The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences succeeded in reaching one of its most important priorities in its announcement of the nominees for the 88th Annual Academy Awards. Unlike past years, the Oscars have garnered front-page, over-the-fold headlines across the country. I strongly suspect that this year’s show will either reach a record or nearly a record Nielsen rating, as viewers will be glued to their sets, at least for the first 30 minutes or so.
But the near-record audience, I suspect, will not be interested so much in the winners of the first few categories, as voted on by their peers in the Academy. Instead, most viewers will have their eyes on this year’s host of the show, Chris Rock, one of the most prominent African-American comedians entertaining audiences. This year’s audience, I suspect, will be on the edge of their seats, anticipating Rock’s reaction to this year’s lists of nominees. Or rather, to this year’s lists and their flagrant lack of African-American talent.
For this year, as in the past, the Academy effectively excluded the African-American community that works in Hollywood and failed to nominate a single black actor, writer, or director. The Academy lost sight of an objective that it had worked hard to achieve for several decades. Since the 1970s, Hollywood has worked to cultivate audiences from across the spectrum of American experience and motivate people to come to spend their money at the box office and concession stand.
But more importantly, this year, the Academy lost touch with a role that it has coveted for 88 years: that of the makers and keepers of the Canon of Film. That is, the Academy has always asserted itself as the shaper of the art of motion pictures, essentially prescribing to the public what should and should not be watched, both now and for years after films have been put on the shelf after their run.
In essence, the Academy has always seen, and continues to see itself as the righteous judge of “great performances” and “great filmmaking.”
This job of Canon-making, of creating the list of those films and performances that will live on in posterity, is certainly not an easy task, and based on the experience of canon formation in other disciplines (English Literature for example) largely shaped by the accepted ideologies of the “Keepers of the Tradition.” That is, though the Academy members may make arguments based on concepts of “filmmaking and acting quality,” what determines “quality” is largely a by-product of the foundational principles of preference of those members.
Nearly a generation ago, when the values and ideological preferences of the editors and publishers were amended to include the value of Diversity of Experience, the Literary Canon seemed to explode with the recognition of the importance of new artists, especially those of gender and ethnic minorities.
In short, the Literary Canon changed because our society decided to value Gender and Racial Diversity.
So, fast-forward to the Academy’s vote for Oscar for this year.
This year’s lists of nominees and their exclusion of African-American actors and directors may not have anything to do with racial prejudice or conscious selection. Rather, this year’s lists reflect what Hollywood has always valued and prized, an ideology that has controlled decision-making throughout the history of filmmaking.
This year’s list reflects the egomania of the Hollywood system and its embrace of Profit, of Money, over all other considerations, including the diversity of experience.
For years now, the Academy has shaped its lists of nominees in order to promote and attract further audiences to the theatre box office and the home viewing markets. In 2010, the Academy expanded its list of Best Picture nominees from five, as had been the norm for decades, to ten films, responding to criticism of the Academy’s arrogance and bias toward “Art Films,” rather than movies that general audiences choose to go see.
That year, such box office hits as Toy Story 3 and The Social Network made the list. In essence, Hollywood tried “to make up” for its blindness to the ideological changes of the American audience, while continuing to use the Academy Awards as its major public relations campaign for higher and higher box office records.
This year, as in 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences returned to an arrogant presentation of itself as the “Keeper of the Art” of motion pictures, basing its judgements entirely on its own ideologies and preferences for reflections of its members: white, upper-class performances and stories that have made many of their members very rich, while making the provincial “nod” to two films (Room and Brooklyn) that had the strong female lead role (apparently, the Academy counts a significant number of women among its numbers).
A similar “oversight” of the Academy occurred in 1962, as one of the best acting performances failed to make the list for Best Actor. Sidney Poitier turned in what can be argued as the best performance of the previous year and of his career in A Raisin in the Sun, playing the title role of Walter Lee Younger. Eclipsed by the political ideologies of a predominantly white Hollywood, A Raisin in the Sun failed to garner a single nomination that year, as director Daniel Petrie and producer David Susskind, rewrote Lorraine Hansberry’s original script in order to “tone down” its scathing criticism of racism in America. The film made a modest profit from the box office, but paled in comparison to the nominees for Best Picture and to the films of those nominated for Best Actor.
Though he was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor at the Golden Globes, Hollywood Foreign Press Association Awards, and the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, the American Academy ignored Poitier’s work and his film’s meager earnings and controversial political implications.
Hollywood’s ideological values in 1962 were clearly on full display in its nomination lists. In 2016, once again, Hollywood’s ideological values are clearly on display in its nomination lists for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Picture.
The Academy “made up” for its “oversight” of Poitier in 1963 (winner of Best Actor for Lillies of the Field) and in 2002 (an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement).
Expect the Academy to “make up” for its “oversight” next year as well, but permanent change can only come with a change of ideology, a change of heart.
(Part II of my preview of the 88th Academy Awards will include predictions on winners of the major categories.)