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Critic's Notebook

The Oscars revolution has been messy, but diversity in storytelling deepens the art and enriches us

Kenneth Turan
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Film Critic

Here's a question: Which item does not belong in the following list? Abortion, Israel/Palestine, the Oscars.

Yes, it's a trick question. How did it happen that the Oscars, those little gold-plated awards movie people give to one another, became almost as bitterly divisive as those real-world conflicts? How did the Academy Awards, of all things, become a source of almost unprecedented fury in Hollywood, with visibly angry people on both sides simultaneously shouting past each other yet feeling unheard?

The best way to explain this, though saying it inevitably sounds overblown, is that a bit of a bloodless revolution has taken place. Like many revolutions, it has been messy and confused and caused painful damage to innocent people that in an ideal world would have been avoided. But we live in the real world, and an old order at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is being overturned in favor of a necessary future — albeit one that is far from clear.

OSCARS 2016: Full coverage | Complete list of nominees | #OscarsSoWhite: The boycott, reaction and more | Awkward Oscar moments | Oscars quiz | Awards season database

It's necessary because the value and even requisite nature of diversity on screen — something that has been brought home many times — is about the only aspect of this imbroglio that really isn't open for debate.

When, several years back, I visited Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, for the celebrated FESPACO film festival, everyone I talked to emphasized how essential it was for people everywhere to be able to see their own images on screen.

In a similar vein, just a few weeks ago at the Sundance festival, Alfre Woodard commented in a documentary on Maya Angelou that it astonished her to watch "Roots" because, for the first time, "It was as if my family was on television."

Equally important, we as spectators are impoverished if we don't get to experience as wide a range of subject matter on screen as we can. The more perspectives we can share, the more stories we hear, like Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep" and "To Sleep With Anger," Ava DuVernay's "Middle of Nowhere" and "Selma" and Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" and "Creed," the more the art is deepened and we the viewers enriched.

As important as this issue is, it wasn't clear how it would play out in 2016. When it was revealed that for the second year running none of the Oscar acting nominees was a person of color, it wasn't inevitable that a firestorm would be ignited that would shake the entire institution. In fact, there were several factors that would seem to mitigate against that happening.

For one thing, because of the segmented nature of academy nominations, it wasn't the group as a whole that was responsible for those choices, just the 1,138 members of the acting branch, which is less than 20% of the whole.

For another, like any human process, Oscar choices are fallible by their nature. Making quirky decisions, leaving out deserving actors, directors (Ridley Scott, anyone?) and films ("Carol"?) is par for the course for the academy, which in realistic terms reflects the personal taste of its members more than, as its mythology would have you believe, any absolute standard of greatness.

Also, if the movie business has a diversity gap in whom it hires and what it puts on screens, the problem, as the savvier commentators on the situation have noted, is with the industry itself, not the Oscars.

"The 'real' battle," the outspoken Spike Lee emphasized, is not with the Academy Awards but "in the executive office of the Hollywood studios and TV and cable networks. This is where the gatekeepers decide what gets made and what gets jettisoned."

But revolutions are not rational events, and, as the transnational Arab Spring was touched off by the self-immolation of one Tunisian fruit seller, they are often ignited by small events. And the factors poised to make the voting pattern of little more than a thousand individuals into a national media firestorm were all but overwhelming.

For one thing, in a time of the Black Lives Matter movement and the controversial deaths of African Americans at the hands of police, exclusions that might have been viewed in the past as part of a general pattern of Oscar peculiarity became unacceptable, an #OscarsSoWhite flashpoint in a season of anger.

Also, even for people who understood that the Oscars were a reflection rather than the source of what is wrong, the academy was the perfect target of opportunity, the soft underbelly of the movie business. And under the leadership of Chief Executive Dawn Hudson and President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the academy was also run by people who cared passionately about equality issues.

In addition to its being a season of anger, we also live in the age of social media, a system beautifully suited to the instant arousal of furious emotions and especially useful to people and institutions who, while sincerely angry at a genuine problem, were also not averse to a little healthy self-promotion.

As the situation progressed, the pent-up anger of zealots fed up with vague promises of incrementalism led to the skewering of hapless people, mostly actors, who didn't respond with appropriate Maoist zeal when questioned about their take on the situation.

With op-ed pieces all but calling for the heads of "white people in the movie industry" who need to "step up and spend less time complacently reveling in their privilege," it was inevitable that a backlash would occur among those members of the academy who were in different branches, hadn't cast any of those offending ballots and resented mightily being tarred with the damning brush of racism.

Because everyone in the movie business, not to mention everyone in modern culture, feels aggrieved, a different and more unexpected backlash developed among other industry groups who felt their pain was not being considered, a kind of competing victimization I hadn't experienced since I heard Jews and Poles in contemporary Poland arguing about who had suffered most in World War II.

So a woman I know angrily pointed out that black men had gotten the vote 50 years before women received it and claimed that more black men were directing episodic TV than women. And actor Ian McKellen noted that "it's not only black people who've been disregarded by the film industry, it used to be women, it's certainly gay people to this day."

Stirred into almost immediate action by all the hullabaloo, the Oscar folks upended their old established order. "The academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up," Boone Isaacs memorably said. But once the academy revealed its strong new rules, it both quieted the uproar and created a backlash of its own.

Though few objected to plans for significantly increasing the number of women and minorities in the academy by 2020, the notion of accelerating change by culling the membership was a different story. An elaborately structured plan to eliminate voters who had not been active in years (similar to a move Gregory Peck made when he was president in 1970) led to predictable cries of ageism from those who feared losing their voting privileges and the response from Boone Isaacs that "our goal is to make our voting body reflective of filmmaking professionals who are active today."

The joker in the deck of all these changes, of course, is that no matter what the age or ethnicity of the new voters, predicting how they will vote is a mug's game. Idiosyncratic selection is not a prerogative of senior citizens; younger people have been known to engage in it as well, and how all the name-calling and invective will affect those voters who do not get purged is also unclear.

In a sane universe, moves toward equality and inclusiveness could have happened in a less incendiary, less inflammatory manner. And when I think of sanity in racial matters, I inevitably think about the time I spent working on an unfinished book with baseball's Curt Flood, the All-Star center fielder who essentially sacrificed his career to bring about the free agency today's professional athletes take for granted.

Flood had experienced savage and chilling racism in his day, but I remember him gently chiding me one afternoon for throwing that term around too loosely. Sometimes, he told me, the root cause of behavior is simply the human tendency to want to be with, to want to select (for instance, as baseball managers) people you are familiar with, people like yourself.

In that light, the opening up of academy membership, and hopefully the opening up of opportunities for people of color to tell their stories their way, will go a long way toward changing that dynamic, toward making all of us more familiar with each other. As Viola Davis powerfully said in the midst of the madness, "Diversity is not a trending topic." It is much more important than that.

Twitter: @KennethTuran

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 21, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "An old order changes - A bit of revolution has been messy. But diversity in storytelling is good for all. - ON FILM" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe