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.

Which Side Are You On? “Star Wars” vs. “Star Trek”

WarsVersusTrek

There are many great conundrums in life. “Less Filling” versus “Tastes Great”; Ginger versus Mary Ann; and, since we just completed Thanksgiving, white meat versus dark meat. But there is potentially no greater debate than that of two of the greatest followings of the late 20th/early 21st century:  are you Star Wars or Star Trek?

Ever since the time of Jules Verne – hell, if we are serious, we’ve wondered since we drew images on the caves 35,000 years ago – man has tried to figure out what was beyond our earthly bounds. Leonardo da Vinci is alleged to have created blueprints for rockets and their flight; H. G. Wells used his imagination towards the subject to pen some of the great science fiction of the early 20th century and Albert Einstein actually did the math that would lead to our voyages to the stars. It wasn’t until other German scientists, led by Werner von Braun, actually harnessed the power of rocketry that those dreams became reality.

Since that time, mankind has achieved tremendous feats in the weightlessness beyond our Earth. There were the Apollo landings by NASA in the 1960s/70s, but the then-U. S. S. R. achieved longevity records for time in space and actually built the first long-term space station, Mir, in the 1980s (Skylab, for all of its exploits in the 1970s, only had three missions total with the longest lasting 84 days). Today, the International Space Station stands as perhaps the closest thing to mankind, regardless of nationality, joining together in our best efforts in space and its exploration.

The reach beyond the moon, however, has been limited to unmanned probes and satellites chocked full of cameras and data recorders that can capture the base information of the bodies it passes. These devices, however, lack the human capability of viewing the universe surrounding us and its wonder, of transmitting this astonishment back to a ravenous audience who wants to know what is out in the heavens beyond. Thus, we have to depend on the visionaries who have crafted a universe that soothes our curiosity somewhat but lights the fire of that same curiosity on another hand.

StarTrek

The visionary Gene Roddenberry was the first to take a crack at this difficult task. Star Trek, created by Roddenberry in 1966, showed a Planet Earth that didn’t recognize national boundaries anymore but organized under the “United Federation of Planets.” The flagship of the Federation was the starship Enterprise, captained by James Kirk (and later Jean-Luc Picard) and replete with all nationalities from Planet Earth on board.  There was even an alien, Mr. Spock, who hailed from the planet Vulcan. Their “five year mission” was to explore the galaxies and discover new situations, something that has been a human trait since crawling out of the primordial ooze.

The show wasn’t initially popular as people had a difficult time wrapping their minds around Roddenberry’s concept. Roddenberry was trying to detail the difficulties of society at that time in an arena where such discussion could be possible. While it may seem that Kirk’s machismo and swashbuckling style was the rule, examinations of race relations, destruction of the environment and the devastating effects of war were the overarching storylines that appeared. These themes (as well as many others) were the true staple of Roddenberry’s work on the program and over the wealth of Star Trek-related spinoffs over the past 50 years.

StarWars

In 1977, another entry came into the view of what the galaxy looked like. Envisioned by George Lucas and nearly as dear to him as Star Trek had been to Roddenberry, the movie Star Wars premiered on May 25, 1977. Initially not thought to be much by the studios (Star Wars was a toss-in with American Graffiti by Universal Studios to sign Lucas to a contract), the film would turn out to be one of the biggest movies of 1977, earning over $775 million ($1.3 billion today) worldwide in box office receipts (all totaled, the Star Wars franchise has earned over $4.4 billion in its existence). The film would go on to have five sequels/prequels, with the sixth – Star Wars:  The Force Awakens – set for release on December 18.

Since Star Wars joined into the “vision of space race” with Star Trek, however, there has been a battle between the franchises for the minds of fans. Many involved in this battle believe that a person may accept one of the franchises but cannot accept the other, forcing many to choose sides in this epic battle. My question would be…why? The two shows come at the subject of the universe from two completely different angles and, through combination, offer an excellent approach.

When he first conceived Star Trek, Roddenberry envisioned the “perfect” state of humanity – perhaps most importantly peace among the Planet Earth’s nations – that continued to thirst for adventure, knowledge and exploration of the interplanetary universe that surrounded their ship. They would achieve those goals in a state-of-the-art vessel that included the scientific devices that might be found in any assortment of satellites along with the eyes that could relate the wonder of what was being seen.

Star Trek came at the questions regarding the universe from a purely scientific standpoint. There was the philosophical contemplation about man’s (or any species’) place in the galaxies, the dilemma over how to handle a race or species that wasn’t as scientifically advanced and many other conundrums that we face even today. The devices used during the run of the Star Trek franchise have also become scientific items that are commonly used such as cellphones, medical scanners and the like. The Star Trek universe is continuing to expand despite turning 50 next year… a new television/web series is set to premiere on CBS in 2017.

Instead of an array of devices (although some of them were quite impressive…who doesn’t want a lightsaber?), Star Wars chose to tell the story of space as an opera, a Shakespearean play, rather than as a scientific endeavor. The clash of good versus evil, father versus son and even the collision of worlds and their destruction formed the basis for what essentially was a soap opera for geeks (and we can say that proudly, by the way). Each new incarnation of the film extended the story and it isn’t over yet; over the next few years, there are two more Star Wars-specific films in the works and several movie projects on characters – providing “background” to the stories being told – that make up the Star Wars universe.

Being able to accept both Star Trek and Star Wars as a future existence would be perhaps the way it was meant to be. While we have the technological amazement and advancements that would make such a journey a true adventure, there is also the potential for the dramatic and even perhaps violent turns that such journeys can take. In a perfect world, an interdependency between the two franchises and their theories would also prove to be the best approach to the potential problems of intergalactic travel, with each side providing the answer to the questions that are presented.

Thus, as both franchises continue on their individual courses, perhaps they are more alike than they realize. Perhaps they look to achieve the best that the human being – and aliens – can achieve in the myriad of parts that make us whole. Perhaps, just perhaps, Star Wars and Star Trek are the epitome of what we can be rather than the “one side or another” proposition that is offered.

Spending a Week in the “House of Mouse” Part Two: Taking the High Ground

EPCOT

While having been in the United States Marine Corps isn’t a prerequisite for taking on the challenge of Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL, it is an advisable course of action. Without the intricate planning and the physical training of military maneuvers, many will end up as one of the pretty landscaping efforts around the “House of Mouse.” If you remember Part One and have put its exercises into use, you’re off to a good start. If you can make it to the end of this training course, you’ll be able to take the high ground in any of the resorts’ (hereafter referred to as “WDW”) and make an enjoyable effort out of the battle.

Day Three

After a great breakfast to prime ourselves for the day, Disney’s Animal Kingdom was on the agenda for our family. Animal Kingdom is actually the newest of the four theme parks that make up the WDW entourage, opened in 1998, and is the second largest theme park in the world behind only Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, NJ. What sets apart this particular theme park – according to what is told to the visitors – is that the main reason for this park is to promote animal conservation.

This is where I have a bit of a problem with Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I am not one of those “animal rights” activists that foam at the mouth if someone ruins the habitat of the Galapagos Island tree frog (hell, if there is such an animal, let me know). I also, however, am not for their abuse in circuses, zoos, rodeos or water parks, either; just try to tell me about how much a polar bear likes walking around on concrete in the middle of a Southern summer. My son, however, is quite interested in animals and, as he has not yet had the opportunity to form an opinion on this subject, I have decided to allow for his youthful curiosity with the creatures that join human beings on this planet.

From the appearances of the park, there is a premium placed on the animals and their well-being, maintaining as natural a habitat as possible for them and allowing them the freedom of movement that would come in their surroundings (the “Tree of Life” that dominates the center of the park is something to see). That was somewhat reassuring and, once we went on the special “Kilimanjaro Safari” that is one of the major attractions of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we could see that the animals seemed to think that they were in their natural habitats. You could literally almost touch the animals as you drove past – they are free range in that they can go wherever they wanted to go – but you were discouraged from doing so. Of particular fun was one giraffe who thought it would be a hoot to block the road; our driver waited – and the drivers of another half dozen or so safari trucks behind us waited – until the giraffe had been adequately amused and moved off the road.

It was when we traveled between the different animal compounds on the safari trail that you could see some issues, however. I was quick to notice that the entrances/exits from one compound to another had electronic gratings on the ground across the roads and there were the traditional fencing in the woods or brush that you would see in a normal zoo. Were these in place to discourage the animals from mingling among each other as they would naturally do in the wild? I would have liked to have asked someone on the safari (especially about the grates on the ground) but not wanting to look like a killjoy to a couple of dozen people, I decided to keep my trap shut for a change.

Other than the zoo atmosphere that permeated my mindset, Disney’s Animal Kingdom was quite lovely. Lush trees and bamboo stalks provided shade for a particularly hot day in October and there were plenty of areas to take a load off and rest. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to do much else outside of the Kilimanjaro Safari (the family took a ride on the Kali River Rapids, which sounds just like its name indicates and was quite enjoyable) as our son was getting tired, but that proved to be a good thing as it was the one day we had some afternoon rain that would have put a damper on things (this is also something to remember about Florida…at any moment, despite what the weather forecast was the night before, “pop-up” showers or thunderstorms can and often do occur throughout the day).

Overall, if you’re visiting Disney’s Animal Kingdom, there is plenty to see there that would take a good day to get through, if not more. It also is quite beautiful, if you can get by the fact that it is still a zoo.

Day Four

By this point in the trip, we were getting to be old hats at the “wake up early, get a good breakfast” routine. We also were struck with one of the maladies that pops up when you are on a vacation – illness. Perhaps because he wanted to touch everything that was around him – as children are wont to do – our son started to come down with the “sniffles.” It seemed like nothing – just a little bit of a runny nose – that turned into a full blown cold within about twelve hours of the first appearance of the “snots.” This would have an impact on the remainder of the trip and may have been the cause of one of the stranger cases of the trip.

After breakfast, the plan was to attack Disney’s Hollywood Studios and its myriad of attractions. Opened in 1989, it was originally known as Disney-MGM Studios but, after years of infighting between Disney and MGM Studios over its operational aspects (MGM objected to a full studio and film lab being on the property, Disney objected to the MGM Grand in Las Vegas opening a theme park of their own on The Strip), the name was changed to Hollywood Studios and more of an emphasis on the “early days” of the movie and entertainment industries were emphasized.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios are probably the most difficult of the four theme parks to get around simply because there is so much built in and upon itself. There are six different “performance areas,” including Hollywood Boulevard, Pixar Place and Streets of America, that morph into each other so seamlessly that you can easily get lost. This is problematic if you are trying to find your way out of the park and you are on one of the more “remote” areas of Hollywood Studios (this is something that isn’t going to get easier, either; a Star Wars themed area and something called Toy Story Land are supposed to be constructed on the grounds with an unspecified completion date).

In a change from the previous two parks we had visited, virtually all of the amusement rides at Disney’s Hollywood Studios were indoor affairs instead of outside. This became a problem for our son, surprisingly, as he hadn’t ever shown any problem with being “in the dark” or being scared of, well, anything (he had recently ridden a “spooky” funhouse ride at a county fair with another little friend; the little friend came out of the ride crying uncontrollably while our son was cool, calm and collected). Even something as simple as “The Great Movie Ride,” which captured the iconic history of movies on an indoor ride with sets, live actors and movie clips, caused him to become almost uncontrollable because of the darkness at some moments of the ride.

With this situation presenting itself, we decided to cut the trip short to Hollywood Studios. While it was something that looked interesting (especially the Tower of Terror that we were supposed to ride), it wasn’t worth permanently scarring a young lad on his first major theme park adventure. From what we did do, however, it more than has enough entertainment to cover a day’s activities.

Day Five

Coming into the final full day of action was at once a thrill (as we were heading to an area that I had wanted to see) and a bit sad (leaving the next day). After some medication, our son was a bit better (but still not interested in even taking a look at any ride that was even inside), so we headed off to EPCOT.

If you recall from Part One of our story, EPCOT was what Walt Disney originally envisioned the Florida property would become…an experimental community where innovation and technological feats were to be tested out. Following Disney’s death in 1966, that was scrapped and the Magic Kingdom was instead built in 1971. EPCOT, after it was built and opened in 1982, became more of an amusement park – Disney officials thought of it as more of a “permanent World’s Fair” – but still had some elements of technological wonder and scientific appeal. It is now the third most visited theme park in the United States and sixth most visited in the world.

Unlike Disney’s Hollywood Studio’s, EPCOT was very neatly laid out and has a wide array of attractions that would capture pretty much anyone’s attention. If you’re interested in space, there were attractions for that (Spaceship:  Earth and Mission:  Space). Technology was covered in the Innovations arenas on each side of the park (East and West) and, if you’re wondering what Disney did with the late Michael Jackson’s 3D film Captain EO, it can be found on the EPCOT property.

Unfortunately, our son’s sudden apprehension at indoor rides nearly kept us from what would be one of the better rides of the trip. After we took him home for a nap, my lovely wife and I returned to EPCOT to take on Soarin’, a ride that took you through the skies like a bird as you flew over California (with actor Patrick Warburton appearing as your head flight attendant). Staring at a concave screen as you dangled in a seat watching the terrain race by underneath you, you almost felt as if you could fly; I commented to my wife afterwards that, while flying over ocean surf, about the only thing that would make it better was if there had been a way to have a “sea spray” hit you in the face. It also almost felt as if my toes were touching the treetops as we whizzed past.

While the ride was a great one, I’ve recently learned that it will be replaced soon. Instead of the version that was shown while I was there at EPCOT, a new version called Soarin’ Around the World will take over the screens come 2016. This, as you might expect, will do just what Soarin’ did but amp it up to a world stage instead of just California. When that comes around, that will be worth seeing as even the abbreviated trip was a blast.

With that, our trip through the theme parks was complete. We haven’t finished our review of WDW yet, however. In PART THREE, I’ll offer some tips that you might overlook in planning a trip to WDW and ask a few questions, including one that might anger some people.