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.

N.W.A.: The More Things Change…

In the mid- to late-1980s, I was working in the radio industry as the music director at an Album Oriented Rock (AOR) station in North Carolina. While the music we played was the opposite of what was occurring on the Top 40 or Urban stations (I would have said polar opposite, but we weren’t country music), we were still aware of the rumbles of change that thundered across the musical spectrum. I actually got behind two bands in my time there – one was Faith No More with their song “Epic” and the other was the band that term – thundered – was the best way to explain:  the phenomenon that was the rap group N.W.A.

N.W.A. – the seminal rap group that featured Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, Lorenzo ‘”MC Ren” Patterson and Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby – exploded on the scene in 1988 with their debut album Straight Outta Compton. The album contained explicit descriptions from the group about life in the inner city (in this case, the Los Angeles subdivision known as Compton) and, in particular, the trials and tribulations that faced black men (and, as a sidelight, the black community) at that time. With the movie of the same name opening up today, it is easy to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The year was 1988 when N.W.A. came out and it gave voice to millions that had never had even a face to that time. Previous rap music, although occasionally containing a strong message (in fact, “The Message” from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was one of the first rap songs about how difficult life was in the inner city), was more about the party in most cases (“Rapper’s Delight” from the Sugarhill Gang or “Fight For Your Right” from the Beastie Boys) or a cover tune (“Walk This Way” from Run DMC). It also owed more to old school R&B and disco than any other musical format, with base tracks from songs like Chic’s “Good Times” or perhaps Parliament/Funkadelic providing the bottom layer that rappers would lay their tracks over.

With N.W.A., all bets were off. Their guttural bass notes came at the listener like a thunderbolt and guitars and other sound effects were utilized to bring the city to life on the tracks. But what was the major difference was the lyrics. Not content to simply talk about the activities at a party or the sexual conquests that the MC had the previous evening, N.W.A. broadcasted straight from the street and what the residents of the inner city faced throughout their daily lives:  harassment from law enforcement, drug usage and addiction, rampant crime and other less-than enjoyable aspects of living in the inner city.

The advent of N.W.A. brought about the “gangsta” rap style that covered the remainder of the 1980s and stretched into the early 2000s. Although the group that was N.W.A. didn’t make it deep (the band broke up in 1991 and reunited for a short time in 1998), Young and Jackson would go on to long careers in music (Young is now a billionaire after founding Beats by Dre) and/or acting (Jackson is well-sought as a performer in both film and television). Wright would unfortunately pass from AIDS in 1995 and Patterson and Carraby carried on in music, without the same impact as their days with N.W.A.

With the movie coming out today, there is a focus placed once again on N.W.A. and the music that they delivered. As someone who had been around the block even then, I knew that the message that N.W.A. was delivering was dead on, shining a spotlight on a situation that isn’t talked about at formal dinner parties. What is starkly evident from listening back to such artists as N.W.A. today is that there isn’t much different between the situation then and now.

When Eazy-E, Dre and Ice laid down the raps about being harassed by law enforcement for simply being in a certain area and a certain color, those situation still are a part of the headlines today. Crack cocaine usage ravaged the inner city during the times of N.W.A.; today, it is heroin, alcohol and crack that take their toll. Education isn’t any better today than then, it may in fact be worse. Housing continues to be an issue and many believe the only path to “getting out” of the inner city is through athletics or music. And this is only scratching the surface of the situation.

The solutions to these issues aren’t easy and, in many cases, cost money that seemingly isn’t there anymore (according to politicians). When an inner-city kid has the same access to educational materials as someone at the best suburban school, we’ll have made progress. Housing could be improved, but the lack of land still would require the high-rise apartment complexes that are prominent in Chicago and New York. Drug usage and the actions of law enforcement are perhaps the most difficult in that no amount of money would change the situation; the only thing that will change those things are attitudes regarding drug criminalization and training of future police officers.

If you’re heading to the movieplex this weekend to see Straight Outta Compton this weekend, marvel at how these young men brought a cultural situation into the glaring light of the world. Then lament how we haven’t been able to change anything since N.W.A. first rapped about these situations. The more things change, the more they stay the same…