Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Oscar Nominations and Diversity

Hollywood Gold and Oscars So White.  The Oscar nominations will be announced early Thursday morning, January 14th.  If you're a regular reader of my blog post, you know that I am passionate about diversity in the arts.  This post will also focus on diversity in relation to last year's top trending Twitter hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite.  That was born out of the lack of actors of color in the running as last year's Oscar nominees.  I write this as someone who was hired by ABC News to be the Entertainment Editor (weekly film critic) for its Lifetime Live, a live co-hosted afternoon magazine show on Lifetime TV.  That was in 2000.  If that show was still on and I was doing a special pre-Oscar nominations segment, I'd say that Hollywood insiders predict Leonardo DiCaprio adds another Best Actor Oscar nomination to his resume for his performance in The Revenant.
We'll eagerly wait to see if Cate Blanchett racks up another Best Actress Oscar nomination for her work in Carol.
Will the new Star Wars adventure, Star Wars:  The Force Awakens, with its gender and racial diversity soar its way into the Best Picture Oscar race?
And will there be any Oscar nomination love for one of the summer's biggest box office and critical hits, the N.W.A. rap music biopic Straight Outta Compton?
When the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag hit Twitter after the nominations for last years Oscars came out, diversity in Hollywood became a huge issue.  Entertainment columnists looked at the low number of minorities in the voting Academy.  This was coupled with the inequality of women directors and the pay inequality of actresses compared to what actors get.  All these issues needed to be raised and addressed years ago.  I'm thrilled the issues arose then and are still in discussion today.  I do have a feeling that Thursday's nominations could be an #OscarsSoWhite repeat because the films out now were being readied for release when the diversity issue came up.  Perhaps later releases will show more diversity.  I loved Far From Heaven, the Oscar nominated 2002 film by Todd Haynes.  Viola Davis has a bit part in that film as the maid.  Can you imagine if Todd shook some chains off old Hollywood brains and gave us Carol starring Viola Davis and Thandie Newton instead of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara?
I hold that the Hollywood gender and race diversity issues could've been raised earlier had the field of film critics we've been given on network, syndicated and local TV had not been a predominantly white boys' club.  There are plenty of skilled female, black and Latino and Asian film critics in New York and L.A. who are rarely -- if ever -- seen on TV.  If there's to be diversity in the arts, there must also be diversity amongst those who professionally discuss and review the arts.  I cannot recall one black or Latino film critic on TV who told me why I needed to see The Butler, The Help or 12 Years A Slave.  White male critics on TV and in print got the national spotlight to praise those films.

Now that the network TV corporate attachment to movie companies has gotten thicker and erased the line between news and entertainment, we don't see movie critics as weekly regulars on network morning news shows anymore.  The late Gene Siskel, partner to the late Roger Ebert, was seen on CBS. Gene Shalit was on NBC's Today and the late Joel Siegel on ABC's Good Morning America.  CBS is attached to Paramount (Entertainment Tonight), ABC to Disney and NBC to Universal.  On the morning the Oscar nominations are to be announced, I usually switch to all three network to see if any black film contributors are in place to make nomination predictions and discuss the nominations after they're announced.  Aside from the black anchor talent on network shows -- like Robin Roberts on GMA, Gayle King on CBS and Al Roker on Today, the appearances of black film critics or entertainment contributors is still, shall we say, Old School in its racial diversity.  No segment producer for any of those shows has ever thought to invite Wesley Morris on for Oscar talk.  Morris, now a columnist for The New York Times, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for film criticism when he wrote for The Boston Globe.  
From Gene Shalit to Siskel & Ebert to Ben Mankiewicz & Ben Lyons to David Edelstein who is the film critic on CBS Sunday Morning, the field has been predominately Caucasian male.  That includes movie hosts on outlets like Turner Classic Movies and, back in the day when it aired classic films and the letters stood for American Movie Channel, AMC.  Whoopi Goldberg was a special guest host on AMC but that was because she's Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg.  Over the last couple of years, I was a guest co-host on the Arise TV show, Arise On Screen.  That was a weekend film review/interview show hosted by film critic and historian Mike Sargent.  He reviewed new domestic and foreign releases.  He also put a regular spotlight on women directors and gay & lesbian filmmakers.  Every show had three critics discussing movies.  Here I am at one of our New York City Arise On Screen tapings with Mike and critic/author Raqiyah Mays. Yes.  A black female film critic.  How many times have you seen THAT on a network morning news program?
This week, I heard someone on L.A. radio describe the Academy as mostly older white males.  Maybe that's the behind-the-scenes vibe at the network morning shows, a vibe that needs change.  I'll use the Today show as an example.  It gave generous airtime to segments promoting three Universal releases -- Jurassic World, Minions and the comedy Trainwreck.  Google the name of each feature plus The Today Show and look at how many interviews and segments pop up. Universal's Straight Outta Compton was number one at the box office for three consecutive weekends.  It was a big hit overseas too.  Google that film title plus The Today Show.  No Today show segments pop up.  F. Gary Gray directed Straight Outta Compton.  How many times in Hollywood history has a black filmmaker directed the movie that's number one at the box office for three consecutive weekends?  Nonethless, NBC/Universal's Today show pretty much ignored Universal's Straight Outta Compton.  I would've pitched that Today interview F. Gary Gray if I was on the morning show's production team.  But maybe that production team is like the Academy's voting body.  The Today show ignoring Straight Outta Compton should've been noticed by TV critics.

This need for diversity in arts talk applies to theater criticism too.  The Broadway musical hit Hamilton is one of hottest tickets in town.  Tickets are nuclear hot.  The music, lyrics and book were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  This Puerto Rican New Yorker gave us the previous Broadway musical hit, In The Heights.  There's youth and racial diversity aplenty in his critically-acclaimed Hamilton.               
This week, an actor friend told me that he watched critics hail it on New York 1, a local all-news TV station.  But what irked him was that all the critics were white.  There was no racial diversity in the panel discussing a groundbreaking original play full of racial diversity.

Thursday, I'll be eager to see the racial mix of guest contributors kicking off the Oscars countdown on ABC, CBS and NBC. I'd have loved to have been in the mix one year.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of The Academy and the first black woman to hold that position, will announce Oscar nominees Thursday morning.  Her late brother, Ashley Boone, was a highly respected Hollywood executive who helped 20th Century Fox out of a financial slump.  One of his many successes -- Ashley Boone was the marketing whiz behind the first Star Wars, an Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1977.  Viva Diversity!

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