For Minorities, It’s Better to Have Deserving Oscar Nominees Than Token Lip Service

Oscars

There used to be a time when I went to the movies quite frequently. I was, at one point in my life, very active in seeing Hollywood’s greatest – and sometimes not-so-great – cinematic efforts as soon as they came out, simply for the entertainment value of it all (at that time, I was also working in radio, so I used it as fodder for my on-air commentary). Thus, I was at one time quite knowledgeable when it came down to the films that were nominated for the Academy Awards and the actors and directors that were put up in their particular categories.

As the years have gone by, however, I’ve gotten less tolerant of what goes on in movie theaters. Maybe it’s the price that is being paid to get into seeing these cinematic efforts. There was a time you could pay as little as $.50 to see a film that came out three months previous and, if it was in its first week of release, you could catch the matinee for $2.50 or $3; now, you can’t touch a film for under $7.50 in its first week and these bargain movie theaters don’t exist for the most part. Maybe it’s the concessions and the jacked-up prices there, maybe it’s the incivility of the people going to the movies…I’ve gotten to the point that I wait until the film I REALLY want to see comes to my house On Demand where I can sit with my microwave popcorn and my beverage of choice in my recliner and watch the movie (not to mention if I have to go to the bathroom, I just pause the film). Thus, my knowledge of the movie world isn’t quite as extensive as it has been in the past.

When the 2016 Academy Awards announced their nominees last week, I took note accordingly to potentially get some ideas for Movie Night with my lovely wife. Unfortunately, from looking at the Best Picture nominations, there aren’t many that will pass both of our stringent guidelines. Trumbo may be something that interests me (and thus might see Bryan Cranston’s Best Actor nominated role), but Lovely Wife may be interested in something along the lines of Joy or  Brooklyn (knocking off one of the Best Picture nominees and Jennifer Lawrence, who earned another Best Actress nomination). As you can see, the Movie Night decision is a difficult one in the Burton household (the last movie watched? Inside Out and don’t judge us…that was a more adult film than many you get out of Hollywood!).

The point being made here is that, from the glance over the list of nominees, there were some excellent choices made by the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Some may tilt the head a bit at Mad Max:  Fury Road or The Martian, two films that were extremely popular with moviegoers, but this installment of the Mad Max franchise was a visually stunning and exhausting exercise for viewers while The Martian was a well told story. In the acting categories, there were no weak spots save for maybe the sentimental nomination of Sylvester Stallone in the Best Supporting Actor category for bringing back his iconic boxer Rocky Balboa in Creed (he’s probably also the favorite, however). The one thing I didn’t think of was “Who do I drop so that some minority actors can get into the mix? What film do I eliminate so that a minority film gets some attention?”

Most of the attention after the announcement of the nominees for the Oscars has been the factor that, over the five major awards (Best Picture, Best Actor and Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Actress and, hell, let’s throw in Best Director just for shits and giggles), no minority actor – and, in particular, no black actors – were nominated for any of the awards. This was a point brought up by the host of this year’s Oscars telecast, comedian Chris Rock, who Tweeted that the Oscars had become “the White BET Awards.”

While that was probably meant half funny/half serious, what has happened since has been all serious. The wife of actor Will Smith (who himself has supposedly done some great work in the movie Concussion as the doctor who discovered CTE in pro football players – I only say supposedly because I haven’t seen the film), Jada Pinkett-Smith, went on a tirade about how black actors should boycott the Academy Awards ceremonies over the lack of “diversity in nominations.” For his part, director Spike Lee has jumped on the bandwagon also, saying that he will not attend as a protest over the situation.

A boycott or protest are completely unnecessary on several aspects. First, the head of the AMPAS has noted that the organization is in the midst of changing its membership and, as that takes time, seismic shifts aren’t going to happen overnight. In an announcement following Pinkett-Smith’s hissy fit, AMPAS president Cheryl Boone said “dramatic steps” were being taken to “alter the makeup of our membership” to become more diverse, but more time was needed. The average member of AMPAS is a white male that is 62 years of age so, yes, it needs some changes. Boone and those in charge are sharp to realize this and some time has to be given to be able to make those changes.

Second, would you rather have token actors and/or directors on the list rather than those who actually did outstanding work? When Denzel Washington and Halle Berry swept the Best Actor trophies in 2002, they were the most outstanding actors in film that year. When the movie 12 Years a Slave and actor Lupita Nyong’o won Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress in 2013, they were the best in those respective fields that year. I would rather see people nominated when they arguably deserve the nomination, not just because they are of a particular racial background.

Sure, there were some great performances this year by black actors (and, since this seems to be where much of the screaming is coming from, let’s focus here). The movie Straight Outta Compton was one of the bigger success stories of the year (grossing $188 million by the end of 2015, the best in the history of musical biopics), but which person gets the Best Actor nomination from the five men who performed as the rap group N.W.A. (as an aside, one of my favorite actors from Leverage, Aldis Hodge, was a part of that group)? O’Shea Jackson, Jr., might be the logical choice, but he was simply playing his father, Ice Cube, not a huge leap in any stretch.

Then there’s John Boyega, who is the British actor currently starring in the final three installments of the Star Wars franchise, starting with Star Wars:  The Force Awakens, as Finn. Now, since I haven’t seen this film as of yet, I have to go on reports that say he has done an outstanding job of portraying a Stormtrooper whose loyalties are strained, and this may well be deserving of an acting nomination. But did you see how many Academy Award nominations that Star Wars:  The Force Awakens got overall? Five nominations are great for a film, but all were in technical categories, none of them in any acting categories.

There’s also some other well-known black actors, such as Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation), Will Smith (Concussion), Michael B. Jordan (Creed) and Latin actor/director Benicio del Toro (Sicario), who weren’t chosen for their roles on screen in 2016. I don’t believe that they are being slighted in any way due to their skin tone or racial background. It more than likely is due to a certain snootiness of Oscar voters – who will often go for “artistic” films rather than “popular” ones when it comes to the Academy Awards – more so than any conspiracy over skin color.

Finally, there’s the simple logic of the numbers. Most of the films that come out of Hollywood feature actors that are Caucasians. In a study in 2014 from the Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, only 10.5% of the 172 films that were released in 2011 featured minorities in lead roles. The study found that many of those films were comedies, such as efforts from noted black director Tyler Perry, and films like the action flick Fast Five, not exactly the fare that Academy Award voters are considering. Furthermore, more than half the films (51.2%) featured a cast that was 10% minority or less, the study found. You’d like to think that, by this point, it might have gotten better, but apparently not to the point where it would have an impact on the nominations.

What is the answer to the lack of minority nominees for the Academy Awards? Simply time and the proper vehicles. The more diverse that AMPAS becomes, perhaps the more diverse the nominee list will become also. Additionally, when there are more quality films for minority actors and directors to take part in – instead of movies like White Chicks – then perhaps the attention of AMPAS will be attracted. Either way, it isn’t a situation that will be fixed overnight.

How Television Has Changed (Or, My Favorite Programs Over the Years)

Television has an incredible ability to have an effect on our lives, for better and worse. For every chance that mankind has had the ability to see history making events (the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first Iraq War, etc.), we also have the opportunity to bleed brain cells through watching something completely idiotic (the Kardashians, “Honey Boo Boo,” etc.). In my life, however, there’s been a few shows that had an impact on me and, in some way, kind of show how television has changed over the years.

In the 1970s, the first show that I identified with and was a big fan of was WKRP in Cincinnati. Featuring an ensemble cast, the show was about a radio station in that namesake city and the situations that the staff found itself in, sometimes of their own creation. The comedy was a constant on the show, but it was also known for making some serious statements, including the treatment of soldiers after the Vietnam War. It also featured a cast that would go on to do other great work, including Howard Hesseman, Loni Anderson and Tim Reid (all outstanding in their portrayals of Dr. Johnny Fever, station receptionist Jennifer Marlowe and DJ Venus Flytrap).

When it first premiered in 1978, it automatically became something that I made sure I had my homework finished for so I could see the latest episode. What made it funny was, as I learned later in life, somewhat realistic. The writers of the show based the characters off of people they had met while working in radio and some of the situations that occurred on the show were actual life events for these people. And who can’t laugh when they see something like this (something that actually happened to the writers when they were in radio that they used on the show):

When it went off the air after four years, I was tremendously disappointed. But the show had done something to my mindset in that it encouraged me to want to be a radio DJ. Growing up, I always envisioned myself as Dr. Johnny Fever, working with a bunch of strange people such as he did on the show. That led me to a 16-year career in radio, where I built up my own weird bunch of people and outrageous situations that would have challenged anything that WKRP had presented. It was also a hell of a lot of fun!

I didn’t get into another television series hard core until the late 1990s and there were two that took the stage.

First was Millennium, which was considered a very strange show by most everyone else that I knew. The show was about a former FBI agent who used a paranormal “gift” (the character, Frank Black, called it a “curse”) to be able to see through a criminal’s eyes and solve the usually chilling crimes that they had committed. This special “sense” brought him to the attention of several mysterious groups that wanted to use him for their purposes as mankind approached the end of the millennia.

I have always had a soft spot for heroes that are flawed and Frank Black fit that description to a T. From 1996-99, it was appointment viewing for me if not for anyone else. The show wasn’t even given a decent sendoff; a knot-tying episode of The X-Files called “Millennium” that featured Frank Black (outstandingly played by Lance Henriksen) served as a finale for the program.

To further irritate me as to the realities of television (we’ll get to that in a moment), my next favorite show was one called Brimstone. If you’ve never heard of it, I wouldn’t be surprised; it only lasted for 13 episodes in 1998-99.

Brimstone was the story of Detective Ezekiel Stone (Peter Horton, most notable for his time on thirtysomething), an officer for the New York Police Department. A highly decorated detective, Stone’s wife is the victim of a rape and, as Stone investigates the case, he finds the rapist and takes great pleasure in killing him instead of arresting him. A couple of month later, Stone himself is killed by a criminal and finds himself in Hell for taking joy in killing his wife’s rapist. He languishes there for 15 years until an event in Hades calls for his special skills.

The Devil (another outstanding performance by the late John Glover) comes to Stone with a deal: 113 souls, led by a Canaanite priestess who is 4000 years old, have broken out of Hell and returned to Earth. If Stone can send every one of the escapees back to Hell (by perforating their eyes because they are the “windows to the soul,” as the Devil tells him), then he will be given the opportunity to enter Heaven. Stone takes the deal and, tattooed with 113 marks that disappear each time he returns a soul to Hell, heads back to Earth and the potential of crossing paths with his wife.

The reason I liked this show was it was a bit of a twist on the normal “crime procedural” that is normally presented. There were twists as well in that Stone and the escapees had supernatural powers (dependent on how long you were in Hell, sometimes Stone had to contend with a soul that had stronger supernatural abilities than he did) and the Devil, while pointing him in the direction of someone to “apprehend,” more often than not would forget to give Stone important details on the demon he was chasing. There was also a bit of “good versus evil” in this as Glover would also sometimes play God, helping Stone with his work.

Alas, it didn’t last that long. Whether it was because it was a taboo subject that no one wanted to watch or it was too complex for some to wrap their minds around, it disappeared after that one season. To make matters worse, it has never appeared on DVD for fans of the show to own. If they can do DVDs of other shows that were niche (Heroes comes to mind), then there should be one for Brimstone; hell, I’d even write episodes if they wanted to bring it back to television!

These two shows were darker, indicating to me that, as I got older, I took a bit more pessimistic view of the world. It also showed me that sometimes great material gets cut off (canceled) before you’re done with it. That reality would be further demonstrated by my fourth favorite program.

The television series Leverage came out right after the financial collapse of 2008 and its timing couldn’t have been better. The show was based on a former insurance investigator, haunted by the death of his son and now a raging alcoholic, who puts together and all-star team of criminals. Using grift, computer hacking, straight up theft and strong arm tactics (the four members of the team were all considered the best in their fields in each individual subject), the team would assist their “clients” in reversing wrongs that had been perpetrated on them by the “rich and powerful.”

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For five seasons, the team pulled off cons and thefts against the scourges of society, always setting right what wrongs had been committed. In watching the program, you cheered for these criminals (and they were criminals) as they made sure that those who perpetrated even bigger scams (and got away with it because of influence or money) received their comeuppance. What is the saying I’ve seen…”Rob a bank, go to jail, own a bank, rob the world”? These guys made sure that didn’t happen.

Besides that the ensemble cast (Academy Award winner Timothy Hutton, British actress Gina Bellman, Christian Kane, Beth Riesgraf and Aldis Hodge) was excellently put together, the group actually brought development to their characters that seemed true to life. The shows themselves could have been pulled from the headlines and the series’ finale – oddly enough a Christmas gift from the producers and directors on Christmas 2012 – gave the impression that there may still be some life in the Leverage team yet. Hopefully that happens but, as the years go on, it becomes less likely.

All these television programs have had a huge effect on my life. I actually own three of them – WKRP, Millennium and Leverage – on DVD, and if Brimstone were available I’d have that. Sometimes television can have a good effect on people as, without these shows, I don’t think I’d be who I am today.