Last year, the Oscars came in for quite a bit of criticism within the American film community. The problem wasn’t that the nominees were too worthy, or the speeches too long. Nor was it that some of the best films of 2015 – Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Martian, Steve Jobs – were snubbed. Nor did anyone complain that the picture that received the most nominations – The Revenant – was a three-hour snorefest starring the finger-wagging environmentalist Leo DiCaprio. No, the reason for all the grumbling was that the 88th Academy Awards weren’t politically correct enough. The good burghers of Hollywood got on their high horses about the fact that the 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the people who make up the Oscars electorate – were too old, too male and, yes, too white.
Jada Pinkett-Smith announced she would be boycotting that year’s ceremony because no African-Americans had been nominated in the the four acting categories, including her husband Will Smith who was overlooked for his portrayal of a forensic pathologist in Concussion. Other African-American filmmakers joined the boycott, including Spike Lee and Don Cheadle, and the Twitter hashtag associated with the protest – #OscarsTooWhite – went viral.
The President of the Academy could have ignored the criticisms. After all, Cheryl Boone Isaacs is African-American herself and it hasn’t prevented her from becoming one of the most powerful women in Hollywood. She could have pointed out that, of all the actors nominated for Academy Awards between 2000 and 2016, 10 per cent were black. That’s hardly evidence of racism, given that African-Americans make up just 12.6 per cent of the US population. Indeed, according to the Economist, only nine per cent of the top roles in the highest-grossing films of 2000 to 2013 were played by black actors. So if anything, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is guilty of positive discrimination. But that isn’t the Hollywood way. Instead, Boone Isaacs announced she would be taking ‘dramatic steps’ to address the ‘Whitewash’ and called an emergency meeting of the Academy board. The solution, as it always is on the left, was a ‘purge’. Henceforth, she declared, any member who hadn’t been active in Hollywood for the past 10 years, with the exception of those who’d been nominated for an Oscar, would have their voting rights forcibly withdrawn. In their place, the Academy appointed 683 new members, including the actors John Boyega, America Ferrera, Ice Cube, Idris Elba, Daniel Dae Kim, and Gabrielle Union; the directors Ryan Coogler and Marjane Satrapi; and the three Wayans brothers, Damon, Marlon, and Keenen.
Not surprisingly, this year’s Oscars will be even more politically correct than usual – not so much the 89th Academy Awards, as Hollywood’s First Annual Diversity and Inclusion Awards. African-American actors have been nominated in each of the four acting categories. Six black actors have been nominated in total, a whopping 30 per cent. Four of the five nominees in the Best Documentary Feature category are people of colour, while Barry Jenkins, the African-America writer and director of Moonlight, has been nominated in two different categories. In case you don’t get the point, the Academy has nominated the black playwright August Wilson for Best Original Screenplay for Fences, even though he’s been dead for 12 years. I don’t recall William Shakespeare being nominated for Macbeth last year. Perhaps that’s because he’s ‘too white’.
Of the nine films nominated for Best Picture this year, no less than three deal with the struggles of African-Americans to overcome prejudice and achieve the recognition and respect they deserve (Hidden Figures, Moonlight, Fences). Of the other six, one is a slow-moving drama about the efforts of an adopted Indian boy to track down his real family (Lion), another is an anti-war epic by that gentle, peace-loving Australian Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge), another is about aliens visiting Earth to teach us about the dangers of nuclear weapons (Arrival), while yet another concerns the efforts of two unemployed brothers to wreak revenge on the rapacious capitalists who’ve denuded them of their livelihood (Hell or High Water). Bringing up the rear is Manchester by the Sea, which concerns the efforts of a working class man to come to terms with the death of his wife, children and brother. Not exactly a barrel of laughs.
Only one of the nine is a no-holds-barred slice of old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment – a musical extravaganza about, yes, you guessed it, Hollywood (La La Land). At least you don’t leave the cinema wanting to kill yourself. This year’s four-hour telecast, due to be broadcast tonight, will be a tsunami of virtue signalling. No self-respecting Oscar winner will be able to leave the stage without letting the audience know just how much they really, really dislike Donald Trump. There will be endless speeches about the power of art to bring people together and heal divisions – in stark contrast to the dastardly villain in the White House. If you’re a betting man, I recommend putting a fiver on The Salesman to win Best Foreign Language Film. For a while, it looked as though director Asghar Farhadi wouldn’t be allowed into America to attend the ceremony owing to the fact that he’s from Iran, one of seven Muslim majority countries Trump included in his travel ban.
What better way of cocking a snook at the new President than to award one of Hollywood’s highest honours to an Iranian Muslim? But don’t expect Hollywood’s little protest to give Trump any sleepless nights. The truth is, the Academy Awards aren’t the ratings gold they once were. In 2016, only 34 million Americans tuned in, the smallest audience for the Oscars in eight years. Trump’s first presidential debate, by contrast, attracted a record-breaking 84 million.
Indeed, the most entertaining thing tonight will probably be Trump’s dismissal of the whole hand-wringing shebang on Twitter. If Cheryl Boone Isaacs really wanted to save the Oscars from descending into naval-gazing irrelevance, she should have enlarged the membership to include 683 members of the public. People who go to the cinema for pleasure, rather than to be taught a civics lesson. If she’d done that, it’s possible that some of this year’s most popular films might have received Best Picture nominations – films like Captain America: Civil War, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and the sublime Dr Strange. Hollywood still knows how to make movies. It just awards prizes to the wrong ones.