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The Nonexistent Case against Oscar 'Whiteness'

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When the curtain rises on the 88th annual Oscar film awards next Sunday evening, February 28, tens of millions of TV viewers, along with the 3,400 attendees at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, will feel extra pangs of anxiety.  For the focus this year is as much on race as it is on who will win.  From the moment the 20 acting category nominations were announced on January 14, racial grievance hustlers, from Al Sharpton to Jesse Jackson to scheduled emcee Chris Rock (in photo), have been hectoring the Motion Picture Academy over the nominees being all white. 

This, they insist, proves racism is rampant in the film industry and that “reforms” are needed.  Don’t believe them.  Their gambit is about money, prestige and bargaining power.  And their implicit call for quotas is the negation of real achievement. 

The movie industry for the last couple of decades increasingly has been a target of hard Left identity politicians.  Hispanic groups habitually demand that studios bankroll more films with Hispanics – with positive portrayals, of course.  Gay and lesbian activists insist that studios depict their sexual cultures.  One pressure group, GLAAD (formerly known as Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), in August 2013 launched its Studio Responsibility Index, in order to calculate the “quantity, quality and diversity of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in films released by six major motion picture studios.”  Needless to say, GLAAD was not happy about the way things played out in 2012.  Out of the 101 film releases by the major studios that year, complained the group, only 14 contained characters identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual.  And to cap it off:  “There were no films containing transgendered characters.”  Oh, the injustice of it all!  Feminists have their own version of bean-counting.  The annual Celluloid Ceiling survey, a project of San Diego State University, last month reported a slight “improvement” in female representation behind the camera over the previous year.  Nine percent of directors of commercial releases in 2015 were women, up from 7 percent in 2014.  Commenting on the report, Time magazine’s Eliana Dockterman admonished:  “Women are routinely shut out of big opportunities in Hollywood, but a new study shows that their representation behind the camera increased slightly in 2015.”  To them, Kathryn Bigelow’s victory six years ago for Best Director (The Hurt Locker) was merely a good start (Bigelow herself believes the same thing).  Such campaigns are self-perpetuating.  All seek to monitor future “progress.”  No backsliding ever should be allowed to occur.  

This mentality is especially prevalent among black activists.  A growing number, in and out of the film industry, insist that whites, who allegedly dominate the industry, have been giving creative blacks short shrift, especially come Oscar nomination time.  They claim this is an injustice and that “racism” is the problem.  This charge is way off base.  It is the prerogative of the judges to apply criteria as they see fit.  Moreover, the charge has a strong undercurrent of collective and individual self-aggrandizement.  Anyone connected to the world of film knows that when it comes to awards, the Oscars are what really count; the People’s Choice, Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice and other ceremonies are sideshows, mere sneak previews of the main event.  An Oscar nomination, and better still, an Oscar win, is the ultimate portal to movie career success.  An actor’s brand name instantly becomes gold.  Top Hollywood agents estimate that a victory translates into a 20 percent pay boost for their clients.  The pictures themselves also benefit, with ticket sales jumping on average by about a third.  This hike doesn’t even include the revenue boosts from DVD rentals and sales, video streaming, downloads and sale of broadcasting rights.  And sometimes the rise in ticket prices is nothing short of spectacular.  Take the winner for Best Picture of 2010, The King’s Speech.  The movie originally was projected to generate a modest worldwide box office gross of $30 million.  That was before it received 12 Oscar nominations.  After that, the revised estimated gross exceeded $200 million.  And after winning Best Picture – Colin Firth, the British actor who played King George VI, took home a golden statue, too – world box office shot up to $427 million.  To make a long story short, there is serious money at stake.  And blacks want a large chunk of it.  From their standpoint, why should a stuffy British film about a white monarch with a stuttering problem roll in the dough?                                 

The affirmative action principle is spurious enough when applied to hiring, contracting or college admissions.  But it is positively toxic when applied to nominations and awards for professional achievement.  And unlike sports, where a Most Valuable Player award has tangible benchmarks – e.g., batting average, earned run average – an award in the performing arts is a matter of subjective judgment.  There are no defining statistics that can serve as a guide.  A judge takes into consideration, consciously and subconsciously, a range of factors.  And when it comes to acting, a judge takes into account logistical difficulty as well as authenticity and range of emotion.  That’s why difficult roles so often win the day.  A year ago, for example, the award for Best Male Lead Actor went to the Englishman, Eddie Redmayne, for his portrayal of famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.  No doubt many judges felt that Redmayne, in playing Hawking, a quadriplegic, went beyond the call of duty.  Among nominated lead actresses, Julianne Moore took home the Oscar for her role in Still Alice as a college professor with early Alzheimer’s.  This, too, was a highly challenging role.  Redmayne and Moore, like Colin Firth before them, in other words, won for reasons that had nothing to do with their being white.      

Who are the supposedly dastardly people who make the decisions regarding Oscar nominees and winners?  That would be the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS).  Based at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, the Academy consists of about 6,000 voting members with some kind of connection to the film industry.  About 1,100 of them belong to the actors’ branch; i.e., the people who reward acting performances.  AMPAS and its 51-member board of governors zealously guard member identities (unless, of course, the members self-identify) – and with good reason.  For if the members became known to the general public, they could be subject to all manner of intimidation, blackmail or bribery to vote the “right” way.  Independent judgment requires confidentiality.  And independence is necessary because the competition is ferocious.  Many are called, few are chosen.  The demand for a golden statue in any category always exceeds the supply.  Every year produces its share of “snubs.”  That is a fact of life.  Actor-director Clint Eastwood, as familiar with the workings of Hollywood as anyone, gave a commonsense response last month to the racial demagoguery surrounding the latest Oscar nominations.  In an interview with TMZ, he remarked:  “All I know is there are thousands of people in the Academy, and a lot of them – the majority of them – haven’t won Oscars.”  Eastwood added:  “A lot of people are crying, I guess.”

Black activists, by contrast, believe the Academy Awards should operate as a racial spoils system.  If they’re not literally crying over the latest nominations, they’re certainly crying foul.  It doesn’t matter to them that the short lists reflect a wide range of subjective criteria.  As they see it, blacks in any given year are entitled to a certain share of the nominations.  And since blacks, and other “people of color,” were absent among the nominees for the best lead and supporting acting performances for the past two years, these critics denounce the system as rigged in favor of whites.  They’re not at all impressed by the fact that the current president of the Motion Picture Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, is black and thinks like them.  For them, any statistical disparities signaling “too few” blacks must be due to institutional bias.  And since bias can’t be erased, the Academy members presumptively guilty of it – i.e., white ones – must be replaced.         

The Oscar nominations for the year 2015, announced this past January 14, have provided shakedown artists with an ideal opportunity to jump-start their moral indignation under the guise of civil rights.  Reverend Al Sharpton, ever the master of the trade, registered his disapproval.  On January 25, Sharpton’s New York-based nonprofit group, National Action Network, issued a press release denouncing the lack of “diversity” in the nominations.  NAN called for a summit meeting with AMPAS trustees and other film industry leaders to promote diversity.  The statement, formally endorsed by the National Urban League and the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, contained more than a hint of a threat:      

Following an awards nomination process that saw the nomination of no actors of color and no women writers, the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences (sic) promises a greater push for diversity.

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