eating it.

So even though you really want to practice religious inclusion, and even though you don’t want to get yelled at for offering your Muslim and Jewish guests unclean food again, you fall into the same pit because you just can’t bring yourself to change the dinner menu. It’s not that you’re trying to exclude your Muslim and Jewish dinner guests. It’s just that exclusion happens when you won’t sacrifice the thing you love if that’s what it takes to embrace your guests.

Hollywood’s Favorite Stories Are White People Stories

This is precisely why the Oscars have, for the second straight year, failed to nominate any actors of color. It’s not that they’re trying to be racist. It’s just that they can’t help it. Of course the Academy wants to give statues to non-white actors and actresses. Of course it would love to have another Hattie McDaniel moment or hear another Halle Berry style acceptance speech.

Hollywood’s favorite thing is giving awards for performances in movies about upper-class 1940s lesbian college professors who bravely battled both unjust banking practices and homophobia.

But giving awards to people of color is currently the Academy’s second-favorite thing in the world. Its favorite thing is giving awards for performances in movies about upper-class 1940s lesbian college professors who bravely battled both unjust banking practices and homophobia—bonus points if they were persecuted by political or religious conservatives, double bonus points if they worked in Hollywood, and triple bonus points if they existed in real life.

Because the Academy insists on doing its favorite thing, because it insists on giving all its awards to films of this nature, it can’t help but exclude those of ethnicities that weren’t terribly prevalent in 1940s upper-class British academic circles or on McCarthy-era blacklists. So, just like the dinner host who won’t sacrifice his favorite thing (serving pork to his guests) for the sake of his second favorite thing (respecting their religious beliefs), the Oscars have no choice but to fail at racial inclusivity as long as they prefer to shower awards on cinematic stories that exclude most of the races.

Sorry, Colorful People, You Just Aren’t Interesting

For example, it’s not that the Academy was trying to exclude “Creed’s” Michael B. Jordan from the best actor race. It’s just that Eddie Redmayne played a kind-of-real-life transgender European artist, and Oscar voters couldn’t possibly have taken that off the menu include someone who played a character as boring as a pretend boxer.

Steve Jobs’ story needed to be told again because the first time it had Ashton Kutcher in it.

Similarly, while in a down year Hollywood would gladly have nominated “Concussion’s” Will Smith for playing real-life forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu, Bryan Cranston played an ever-so-terribly-persecuted-in-real life Hollywood Communist in “Trumbo,” and there’s no way the Academy could have overlooked a performance of that historic significance just to bring more diversity to Oscar night.

Dalton Trumbo’s story, after all, needed to be told, as did Lili Elbe’s (“The Danish Girl”). Steve Jobs’ story needed to be told again because the first time it had Ashton Kutcher in it. And it’s hardly the Academy’s fault blacks were too busy not being allowed to be screenwriters in 1950s Hollywood or that Latinos failed to adequately represent themselves in 1920s Scandinavian LGBTQ circles or that no one of Middle Eastern descent would have been believable as the half-German inventor of the iMac. (Unrelated fun fact: Steve Jobs was also half Syrian! Who knew?)

We Totally Can’t Cast Non-White Actors, Either

Granted, one might argue Hollywood could fix its race problem by essentially keeping the barbecue rub recipe but swapping out pork for a more inclusive meat—in other words, by casting non-white actors in the kind of roles it most desperately wants to award. In theory, there’s no reason film studios couldn’t make this happen.

There’s no reason historical details like ‘Bruce Jenner wasn’t black’ should diminish the power of a biopic called ‘Caitlyn’ with Idris Elba in the titular role.

If historical inaccuracies like Steve Jobs not saying most of the stuff he said in “Steve Jobs” didn’t diminish the film’s Oscar-worthiness, there’s no reason historical details like “Bruce Jenner wasn’t black” should diminish the power of a biopic called “Caitlyn” with Idris Elba in the titular role.

As much as the Academy would love to support a project of this nature, however, filmmaking is a business, studios need to make a profit to survive, and the harsh economic reality of awards season is that audiences simply aren’t lining up to see films with Oscar-worthy performances from actors of color like they are from white actors.

“Creed,” for example, brought in a paltry $106 million domestically, as opposed to “Spotlight’s” $28 million, “Steve Jobs’s” $17 million (on a $30 million budget), “The Danish Girl’s” $8 million, “Trumbo’s” $7, “Carol’s” $7, “Room’s” $5, and “45 Years’s” staggering $341,000. Okay, those might have been seven bad examples, but you get the point—Hollywood and the Oscars really want to give non-white actors an opportunity to shine. Audiences just won’t let them.

Perhaps the Oscars wouldn’t have to be so white if people of color could figure out a way to make their history a little more transgendery.

So of course the Academy wants to be more racially inclusive. Racial inclusivity is, after all, its second favorite thing in the world. It’s just that, right now, the Academy’s favorite thing is hurling golden statues at films whose settings and characters prevent them from including any blacks or Latinos or Asians or Native Americans or anyone of a skin tone slightly darker than translucent ivory.

So perhaps those inclined to once again fill Twitter with the “OscarsSoWhite” hashtag should show a little compassion towards the poor members of the Academy who, bless their hearts, just can’t let religious inclusion trump serving pork for dinner.

If we want to fix this problem, perhaps it’s time to look to the other side of the table. Perhaps it’s time to ask those Jewish and Muslim dinner guests to try a bite of the unclean cuisine. Perhaps the Oscars wouldn’t have to be so white if people of color could figure out a way to make their history a little more transgendery or Hollywoody or English-accenty, or, at the very least, a little more staring-at-walls-and-coming-to-terms-with-thingsy.

Hans Fiene is a Lutheran pastor in Illinois and the creator of Lutheran Satire, a series of comical videos intended to teach the Lutheran faith. Follow him on Twitter, @HansFiene.

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