I’m a Southern white dude reared by uneducated folks, so though my intentions are earnest and honest, sometimes it takes me an extra step or two to get to where I need to be going. For example, when the Oscar nominations were announced the #OscarsSoWhite controversy began, it took me a second to get up to speed.
My dumb first thought was, “But there weren’t any real Oscar-type movies with black actors in them,” which is when I heard the little voice in my mind scream into my brain, “You’re missing the point, dumbass!”
“How’s that?” I asked the voice inside my brain.
“The point is not just that there are a lack of actors of color in ‘Oscar type’ movies,” the voice said, “the point is how the Academy defines what an Oscar movie is!”
“Umm, what do you mean?” I asked the voice inside my head.
“Did you see Walk the Line?” the voice asked me.
“What’d you think?”
“It was OK. Decent performances, but it was fairly generic,” I said.
“OK. What’d you think of Straight Outta Compton?”
“I liked it. A lot. It also had some generic aspects inherent to musical biopics, but on the whole, I thought it was terrific.”
“Uh huh. And why do you think it didn’t get any acting nominations?” the voice in my brain asked, patronizingly.
“Because it’s not the kind of movie that the Academy typically recognizes.”
“And why is that?”
“Well, let me ask you this, Dustin,” the voice asked. “Did both movies depict musical and cultural icons who were hugely influential in their particular genres? And did N.W.A. and Johnny Cash both reflect a sort of anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian values?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“OK, then, Dustin. Why do you think that Walk the Line received 5 Academy Award nominations while Straight Outta Compton received one one, for screenwriting by its white-only screenwriters?”
“Because Walk the Line appealed better to Oscar voters?”
“And why is that, Dustin?”
“Because Walk the Line is a better movie … ?”
“No, Dustin. You said yourself that you liked Straight Outta Compton better than Walk the Line and you’re a goddamn movie critic, so theoretically, you should know.”
“Yeah, but better doesn’t always mean more Oscar-worthy. What was that boring Cumberbatch movie about Alan Turing? The Imitation Game. It got a ton of nominations, and it was a snoozer.”
“Uh huh. You’re onto something here, Dustin. Why is that? Think really hard.”
“Because it was Oscar bait!” I yelled at the voice in my head.
“Yes! Sort of. But what qualifies as Oscar bait?”
“I dunno. Period dramas about important historical figures that often include tragic events.”
“What about Straight Outta Compton doesn’t fit within that definition?”
“Huh. I think I see what you mean. Maybe Oscar voters just didn’t like all the language and violence in that film.”
“DUSTIN. HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A SCORSESE FILM? They say ‘fuck’ 569 times in Wolf of Wall Street, and it received multiple Oscar nominations. In fact, there were 200 more ‘fucks’ in Wolf of Wall Street than in Straight Outta Compton.”
“Really?” I asked, bewildered.
“What’s the most violent film you’ve ever seen?” the voice in my brain asked.
“Oh, that’s easy. The Passion of the Christ.”
“Three Academy Award nominations, and the director is a known anti-Semite. So, let me ask you again, Dustin, what’s the difference between Straight Outta Compton and Walk the Line?”
“One features a white cast and the other features a black cast,” I said.
“OK. Fair enough. I think I see what you’re saying. It’s not just that black actors are underrepresented in Oscar-type films, it’s that Oscar-type films are often defined in a way that excludes movies featuring minorities. But that doesn’t mean that, like, Kevin Hart movies should be considered Oscar-worthy just because he’s black, does it?”
“No, dumbass. What is wrong with you? The movie still has to be good. Let me offer you another example, OK?”
“Cool. OK. Hit me.”
Critics describe this recent movie as “a sobering, uncompromising, picture of war’s human cost.” It received 91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Can you identify the film?
Nope. American Sniper only received 72 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie I was describing was Beasts of No Nation, for which Idris Elba won Best Actor at the SAGs. Guess how many Oscar noms it got?
“Exactly,” the voice in my head said. “And Sniper? It received seven. The difference, of course, is that Sniper was about a white trigger-happy Texan, while Beasts was about a civil war in West Africa.”
“Here’s another,” the voice inside my head offered. “Tell me what movie I’m describing: A 2015 coming-of-age film that debuted at Sundance, that you loved, about someone trapped between two worlds. This person has to choose between the comfort and values of his or her homeland and the uncertain, unknown, and exciting future of another world.”
“Oh, that’s easy. Brooklyn. I did love that film!”
“Nope. I was actually describing Dope.”
“Oh my God! I loved that film, too!”
“I know you did, dumbass. I’m the voice inside your head, remember?”
“How many Oscar nominations did Brooklyn get?” the voice inside my head asked.
“Three, including Best Picture.”
“And how many did Dope get?”
“Zero,” I said.
“And what’s the difference between the two films?”
“One was an Oscar-type film and the other wasn’t,” I proclaimed.
“Are you serious?” the voice inside my head asked. “Are you going to make me go through this again?”
“No. I’m sorry. The difference is, Brooklyn reflected the experiences of a white person trapped between the United States and Ireland, and Dope reflected the experiences of a black person trapped between Inglewood, California and Harvard.”
“Right, and which movie was better?”
“I liked them both a lot.”
“OK, but which movie do you think an organization made up of people who are 94 percent white, 77 percent male, and 54 percent over the age of 60 is going to vote for?”
“Brooklyn, for sure.”
“Is it because they’re racist?” the voice asked.
“No, Dustin. Not necessarily. I mean, maybe some of them are, but on the whole, these voters are just choosing the movies that more accurately reflect their lives and experiences. The problem is representation. In order for movies with a wider spectrum of viewpoints to be appreciated by the Academy, the Academy members must also have a wider spectrum of viewpoints.”
“I see. I understand. That makes perfect sense. It explains the Coen Brothers.”
“What? Why would it explain the Coen Brothers?” the voice asked.
“Well, they’re always nominated for Oscars because they’re white, right?”
“No! What is wrong with you?” the voice inside my head asked. “The Coen Brothers are nominated because they’re amazing directors who tell phenomenal stories!”
“About white people,” I said.
“Well, yes. But … “
“OK, fine. Maybe a little because they’re white.”