The Oscars 2015: or, as Neil Patrick Harris made sure to point out, a celebration of Hollywood’s ‘whitest’. But here’s the thing. As much as I approve of people calling out what we all know to be true, the ultimate faux paus is the luxury within which that statement was made. Recognise this: white man calls out whiteness of room and is fully aware of the superficiality of this in terms of corresponding to perceived talent within the film industry and everybody laughs. Everybody laughs because the room is packed with privilege. It is a ‘this does not directly affect me’ laugh. It is a ‘this is wrong but what can we do?’ laugh. What can we do but applaud for a voice which humours us but which isn’t actually being defiant? The statement is lazy because it doesn’t warrant change: it shows awareness of an issue and refuses to tackle it.
When it comes to film, I am (slightly) unhinged in my appreciation of it. It is easy to recognise the aesthetic and sentimental achievement of Linklater’s Boyhood, the incredible satirical, spontaneous zeal of Iñárritu’s Birdman, of John Legend and our re-introduction to radicalism, now and forever, with DuVernay’s Selma, and of Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne within their bodies, and outside of them, on our screens. Once again, the triumph of the silver screen, the taking of the spectator’s hand and the blurring of the line between the audience and our response to the imagined, the empathetic within good writing, was re-affirmed. Ah, 2015. Ah, film. Ah, Oscars?
Not exactly. What the Oscars delivers, as opposed to what films deliver, is the packaged, sellable perspective of what the big-wigs recognise as ‘commendable’ talent. Which isn’t to say that Redmayne didn’t deserve his win or Birdman wasn’t zany and incredible and completely insane. Rather, it’s, on one level, defining talent, defining what captures attention to be indicative of the mindset of our time: the underlying prejudices which shape our view of film. The middle-class, the white, the pretentiously genius, but only if you pretend to understand it, and applaud and not critique why the films that happened to be popular actually were.
Surely, if one song from Selma was enough to reduce an entire room of Hollywood professionals to tears, then the emotional response is clear? The talent is inferred, the production is to be commended, just as it would be for any one of Wes Anderson’s blindingly white nostalgic creations where Owen Wilson features and clean shots of middle-class suburbia seem summery thanks to a great colour palette. The Grand Budapest Hotel won for Best Original Music Score. Fans of film are often grateful for Anderson’s take on frighteningly adolescent lives. Birdman provoked a defiance of existence, bitingly satirical and completely compelling. I applauded gleefully with every win that Whiplash garnered. Even American Sniper, in all its propagandistic racism, (though I’m not that surprised) thrilled the Hollywood elite. The assumption is that these films are worthy of praise. The concept of the nomination is the singling out of what is acceptably ‘good’, and yet it is simply the pleasing of a majority. Conventionality. The idea of being able to predict what will be nominated because we know what will garner an acceptable emotional response: the films that rock the boat of the film world, might shatter our mindsets, but aren’t the only films that are capable of doing this. Why is it that Viola Davis waited two decades for an opportunity that a white actor can realistically achieve within 5 years or less? Are we not going to question why Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar hasn’t given her anything close to the career trajectory of Jennifer Lawrence? Are white directors truly able to be commended if their fictitious worlds, their attempts at indie realism, don’t feature a single actor of colour?
And yet, it is this institutionalised racism which is reflected instantaneously in the micro-aggressions that occur on the night: Patricia Arquette’s blatant un-intersectional feminism. Sean Penn’s ‘green card’ comment after Iñárritu’s win. The laziness of not being able to relate to the struggles of those that remain strikingly obvious, and depressingly hidden, within the film industry and who is ‘talented’ and who is to be ‘commended’ and the farce that is the Oscars. But I won’t stop watching because I would like to appreciate film and I question what the critic is saying, and I wonder exactly what we reflect in what we churn out as acceptable art, as art worth applauding, as art that, when reflecting the vocal non-white minority, is silenced. The value of the Oscars is not the value of film. The value of the Oscars is the attention drawn to the absence of unconventionality. The lack of applause to the narrative that is defiant in being different. The concept of the platform and exactly what we choose to brand as worth it.