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Why the #OscarsSoWhite fuss matters

After years of fighting dwindling ratings and patchy box office to prove their relevance, the people behind the Oscar ceremony had relevance thrust upon them.

Announced at a time already roiling with issues surrounding race and gender, the overwhelmingly white and male nominee lists for this year's awards sparked criticism, controversy, a potential boycott and an apologetic response from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Nor should we be surprised that the criticism, controversy, boycott and response have sparked a response just as heated.

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Awards are objective measures of excellence, goes one argument; female writers and directors or actors of color should not be shoehorned onto nominee lists just to provide some politically correct vision of diversity.

Others defend the academy, pointing out that the homogeneous nature of the nominee lists is less a reflection of voter bias than the equally homogeneous nature of this year’s films.

And a growing chorus wants to know why anyone really cares. With all the troubles in the world, do we really need to worry that a bunch of relatively rich and privileged filmmakers are mad that their movies didn’t get an Oscar nomination?

So what if the nominees for the Academy Awards continue to be overwhelmingly male and white; professional basketball is overwhelmingly male and black. What does it matter?

Well, it matters because film is art, and art matters.

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, the images we choose to create and share reveal who we are — our hopes, our fears, our secrets, strengths and shortcomings.

When we praise and reward certain stories or images, whether by big box office or gold statuary, we reveal what we as a society value, the kinds of people we find interesting, the characteristics we revere and revile. We show the paths we hope to choose or avoid and the lessons we have learned, or not learned, from history.

One could argue that there are plenty of films, and even more television series, offering a wider range of stories and characters than those nominated for Oscars, so who cares what the still-homogeneous body of voters, with its even narrower professional breakdowns, thinks?

Hollywood cares. Hollywood cares, a lot. Why else would studios spend so much money on Oscar campaigns?

Oscar nominations and wins are not a lifetime guarantee of success, but they certainly help recipients get the next job.

More important, as the film industry is increasingly divided into popcorn spectacular and Oscar potential, each round of nominations and winners further solidifies the type of movies that will get made in the next year.

As many people are quick to point out, Hollywood is not a federally funded arts council, it’s an industry. Studio executives choose films — and writers and stars and directors —that they believe will make money.

Which means, if you follow one train of thought, the overwhelming white maleness of most films is not a social issue, it’s an economic reality. This is what the market will bear.

Except, of course, it isn’t. Hollywood, like most industries, is cautious and repetitive, often looking to replicate the success of one film or another. It takes a lot to change the collective mindset, to convince those in the position to greenlight films, that broadening the template will be more profitable than faithfully following it.

In the years before Peter Jackson made “The Lord of the Rings,” for example, the fantasy film was dead; most Hollywood executives wouldn’t touch a dragon with a 10-foot spear because, as they said repeatedly at the time, fantasy films didn’t make money. They most certainly did not win Oscars.

Until, of course, they did.

In the years before Katniss Everdeen launched her first arrow, conventional wisdom held that a male protagonist was the safest bet, particularly in an action story, because girls will root for a male lead but boys would not return the favor.

Until, of course, they did.

No one makes it onto a nomination list by accident. As deserving as any film, performance, directing or sound editing might be, at some point someone decided that this film, this story was more important than some other story and that this actor or director or cinematographer had the best chance of making the end product both satisfying and successful.

Then more choices were made. Which of these films should be marketed heavily, which performances recognized as career-definers or surprise successes or emotional returns to the screen? At no point in any year are these decisions made by some amorphous star chamber of otherworldly beings capable of seeing “art” in purely objective terms. Films are financed, marketed and then voted on by people — people who often, and not surprisingly, make their decisions with reference to the template provided them by what has worked, and won, in the past.

So why does the controversy and outrage over this year’s Oscar nominations matter? Because it’s time — it’s beyond time — that we stopped limiting ourselves to the same sorts of stories, the same sorts of characters and then reinforcing those limitations year after year after year. 

Is it the academy's "fault" that so many excellent films featured all-white casts or revolved around men? Well no, and yes. The academy is made up of the people who make the films, and they know awards shows have several functions: to reward excellence, but also to show the many forms excellence can occupy.

“The aim of art,” said philosopher and famous white guy Aristotle, "is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

The problem with the overwhelming male-whiteness of this year’s Oscars is not white males and their stories, it’s the millions of other people and stories that should be part of the powerful force of American cinema and continually are not.

Tyranny comes in many forms, and offering people only one tiny window through which to view the world is one of them.           

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

Follow@MaryMacTV

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