This month, as Oscar seasons gets into full swing, we see the beginnings of the relatively recent tradition of the roundtables. Publications like The Hollywood Reporter and the L.A. Times, always savvy about the appeal of a group of celebrities in close proximity to the masses, have revealed a few of their choices this year, all of which signal the changing winds of the ever-exhausting awards wagon. These roundtables can yield occasionally interesting moments, but by now, the routine is familiar and sticking to a clean pattern: Be nice, say the right things, and build up your potential nominee cred in the knowledge that none of these places will ask you anything that controversial. Some topics, however, are unavoidable in our post-Weinstein world, so when the L.A. Times asked their Best Actor contenders what it was like to be a man in Hollywood today, it was a predictable choice but still one that elicited a few giggles. After all, looking at that awkwardly posed group shot of six white men, three of whom look near identical when I take my glasses off, how could you not laugh incredulously at how tone deaf the optics of the roundtable seemed? The Hollywood Reporter’s Actress hopefuls table was similarly bleak, with Mary J. Blige providing the only non-white face in the crowd. Other tables looked more diverse - for the first time, the L.A. Times managed something close to gender parity for their directors’ table, but still only one person of colour - but the message was clear: Welcome back, #OscarsSoWhite.
When Moonlight won Best Picture this year, amidst the drama of the fuck-up that resulted in one of the great Oscar moments to remember (or forget, if you’re Warren Beatty), we didn’t focus as much on the magnitude of the film’s victory as we should have. Moonlight coming out of nowhere to win the top honour against major competition wasn’t just the ultimate surprise, it was a sign that change was in the air. Following the original online grassroots campaign for #OscarsSoWhite, pioneered by April Reign, it became utterly impossible for the media and entertainment industry to ignore the white elephant in the room. Now, people dismiss the big deal of Moonlight winning because they claim it’s a pretty baity story, the kind the Oscars usually love, but it stands out because it’s the exact opposite of that, and it never marketed itself as such. One of the least thirsty Oscar campaigns in recent history still took home the gold. It felt like a moment that maybe, just maybe, merit might actually become a defining factor in deciding the winners.
Now, a mere 8 months after that shock evening, it feels as though Hollywood and the trades have simply returned to the status quo. The roundtables are white again, the narratives back to the same stories, and the old excuses returning to the fold. Oh, they’re white because they’re just representative of what films are in the running this year; Yeah, it’d be nice if we had more diversity, but we don’t want to force it; But Moonlight won last time so we can’t be too surprised if things get whiter again; and my personal favourite, but these are just the frontrunners we have and that’s not our fault.
I question if the trades like the Hollywood Reporter and Variety truly understand the role they have in shaping the very idea of an awards season narrative, or if they do and just don’t wish to rock the boat too much. The latter makes more sense than the former. Why else throw the roundtables if not to create buzz and play your part in the process? It’s not as if those panels are frivolous cogs in the machine either. They’re something that publicists hunt to get their clients onto. Don’t buy into the faux apprehension that they all play up in their appearances, desperate to create the illusion that they had no interest in appearing there and keep up the façade that none of them really care that much about winning an Oscar. Nine times out of ten, when someone in awards contention tells you they don’t care about winning, they’re lying: Of course they want to win! If they weren’t fussed about the whole dog and pony show, they wouldn’t be there in the first place.
The way we talk about Oscar movies and ‘awards bait’ helps to craft the narrative of what wins these rather arbitrary honours as much as the expensive For Your Consideration campaigns or inter-industry chit-chat.
That’s what makes it so disappointing when we voluntarily regurgitate the same outdated assumptions and archaic notions of what is and isn’t worthy. Historically, whiteness is the worthiest quality of cinema for this process, and the lives of people of colour are more likely to be rewarded if told through the spectrum of white spectatorship. We instinctively assume that certain movies can’t win because their subject matter isn’t what the Academy wants, or that these performances will never be nominated because it’s just not the kind of acting the wins awards.
Change is in the air - who could have predicted that Get Out would have become a serious contender this time 6 months ago, and Netflix may very well create an industry shift in attitudes with Mudbound - but it’s still maddeningly incremental, and as we can see from the media helping to mould those narratives of Oscar gold, it’s easier than ever to fall back on the old ideas we know so well. Those are the assumptions that we need to push back against. There shouldn’t be all white panels in 2017 for any issue, much less ones of cinema, and we as journalists and entertainment lovers should do more to challenge the narratives sold to us. Why not seek out the stories, creators and actors whose work doesn’t fit that mould but deserves consideration, regardless of how effective their publicist is at landing interviews? Let’s support the films whose voices need elevating. Change shouldn’t be a one-off celebration that punctuates a return to the status quo, nor should it be something we have to publicly embarrass the industry into doing.