This story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The fact that, for the second year in a row, there are no actors of color nominated for Oscars in the acting categories has triggered a tanker-full of Internet think pieces because that’s what the Internet does. There have been calls for a boycott. There have been suggestions that Chris Rock should recuse himself from hosting the ceremony Feb. 28, although he doesn’t plan to do so. And it has led to changes at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences designed to diversify its membership, which is 93 percent white and 76 percent male.
But those responses address the symptoms and not the disease — it’s like prescribing skin cream for red blotches instead of dealing with the underlying condition. The real root cause behind the all-white acting nominations is that no one is making black Oscar bait.
There currently are two types of movies that get diverse casts: popcorn movies and homework movies. The international marketplace has shown that such popcorn movies as the Fast & Furious and Ride Along series, and even Star Wars: The Force Awakens — big, shiny genre movies with United Colors of Benetton call sheets — perform well, even exceedingly well. But those films are not necessarily designed to win Oscars in any categories beyond visual effects and some of the crafts. They are designed to make a billion dollars. And that’s fine.
Then there are the homework movies — movies intended to teach America about some fundamental part of the African-American experience: Selma, 12 Years a Slave, Malcolm X, The Help. Movies that attempt to wrestle a massive issue to the ground and make it understandable to a mass (read: white) audience while still revealing the inner life of its protagonists. And those are good. Those are important. But they can’t be all there is.
Rock had a joke in his 2008 Kill the Messenger HBO special about the town he lives in, Alpine, N.J. There are hundreds of houses in this neighborhood, and there are, in his words, only four black people: him, Mary J. Blige, Jay Z and Eddie Murphy. Some of the best in their field. And the person who lives next to Rock? A dentist. Not the dentist who invented fillings, just a regular dentist. Rock’s point: “The black man gotta fly to get to something the white man can walk to.”
More often than not, the black films that are in Oscar contention are about people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X or Solomon Northup. People who, by the measure of any yardstick, are exemplary. As they used to say, in less enlightened times, “credits to their race.” If you are African-American, you literally have to change the world before there’s ever going to be a film based on your life. And if you’re a filmmaker trying to push a film that’s about a fictional African-American who just, you know, has a story to tell, forget it.
On the other hand, there are films like Joy, which is about a white lady who invented some stuff and became a millionaire. (Not the first female self-made millionaire in America, mind you: That would be C.J. Walker, who did it at the turn of the century. And was black.) Or Room, which is about a white lady and her son stuck in a room. Or Nebraska, about an old white dude who likes to ramble. Or Blue Jasmine, about a rich white lady who goes broke. Or Silver Linings Playbook, about white people who learn to dance poorly but triumphantly. I’m not saying any of those movies are unworthy of recognition — I’m saying that the criteria by which films are determined to be “awards pictures” are vastly different, depending on the color of the actors in them.
Where is the black Revenant? Or the Latino The Kids Are All Right? Or the Asian Black Swan? Why don’t those movies get made? Or, when they do get made, why aren’t they embraced by their financiers and distributors — and the Hollywood Illuminati that determines which films get awards buzz and which films don’t?
There are, of course, exceptions to any rule: Though Concussion failed to earn Will Smith a nomination, Mo’Nique scored a statuette for Precious in 2010 — and both films are about “ordinary” people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. But imagine if a film like the 2011 indie Pariah, about a Brooklyn teenager, had starred a then-unknown Jennifer Lawrence instead of Adepero Oduye — would it have gotten the Winter’s Bone treatment that Lawrence’s breakthrough movie received?
A boycott of the Oscars won’t solve the issue at hand. The only way to get better representation for people of color, come awards season, is to make more movies by, with and about people of color. The studio heads, when it comes time to plan their slates — when they decide which tentpoles to put where and which films to bait Oscar with — need to widen their focus. In the case of black stories, don’t just look for the totemic figure to build a giant biopic around, just look to tell good stories. More movies about the whole range of black life means more performances that potentially can be nominated, more diverse voices you can invite into the Academy so that, in years to come, ballots won’t ever look like this again.