I might watch the Oscars this weekend just to see some good ol' fashioned liberal squirming at having one of the least-diverse pool of nominees in recent history. As diverse and daring shows drive a golden age of TV, the other half of L.A. seems stuck in monochrome.
The outrage over this year's whiteout is only half right. The Academy Awards can nominate only movies the studios release, after all. The Oscars are just working with what they're given, even as they also reinforce the system of producing films in this country.
But then the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is gifted Selma. And barring an upset Best Picture win, we'll have to say the Academy royally botched this one, in a way only the Academy can. Given that Selma has an almost unheard of 99 percent approval rating among national critics and a Best Picture nod, how does it escape notice in other top categories? Is the exclusion of the civil rights drama merely a Lego Movie moment of atrocious Oscar omission? Or is there more?
Academy leaders and members have been surprisingly inarticulate in their explanations. Pundits chalk up the snub to a variety of factors: 12 Years a Slave race fatigue, the movie's late entry into the nomination race, the disputed veracity of President Johnson’s portrayal. None of these excuses hold up. We are left to search for a unifying theory of how screenwriter Paul Webb, costume designer Ruth E. Carter, lead actor David Oyelowo, cinematographer Bradford Young, and, particularly, director Ava DuVernay all could go unacknowledged. Here's mine.
American audiences have grown accustomed to slightly different versions of the same prestige picture being shoveled at them for the past 50 years. Such films may be set in another country or in another time, or they may invoke the struggle of a different oppressed or underrepresented group. No matter—with few exceptions, the formula has been the same. The deficient diversity of American dramas reflects our problem in handling race and class, and narrows our understanding of history. Many of the self-satisfied Academy voters who cannot figure out why anyone would impugn their liberal credentials in fact helped to create this model of storytelling. "Yes, most members are white males," one anonymous voter told the Hollywood Reporter in dismissing Selma, "but they are not the cast of Deliverance—they had to get into the Academy to begin with, so they're not cretinous, snaggletoothed hillbillies."
No, unlike backwoods caricatures, Academy members' racism isn't so blatant. Often it's subtle enough that they can convince themselves it doesn't exist.
A few months ago, I met with a film producer who described himself as "the white guy they hire to tell black stories.” He didn’t mean this as derogatory; I didn’t take it as such. He’s just one of the white guys whom people (like me) have to go to in order to tell black stories in mass media. He’s a successful, rich, old white male who produces stories mostly on black civil rights and inequality, and he tells these stories the way he thinks older white audiences want them. And that’s good for him. If there were more people—rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight—telling these stories, the narratives wouldn’t be so narrow. But it shouldn’t be shocking that the producer has a specific, habituated taste that doesn’t match with the Millennials scrolling through this article on their phones.
So once or twice a year, studios birth a serious drama in this mold about the oppression of people of color. Typically these stories focus on a person of color being down on their knees in service. Then a benevolent white character arrives. By the end, said person of color manages to stand up and acknowledges the white character's help with a wise sort of gratitude. If this picture is to contend for Oscars, it's essential to have that white savior or to make the world of color so grotesque that it evokes white liberal pity. Preferably both.
Take any number of Oscar-winning movies starring people of color: The Help, Driving Miss Daisy, Monster's Ball, Ghost, Precious. Each has a clear white savior power dynamic. Perhaps the only award-winning film of the past 20 years to break the template was Training Day. Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Oscar portraying not the firebrand Malcolm X, nor Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, wrongly imprisoned and fighting for his freedom. He got it for a chain-smoking, dope-dealing, criminal monstrosity who can only be conquered when a white rookie cop gets black gang members to turn against the self-proclaimed “King Kong” of crooked cops.
There's a pattern at work here, one that Selma subverts by not making Lyndon Johnson a savior—foremost, he's a politician, pragmatic and hardheaded. The people of color initiate, organize, and lead on their own. This narrative strength, though, becomes a liability during awards season.
Selma may follow the underappreciated path of The Color Purple, the 1985 classic nominated for a record eleven Oscars, winner of none. Its narrative, built around black women, and missing a white savior, didn't capture voters. You know what beat it for Best Picture? Out of Africa, about a white plantation owner and her affair with a big-game hunter in which Kenya serves as a backdrop for white romance. I’m not kidding. A transformative, rich female narrative about jazz, blues, and Americana in rural Georgia was bested by a Tarzan-esque story about taming Africa.
Two years later Cry Freedom told the story of a South African anti-apartheid activist through the narration of his white reporter/friend. Washington was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Sean Connery in The Untouchables. The following year, Mississippi Burning earned seven nominations, winning for cinematography. Its story dealt with the violence civil rights activists faced in the 1960s—through the lens of two white FBI officers investigating it.
In 1990, Driving Miss Daisy won four Oscars, including Best Picture. In it, we watch a platonic love blossom between a folksy chauffeur and his employer’s mother. Washington won his first Oscar for Glory, a story about an all-black Union battalion—told through the voice and eyes of Colonel Matthew Broderick. Thus the two lasting images of blackness that year were a slave getting whipped and a homespun chauffeur devoted to his client. Meanwhile, Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, often acknowledged as one of the best films of all time, won nothing. It is usually the only movie on a top 100 list by a person of color.
The following year, Dances with Wolves won seven Oscars on 12 nominations for illuminating Native American culture through Union Army Lieutenant Kevin Costner. Whoopi Goldberg won Best Supporting Actress for Ghost, a story about two lovers she reunites via her supernatural ability to communicate with the dead. The next two years, harsh ones for non-white stories, did see top nominations for Boyz n the Hood and What’s Love Got to Do With It, respectively a gangster picture and a biographical movie about domestic violence.
In 1996, Ghosts of Mississippi highlighted the work and assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers through the narrative vehicle of white-savior district attorney Alec Baldwin. The next year Amistad told of an African slavery ship mutiny where the imprisoned rose up and fought for their freedom. Of course, it’s a courtroom drama in which white male lawyers narrate.
The new millennium began with two black males nominated for Oscars in the same year: Washington in The Hurricane, for portraying a wrongfully jailed boxer seeking freedom with the help of do-gooder Canadians, and Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile, as a magical prisoner seeking freedom through his superpowers.
In 2001 the Oscars exalted magical Chinese warriors in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and drug-dealing Mexicans in Traffic. In a move we can see only as progress, Benicio Del Toro won Best Supporting Actor for portraying a Mexican cop who wasn't crooked. The next year, the Oscars returned to form. Washington won for Training Day, and Halle Berry won for Monster’s Ball, as a waitress whose Job-like trials include a husband on death row for murder, a son killed in an accident, and having to have sex with Billy Bob Thornton.
A few years later Jamie Foxx broke through with a Best Actor Oscar for Ray, becoming the first non-servant, non-slave, non-prisoner, non-maniac winner in the past three decades. Momentum stalled somewhat when Forest Whitaker took home a trophy for his role in The Last King of Scotland. Yes, he played Idi Amin and, yes, once again, the story is told through the eyes of a white expert, Dr. James McAvoy. But at this point in Oscar history, playing a head of state, no matter the circumstances, seems like a step up for people of color.
How unusual were Ray and The Last King of Scotland? Let’s tally the roles for people of color in Oscar-winning movies during the past 30 years: maid, waitress, slave-turned-soldier, supernatural servant/ghost whisperer, prisoner, prisoner again, slave again, chauffeur, drug-dealing crooked cop, welfare queen mother (Precious), and—why the hell not—a third slave. Yeah, genocidal dictator is looking pretty good.
For all intents and purposes, Selma was the respectable black picture that should appeal to white Oscar voters. It had the trappings of American achievement and universalism. The black civil rights movement has been embraced universally as one of the nation’s finest moments: Even Mitt Romney wants to claim connection to Martin Luther King Jr. Its only fatal misstep was skipping the white savior. Unlike in Vietnam, Selma was a case where LBJ should've tried to do more.
Instead of LBJ leading from the front or delivering a grandfatherly speech to a slow-clap ovation from a sea of brown Alabamians, it’s King and the protestors who push toward history. The president's at times mulish demeanor in the film irked folks at LBJ's presidential library, who discounted Selma's version of events to protect LBJ’s legacy. It amounts to a battle of cultural narratives. Selma tried to shift the arrow—oh, if ever so slightly—toward black stories that move beyond the white savior trope. The old guard, in turn, voiced its resistance.
That resistance is blind to the past 30 years of privileged white male narratives. It’s not merely that movies are telling white stories; it’s that they’re largely the same white hero journey. American films have, in Ayn Randian fashion, ignored the collective waves that propel the world. Since Greek myths, fiction has removed facts to reach for greater cultural truth, to uncover human nature. But these hagiographies with Westernized patriarchical narratives read like a Final Draft template for action movies: One man and one gun/algorithm/speech/magic potion will save everything all at once by himself (maybe with a sidekick/servant/secretary, who along the way dies, or has sex with him, or both).
Selma makes clear it’s a movie about more than King, depicting a movement that pulls and pushes against his wishes. Instead of a typical biopic of a singular male voice in the wilderness, it's more accurate and honest as to how history advances.
The change now due concerns how we tell stories, and who gets to tell them. Individual producers can't make this change alone. As much as Tyler Perry, Spike Lee, and Oprah Winfrey have done for African Americans in the media, we need a collective shift in consciousness across race, gender, class, and geography. The Oscars whiteout has shown again that we're in a cycle of sameness that leads us to misread our own stories. We have grown so decadent and defensive that we are not only comfortable with lying to ourselves, we've come to demand it.