The Oscars, Hollywood and Race: A Wake Up Call By Russell Simmons (Exclusive)
The hip-hop pioneer and entrepreneur writes a scathing critique of the industry's disconnect from its audience.
I watched the Oscars this year and it felt, well, familiar. Sure, familiar can be comforting, but familiar can also just be downright boring. Now don't get me wrong; I have deep respect for Hollywood and all its players. I know that they are, for the most part, well-intentioned, sweet, progressive, liberally minded storytellers who have grand aspirations for the world. The problem is that while they believe in the concept of an all-inclusive, post-racial America, they don't trust in it enough to bank on it. And now, they’re paying for it.
Each year as the Oscar hype grows, so does the usual anticipation of tuning into something that will truly blow our minds. This year that excitement was heightened for me personally when I got the news that my "son," Brett Ratner, was slated to produce and was bringing in Eddie Murphy to host. I knew that I had raised my boy right (on a steady diet of directing rap videos when he was still in film school) and that he was going to give the Oscars the long-awaited face-lift it needed -- a face that was young again, culturally relevant, reflective of the times and the audience it aims to serve. I couldn't wait to see it.
But as we all know, that scenario wasn't meant to be. Then word came out they had hired Brian Grazer, an old friend of mine who had enough faith in my vision back in the day to make me a partner and producer of the highly successful Nutty Professor, during a time when you just didn't see black men in charge. Later I was surprised to find out that I was the first black producer on a big-budget Hollywood film who wasn't talent. I assumed that having Brian take over the reins meant that the spirit of diversity would survive. Brian is wildly talented and knows diversity. However, when Eddie followed Brett out the door and I heard Billy Crystal was back, it seemed that the Oscars may just be back to the same old same old.
Sure enough, when the Oscars aired, the old guard hadn't changed; the players were the same, and the winners -- though talented and deserving -- were not representative of the movies people were paying to see. The white-bread dynasty was in full effect from the moment Billy Crystal started singing his "Oscar Oscar Oscar" ditty. No surprises. No scandals. No upsets. No party. No flavor. Everyone was up in arms at Billy Crystal's joke, which, in my opinion, wasn't racist in and of itself and could have played well everywhere else. But didn't go over well in a place that excludes people of color. That joke made a statement that the Academy's voting practices and insight into American mainstream culture remains deeply flawed. The elephant in the room was finally exposed.
No disrespect to the winners, but the consensus seemed to be that the audience felt left out. White bread had gone moldy stale. The sad part is it doesn't have to be this way. Hollywood is just misinformed because those who run it are isolated from their consumers. I have seen this up close. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been in a meeting and heard Hollywood execs say, "I love that, but the audience will never go for it," I would be able to greenlight all the movies I believed in. There is a definite disconnect in the way they view the world. They don't believe that a great number of people in Middle America live in, or at least aspire to live in, a post-racial America.
The truth is, Hollywood's dream is already a reality, they just don't believe it. The people who go to the movies want to see this aspiration or reality reflected back to them in the products they buy. Hollywood isn't selling those products. Thankfully, other industries such as music and advertising are. But Hollywood is a monster power that needs to be a step ahead, but sadly they are a step behind.
So who is to blame? It can't all fall on their choice to make it impossible for Brett and Eddie to get up there and do their thing. As I said, they did hire Brian Grazer, who is no stranger to diversity. While having Eddie hosting would have been a huge step in the right direction, it's not really fair to ask the Oscars to represent a movie industry that is flawed itself from the inside out. Some films successfully represent diverse cultural melting pots, but how many black executives are greenlighting films? How many Latinos are selling scripts? How many Asians are carrying leading roles?
Post-racial America is coming. Sure, it's true that many executives who live in Beverly Hills don't live in one -- yet. But many aspire to it and thirst for it in the programming they consume. Hollywood has good intentions but no sensitivity. It clearly have no real understanding of how America is evolving.
Someone needs to take the pin out of the Hollywood bubble, just as they have done within the music industry and the advertising world. It's a telling statistic that this year's Grammy Awards drew in almost 40 million viewers, eclipsing the Oscar ratings for the first time in history. Why? Because music executives couldn't segregate artists if they tried! The music industry gets it because they have no choice. My nephew Diggy and Justin Bieber may look different, but they are cut from the same cultural fabric and sell their records to the same fans. Katy Perry and Rihanna may appear dissimilar but have much more similarities than differences in the eyes of pop culture. Between the artists’ friendships/collaborations and basic consumer demand, the music industry has all the research it needs to know that segregating artists is not the way to sell records. Post-racial America has a face in the music of today, and thank God for that.
So where does this leave the Oscars? Perhaps the somber reviews of this year's telecast will send a strong message that something has to give. "Liberal" Hollywood just got a loud-and-clear message that it needs to start practicing what it preaches. If it promotes equality, and it does, stop just talking the talk and start walking the walk. It might not believe that America is ready for integration, but ratings don't lie. America itself has a long way to go where we all will be living in a true post-racial reality, but we’re evolving to that place. Hollywood and the Oscars need to follow suit.