Friday, January 16, 2015

Oscar Nominations Are Part of a Bigger Problem

The Academy Award nominations reminded me that I have a lot of films left to watch. They also reminded me that the Oscars can be pretty damn biased.

There were some interesting snubs and surprises in multiple categories, but I think that one in particular is worth discussing. How come Ava DuVernay, generally considered a lock for a Best Director nomination, didn't get that call this morning? She was hand-picked to direct Selma, a film that is socially important (especially this year) and incredibly well-made, despite many struggles to bring it to the screen?

It's not that there was a lack of directing talent this year. Morten Tyldum's work in The Imitation Game turned what could have been just a boring Oscar movie into a layered, engaging, well-acted drama. Alejandro González Iñárritu is an accomplished director and Birdman was highly inventive and just buzzy enough to garner the attention of the right people. Bennett Miller, quite simply, knows how to make a movie that will get noticed by Oscar. Wes Anderson's films have always been critically beloved, and this year The Grand Budapest Hotel is poised to have a hell of an Oscar night. (Or win nothing. There is no in-between.) And Richard Linklater's hard work on Boyhood resulted in a film that was not only original, but that captivated its audience.

Here's the thing about Richard Linklater - he was one of the first directors I learned about when I started studying film. He is talented and has a distinct voice, and Boyhood is an amazing, unprecedented accomplishment. But there is a chance that Boyhood would never have been made if Linklater had not been an established director when he started making it. He certainly worked to become an established director. His breakout film project, Slacker, was a success at Sundance not only because he is a talented director, but because he worked hard enough and was lucky enough to have it screened there. The film industry is a boys' club. It's not entirely closed to women and people of colour, but there does seem to be a certain camaraderie between men and most of them are white. Part of being successful in film is who you know. I loved my experience studying film, but I was taught by a staff that was mostly composed of white men. (Not that they weren't brilliant or good at their jobs, but there was a certain homogeny among the people I learned from.) In fact, a lot of the people I learned from were either white or male. Many of the students who got a leg up from professors were white guys who worshipped white guy directors. (And Robert Rodriguez.) And that's who we learned about, too - in class, I watched so many brilliant films from different eras, but even the modern films I watched (and that were discussed) were mostly made by white guys. I remember watching one film by Wong Kar-Wai. And Lost In Translation, because it was gaining a lot of buzz at the time. That's about it. We discussed Richard Linklater and Jim Jarmusch, but I don't remember talking about Spike Lee. Slacker and Do The Right Thing are completely different films, but they're both fascinating films made by young, ambitious directors.

I'm getting a little off topic. Film school made it very clear that filmmaking is about more than just hard work and creativity. It's about luck. It's about who you know. It's about who believes in you. If Richard Linklater didn't have the good fortune to screen Slacker at Sundance, his career could have been very different, and he might never have had the opportunity to make or release Boyhood on the scale that he did. Bennett Miller is beloved by Oscar voters - and he's talented enough to deserve that love, but there are plenty of talented people in Hollywood who get overlooked for Oscars. (And on the flip side, there are people who Oscar loves. Meryl Streep could probably get a nomination for a message she left on someone's voicemail. I bet she was excellent in that voicemail, though!)

All this to say that the problem with the Oscar nominations isn't just the Oscars. It's symptomatic of the industry as a whole. If more minorities were afforded the opportunities and the approval that people like these Best Director nominees were fortunate enough to have on their way to the top, we'll see more perspectives in feature films and at the Oscars. It won't solve everything, but it would be a good start. Maybe this is a start. Maybe Selma is the career push that Ava DuVernay needed to become a big-name director. But is it? And how many more directors like her will be afforded similar opportunities?

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