I am just like you.
From time to time I find myself in situations where I feel like I should say something, even if it isn’t required of me. What’s more is you think I should say something. Case in point: you and I are in the breakroom at work together when you set your bowl of soup on the table. You turn away to retrieve your drink from the fridge. During these few seconds I see a fly do a three-and-a-half somersault off the lip of your bowl directly into whatever deliciousness you have prepared for yourself by nuking it in that over-worked fire hazard known as the company microwave. As flies tend to do when submerged by scalding hot broth and/or a variety of meats and grains, he dies within the small eternity it took you to return to the table. I just can’t let that ride. I mean, I could, and have myself a laugh. It’s not like I’m mandated by law to inform you that an insect went Greg Louganis into your food, but common decency dictates I should. What would you think of me if I didn’t? More importantly, what would I think of me?
Truthfully, if we’re talking something as trivial as a fly in your soup, I could have that laugh watching you crunch into some nature and not lose a moment’s sleep. If we were talking about something more serious like, say, the situation in Flint, Michigan, then I should absolutely say something. For those unaware, back in 2014 Flint mayor Dayne Walling approved the switch its water source from the treated Detroit Water and Sewage water to the untreated Flint River for financial reasons. A year later, Flint switched back, but the damage was already done. The harder water quickly corroded pipes which contaminated it and left it undrinkable. Predictably, people started turning up sick. Mr. Walling, no longer the mayor, and a slew of other Michigan officials have been named in class-action lawsuits and the problem is still ongoing. The water is still undrinkable, yet residents are still paying for it, if you can wrap your head around that one. Even though it’s not required of me and will likely have no impact on the future of Flint, Michigan, I should say something. That something is that Mr. Walling and a number of those officials shouldn’t just be sued, but prosecuted for criminal endangerment of their own constituency and/or customers.
Something must also be said about the armed militia who occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. They did so in protest after a pair of ranchers, Dwight Hammond and his son Steve, were convicted of arson on federal land. The group, calling themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom and led by a man named Ammon Bundy, also demanded the federal government cede ownership of the refuge and did television interviews warning that they are more than willing to get engaged in armed conflict with law enforcement that becomes involved. Interestingly enough, the Hammonds never asked for these people’s “help” and publicly denounced them once it was given. Apparently, this was an unimportant detail to the CCF as they continued with their occupation of the refuge. Of course, it was not important to Bundy. He has said he only led this little protest because he received a divine message to do so. It ended on January 26, 2016, just a week ago, with five of the groups arrested, a few wounded (including Bundy), and one dead. The deceased is a man by the name of LaVoy Finicum. He was shot while reportedly reaching for a loaded gun in his pocket. This doesn’t sound all that dissimilar to the jihadists we constantly hear about. Therefore, my something to say comes in the form of questions. Why have I not heard the word ‘terrorist’ more often in reference to these people? Is it because they’re not Muslims? Is it because they are Americans? Or maybe it’s simply because they are white. All of these are valid questions to ask and points to raise. To say they are not is to completely ignore and/or excuse the fact that in the vernacular of the national media here in the United States the words Islamic, Muslim, and terrorist are used interchangeably except in such cases where Muslims go out of their way to prove they aren’t terrorists. It also ignores the very definition of the word terrorist. However, you did not come here to talk about these things.
You came to talk about something far less serious, yet it has nonetheless gotten us all worked up. I’m talking about the fly in our collective and proverbial soup - #OscarsSoWhite.
For those living under a rock, the social media hashtag was born of frustration caused by the fact that last year, none of the twenty Academy Award nominations for acting went to a person of color, nor was director Ava DuVernay nominated for her work on the film Selma. #OscarsSoWhite resurfaced this year when all of the acting nominations again went to Caucasian performers. The controversy transcended all of our smartphones, tablets, and laptops when actress Jada Pinkett Smith called for a boycott of the Oscars. Her husband, actor Will Smith, joined her cause. Director and lightning rod Spike Lee also announced plans to skip the ceremony for the same reason. From there, seemingly every black actor who ever appeared in anything had a microphone shoved in his/her face and asked what they thought about all this. A few whites had the same experience. In an instant, the whole world was talking about #OscarsSoWhite.
I was sitting at the table watching as this fly landed on the rim of our bowl. A couple of times I tried shooing it away, but it kept returning. Eventually, it took that clumsily executed dive into our soup, earning low scores from the judges for the gigantic splash it made as it broke the liquid surface. Unlike others of its ilk, it didn’t die in the smoldering concoction. It began swimming laps, backstroking just so I could see its smiling face as it maneuvered around its own personal pool.
Here I am, black movie blogger, one who should be rushing to voice an opinion. If you are a fairly frequent reader of mine then you cannot be blamed for assuming my pen would dance across numerous blue lines performing the choreography of my emotional response. Yes, I’m a dinosaur who still spills ink – in cursive, no less. While this is not a blog defined by race or gender, I have made it a place where I can comfortably discuss both from time to time as I see fit. Shocking no one, I see fit.
That I was going to speak on the #OscarsSoWhite was easy to discern. What’s more complicated is where I stand on it. I don’t think boycotting the Oscars is the right call. However, I’m not willing to completely dismiss the strategy out of hand. I don’t know Jada Pinkett Smith personally. I’ve never even met her. That said, I ‘ve been familiar with her for close to thirty years, ever since she first showed up on the sitcom A Different World. She has always struck me as an intelligent woman near my own age with a sense of history, particularly African-American history. I have no doubt she was drawing on the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement in this country as spearheaded by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when she decided a boycott was needed. Despite sound reasoning, she picked the wrong target. It’s already been said many times, even by some of you reading this. The Academy Awards are a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. They are the runny nose, not the actual cold. Boycotting them is the equivalent of blowing that runny nose. It may stop running for a minute or two, but you still have the cold.
The actual problem is Hollywood as a whole. If you haven’t heard by now, there is a dearth of roles in studio backed projects for the following people: anyone who cannot be reasonably presumed to be a straight white male. No matter what particular subset outside of that group your favorite actor belongs to he/she is part of a group that has been making great strides in recent years. Still, the disparity between their group and THAT group is glaring. I am in full agreement that something has, will, and should still be done about this. However, boycotting the Oscars is shortsighted and runs the risk of being ineffective for one reason: it will not negatively impact Hollywood’s bottom line. Dr. King’s first and most famous boycott, The Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful largely because that’s exactly what it did to the city of Montgomery, Alabama. Yes, the powers that be were drawn to the light partially because of King’s Ghandi-inspired tactics and philosophies. Another part of it is they were tired of losing money.
Whatever may come of protesting the Oscars has already started happening. Academy membership will become more diverse which should lead to a more diverse set of nominees on a yearly basis. Overall, this is great, but there are problems with it. We’re increasing the chance that someone will receive a nomination simply because they are a person of color. That’s not progress. That’s tokenism regardless of who is doing the nominating. We’re also putting the cart before the horse. In other words, why bother fixing the nominations process when the field on which one needs to play in order to even be considered is in such disrepair?
Common sense dictates that recognition during awards season will come after the desired level of inclusion is reached, not the other way around. Lacking common sense, we can look to sports for a fairly clear parallel. The clear line of demarcation is April 15, 1947, the date of Jackie Robinson’s very first Major League Baseball game. If you don’t know why that’s important there are more than enough books, magazines articles, websites, documentaries, and narrative feature films to help you figure it out, so I’ll not explain it here. The point is after that date, as the number of people of color playing professional sports grew exponentially so, too, did the amount of awards we were winning. Before complaining about Oscar nominations we should make sure that enough of us are afforded an honest opportunity to play the type of roles in the type of films that are typically rewarded, aside from those depicting the plight of a downtrodden people.
For a person such as myself who understands the power of protest and has a firm grasp on what it has done to positively alter the course of history, the logical plan would be to come up with something that will bring the big studios to their knees. The tricky part is figuring out what that may be. Our constant outcries are effecting a gradual change. The thing about gradual changes is any area of life is that what feels swift to the establishment is far too slow for everyone else. We’re looking for that one thing that will drastically change Hollywood in one fell swoop. That thing probably doesn’t exist. I don’t think a full-blown boycott is feasible. For starters, no one is legislatively denied movies or forced to sit in certain seats when they see them. Box offices gladly accept every cent any of us is willing to spend to show us all the same movie from the seat of our choice on a first come, first serve basis. Nor does it help our cause that we have become a society inundated with films. We unwind with them. We plan nights around them. We blog, tweet, podcast, YouTube, and Facebook about them. We wait with baited breath on news about them. And we can’t escape them. The average person in 2016 has easy access to more films than any average person in the history of the medium. Right now, I can pick any film I want from tens of thousands of movies that were released at any point from the early twentieth century to yesterday and watch it tonight. Even more detrimental to the cause is that as much as we love movies, we all assign a certain frivolity to them. We may be up in arms over the lack of diversity in the Academy Awards nominations in particular, and Hollywood in general, but it doesn’t raise our ire enough for us to make a concerted effort to stop the Hollywood machine. Does it need to be slowed and, if possible, brought to a screeching halt? Maybe, if that’s what it will take to truly level the industry’s playing field for everyone. Can it be done? Probably not. Regardless of the lack of a singular game-changer, the progress made in just the last decade gives me hope.
#OscarsSoWhite also gives me hope. It’s not because I agree with everything people have said pertaining to it, but because it has us talking. Even though I think we’ve started out on the wrong end of the problem I believe we can get to where we need to be because at least the conversation has started in a substantial way. On a more personal level, you and I both feel better about me. I’d like to think it’s because I’ve given you some undeniably great solution, but I haven’t. What I have done may prove to be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but it’s nothing less than what we both expected of me. I saw the fly in our soup and I said something about it.
As stated earlier, a number of you have also said something about it. Please click at least a few of the links below to get some more insight on the matter.