The Academy Awards were janky before Moonlight lost, and then no, no, actually won the Oscar for best picture in 2017.
The biggest oops in the history of the Oscars telecast didn’t just steal a moment from director and producer Barry Jenkins that he’ll never get back. It created a Rubicon. The artifice that had always been part of the Oscars was exposed in a manner seen more widely than, say, poet Rita Dove’s documenting of the racist indignities endured by Hattie McDaniel the night she became the first Black person to win an Academy Award.
The Oscars, bless, are even jankier now. Perhaps it’s time to scrap them altogether. And if that’s not possible, then heavens to Betsy, it is high time for filmmaking workers to organize and found the Delta Sigma Theta to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Alpha Kappa Alpha and let the brainchild of studio head and union buster Louis B. Mayer dissolve into cultural irrelevancy. Before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the ratings for the Oscars telecast had been tumbling for years. Suspend sentimentalism for a minute and consider: How sacred are the Oscars, really? Would it be so terrible to create a meaningful alternative to them and the systemic inequities they celebrate and perpetuate?
This conclusion is not the product of sour grapes stemming from the egregious snubs endured this year by, among others, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Viola Davis, and Danielle Deadwyler. Rather, it comes from the realization that no amount of gradualism will ever fully divorce the Academy Awards from their self-congratulatory, biased and destructive history.
If Hollywood is where worlds and characters and languages get imagined and built out of thin air and computer programming, then surely it’s possible to create a better, fairer, and far less flawed mechanism for recognizing artistic achievement in filmmaking — one that isn’t grounded in the historically racist, sexist, anti-queer, anti-fat, ableist, cowardly, profit-driven opinions of studio bosses, or the exclusionary practices of the industry guilds.
I used to believe that there was hope for the Oscars and the type of art they reward, with Brad Pitt and his production company, Plan B (the company that produced Moonlight), serving as an exemplar of new possibilities. With campaigns for Selma, 12 Years a Slave, and Moonlight, Plan B seemed to signal the vanguard of a more egalitarian Hollywood serious about consistently turning out quality, boundary-pushing work from Black filmmakers and other nonwhite filmmakers. And it was the creation of one of the most well-liked and respected white men in the business, one who didn’t employ the abusive tactics of Miramax co-founder and convicted serial rapist Harvey Weinstein. And then Pitt was credibly accused of abusing his children and his wife during a 2016 private jet trip. He sold his stake in Plan B, where he had occupied a role as an art director of prestige American cinema, to a French media company. In 2020, Pitt’s contemporaries awarded him the Oscar for best supporting actor for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a film that concludes with Pitt’s character beating two young women to death (members of the murderous Manson Family cult).
Hollywood had reverted to form, a development confirmed by Green Book winning best picture in 2019 and the I told you look shared between actors Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan when it happened. The win for Moonlight was not the dawning of a new age, but an exception that proved the rule of the academy’s white supremacist system. In the 95-year history of the Oscars, no Black person has won the prize for best director. Only six have ever been nominated, and they’re all men. In the eyes of the academy, talented women with cinematic styles as varied as those of Julie Dash, Dee Rees, Cheryl Dunye, Mati Diop, Janicza Bravo, Kathleen Collins, Regina King, and Alice Diop just … don’t exist.
When Black Panther costume designer Ruth E. Carter won her second Oscar Sunday night for her work on the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, she made history, but not in a way that inspires much faith. When informed that she was the only Black woman in history to win two Academy Awards, Carter told The New York Times “that’s crazy.” There’s a lot more crazy where that came from. For example, Michelle Yeoh, who won Sunday for her star turn in Everything Everywhere All at Once, and Halle Berry, who won in 2002 for Monster’s Ball, are the only two women to win the prize for best actress who aren’t white.
Still, the Oscars remain the crown jewel, the entire reason “award season,” as a concept, exists. It begins every fall with the Toronto International Film Festival and concludes with the Oscars the following spring, with filmmaking awards bestowed by trade organizations, unions, film festivals, critics groups, and whatever the Hollywood Foreign Press Association considers itself.
Writing for The Hollywood Reporter, Prince-Bythewood, the maestro of The Woman King, explained the professional and creative stakes of winning an Oscar.
“There are those who say to Black filmmakers, ‘Why do you care about awards? Why do you care about validation from a white organization?’ And that’s the thing. The academy and the guilds should not be thought of as white institutions,” wrote Prince-Bythewood. “They’re supposed to be made up of our peers. They’re not. They don’t represent the whole filmmaking community. But what awards give you is currency. They impact your standing. They impact the box office. They impact the steps you take in this industry. They impact who gets final cut.”
If zero Black female directors have been nominated for Oscars, how will Black women filmmakers ever get final cut? What exactly is the wage gap between them and their male contemporaries, and how long does it take to turn into a wealth gap?
Every year, a few deserving triumphs blow some wind into the academy’s threadbare sails of legitimacy. Winning one of those gold men still means something, as evidenced by the emotional speeches delivered Sunday by Yeoh, her Everything Everywhere co-star Ke Huy Quan, and Quan’s former Encino Man co-star Brendan Fraser.
Yeoh’s speech in particular struck a chord of representational romanticism: “For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities,” she said, clearly overcome as she brandished her Oscar. Yeoh is the only Asian woman to win best actress (the only other Asian woman ever nominated was Merle Oberon in 1936, and she had to pass as white just to have a career). “This is proof that … dream big, and dreams do come true.”
I adore and respect Yeoh. I became enthralled by her after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which came out when I was 16. Her work was world expanding and thrilling, her screen presence characterized by intensity and grace. Like Angela Bassett, Yeoh is just captivating. Throughout this season’s campaign she and her Everything Everywhere co-stars spoke candidly about the anti-Asian racism they and their predecessors endured in Hollywood. And yet I winced at that line in her acceptance speech because I know it’s more likely than not that Yeoh’s win will turn out to be yet another exception in a stubbornly white Oscars history rather than a champagne cork unleashing lasting change.
“Anyone who thinks this year was gonna be like last year is retarded,” director Spike Lee told The Daily Beast in 2015, when the directing wing of the academy ignored Ava DuVernay’s work on Selma the same way it ignored Chinonye Chukwu, Alice Diop, and Prince-Bythewood this year. “There were a lot of black folks up there with 12 Years a Slave, Steve [McQueen], Lupita [Nyong’o], Pharrell. It’s in cycles of every 10 years. Once every 10 years or so I get calls from journalists about how people are finally accepting Black films. Before last year, it was the year [in 2002] with Halle Berry, Denzel [Washington], and Sidney Poitier. It’s a 10-year cycle. So I don’t start doing backflips when it happens.”
I spoke to Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck in 2017 when he was promoting I Am Not Your Negro, the documentary based on an unfinished work by James Baldwin, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. I Am Not Your Negro serves as a coda to Baldwin’s book-length essay of film criticism, The Devil Finds Work, and elaborates on the points he makes there implicating the film industry as a laundry service for white supremacy. Peck was also the brains behind the Exterminate All the Brutes, a four-part documentary drama unwinding the violent legacies of colonialism and white supremacy and their continued relevance in our modern era. (Catch it on HBO Max before Warner Bros. Discovery disappears it from the platform.)
“[Film] teaches you something,” Peck said then. “You’re already impregnated [with] this ideology, which is what it is. Seeing Tarzan, you know, those Black savages in the forest. There’s no way I could identify with them. I identified with Tarzan, or even with Cheetah, the chimpanzee, who was much more human than those Black guys you would see in the forest trying to kill Tarzan. Baldwin came later, but he put words in all those things that I was seeing. He taught me how to watch images. He taught me how to deconstruct images, stories, narrative. I don’t know if there are many people who could do that in such an elegant way, political way, poetic way, and also humanistic way.”
I thought about the fact that Oprah Winfrey once famously adored Gone With the Wind so much that she called her 65-acre California compound “Tara II.” Even the woman who produced and starred in a film adaptation of Beloved found herself, for a long time, identifying more with Scarlett O’Hara than she ever did with Mammy. Besides Peck’s work, the sixth episode of Watchmen remains one of the best distillations of the effectiveness of the silver screen as a tool for maintaining a discriminatory social order while presenting itself as an innocuous venue for escapism. And then it makes complete sense that Baldwin once described Gary Cooper and Doris Day as “the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen.”
I learned of the cultural importance of the Academy Awards from the halcyon days of Winfrey’s post-Oscars television special. She would tape at the theater where the ceremony had taken place the night before. Giddy, bleary-eyed winners who’d scarcely slept would drop in to dish about the experience — of winning, of partying, of rubbing shoulders with their personal heroes, of making an improbable discovery that some towering figure in their life was a fan — with the daytime TV doyenne. Winfrey would frequently speak about the formative experience of watching the Academy Awards telecast as a child and seeing Sidney Poitier win the Oscar for best actor in 1964 for his work in Lilies of the Field. Poitier was the first Black actor to win.
There are many who say there are other ways to piece together something akin to the validation an Oscar win bestows. After all, the Independent Spirit Awards exist, as do the NAACP Image Awards. But the Independent Spirit Awards are for movies with small budgets, which leaves out films like Nope. The Image Awards state their mission right in the name. They are not chiefly evaluating and recognizing film as an art form, but as a tool of social progress. And that’s because co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois thought that Black art could play a vital role in combating racism. But racism is wily. It shapeshifts and adapts.
So, no, the film industry doesn’t need yet another ceremony that becomes part of the inexorable march to the big Oscar kahuna. It needs something else, something new, something better and fresher and more honest to supplant the space the Oscars occupy. It needs something that isn’t shaped, controlled, and defined by a few big studios and the homogenous crowd of people running them. These sorts of worker-led enterprises have taken off before. It’s how United Artists, founded in 1919 by Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, first came to be. The problem, of course, was that even as such a group bristled at the power of the studios, they could still be incredibly, indelibly bigoted. Griffith might have been a champion of artistic independence, but he also made a film so racist it resurrected the Ku Klux Klan.
Whatever effort may rise to challenge the Oscars should be serious about honoring the art and craft of cinema, of course. (Honestly, it’s not that hard to be more serious than an organization that’s never awarded statues to Terrence Malick, Agnes Varda or Samuel L. Jackson.) But that alone is not enough. It must confront and question the structural, relational, and material barriers and biases marginalizing all types of film artists and bloom new futures, honors, and traditions.
The devil has long found work in Hollywood. May unemployment rise up to greet him.
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