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Whitewashed and Manhandled

Oscar and the Great White Man theory of cinematic credibility
Selma

Would you like to watch a movie about a woman? Or a movie not full of white faces? Maybe later.

That’s the theme of this year’s Academy Awards Best Picture nominations, which are almost entirely about Great White Men doing Great White Men Things.

The one break in the Great White Trend, Selma, got a Best Picture nod that seems horribly like an afterthought, a condolence prize: Neither its director, Ava DuVernay, nor its star, David Oyelowo, were tapped with the golden Oscar wand. DuVernay’s absence from the Best Director field highlights the ugly truth about this year’s Oscars: It’s incredibly white and dominantly male.

I hate the word “snub,” as it implies something was a given, but there’s something deeply uncomfortable about the Selma scenario. Writing for BET.com, Keith Boykin pointed out a pattern in the roles for which black actors win Oscars: For women, those roles are largely as slaves, maids or abusive mothers. Black men have never won for playing famous black leaders, no matter how highly praised those movies, from Ali to Selma, were.

Movies about slavery, yes. Movies about civil rights, not so much. 

On the site Indiewire, Melissa Silverstein made a list of all the women nominated in any Oscar category. It’s disappointingly short. “I wish I was more surprised,” she wrote, and I agree.  But if you point these things out, if you critique or complain, the internet is quick to nay-say you: The Oscars don’t really matter, people say. Why do you care?

We care because the Oscars do matter. A Best Picture award is no guarantee that a movie is great or even very good. But an Oscar is a marker of power.

An Oscar helps get your next movie made and gives you more control. An Oscar is credibility, whether we agree with that or not. It’s not a golden ticket; there are plenty of Oscar winners who never shone as brightly again. But it is recognition and a bit more weight behind your name when you choose which story to tell next.

If this year’s Oscars are any indicators, the stories we’ll see next will be more of the same. Three of this year’s Best Picture nominees are biopics about white men. Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) were geniuses who deserved better films; there’s nothing drastically wrong with The Imitation Game, but there’s nothing notably great about it, either. It gives no insight into Turing (or Keira Knightley’s Joan Clarke), just as the watery Theory of Everything can’t manage to get across a sense of what Stephen Hawking actually did.

Theory did vault Felicity Jones into the actress stratosphere, though, and the filmmakers at least tried to make a movie about a partnership, not just a man. That’s far more than can be said for American Sniper, the third biopic, in which Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is tiresomely right about everything all the time. 

The Best Picture nominees aren’t terrible movies. There’s no A Beautiful Mind among them. But when they aren’t biographical tales, they’re often in thrall to the idea of the troubled (white, male) genius: the arrogant teacher and cocksure drummer of Whiplash, in which women cannot understand the pull of art, or the put-upon actor-director of Birdman, which pats itself on the back for being about real art, goddammit, not those stupid movies the plebes like.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a playful, stylish caper populated almost entirely by men; Boyhood is hardly the first movie to present white American boyhood as the default idea of childhood. The story behind Richard Linklater’s film is laudably ambitious; the film itself is solid, but hardly jaw-dropping, and contains one of the most racially tone-deaf scenes I watched all year. 

Was The Imitation Game that much better than Wild? Do the Brits of Theory of Everything blow you away that much more than the Brits of Belle? Belle is the same kind of British prestige picture, beautifully filmed, historical, sharply acted. It explores the intersection of race, gender and class with unusual sensitivity. Like Selma, it was directed by a woman of color.

But Belle might as well not exist this awards season. Women appear in the acting categories allotted to them, and are nominated for costume design and set decoration. Women of color appear virtually nowhere. The underlying message remains the same: There are stories, and then there are women’s stories and stories about people of color. And we treat those stories differently.

Awards, like reviews, are subjective. There is no absolute right, no movie or actress or director that is, inarguably, the best. Every year, the fun of Oscar season comes in arguing about it, in making cases and dissecting films and taking things apart to look at their constituent pieces. 

There’s no fun to be had in this year’s discussion. 2014 was tumultuous, simmering, a year of change and heightened awareness and a lot of people waking up to some ugly realities about our world.

But in here, it’s the same old story. Some perfectly decent movies get the fairy dust, while other perfectly decent movies get the shaft.

It’s funny how that all works out in the great men’s favor.