One of the beautiful things about being an independent artist is having the freedom to choose how the story/painting/film/song/etc. gets created. As a writer, I typically like to engage in what I call “literary foreplay” (relaxing the reader into the story, while slowly building up the excitement); but for the topic at hand, I’ll abandon the elaborate intro and get straight to the point. If you want to fix the obvious diversity problem with the Oscars, the best way to do it is to simply leave it alone. WHAT?? DID HE JUST SAY THAT?? Yes… this is one case where if you just leave the problem alone, it will eventually fix itself (but don’t sit around waiting for that to happen). Let me explain.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is fine just the way it is. Well, by some accounts, it’s broken, but really… at the end of the day, it’s fine. The problem isn’t the Oscars; the problem isn’t The Academy. The problem rests with us: the consumer, and the way we view the Motion Picture Academy (MPA). And when I say, “consumer,” I’m not just talking about everyday moviegoers like you and me. The actors, actresses, writers and directors are consumers as well, and also share in that problem.
To begin to understand why the leave it alone approach is the right one, you must first simplify things by throwing away everything you ever knew, or thought you knew about the Oscars, and treating the awards process–from nomination to presentation–like a single product. Once you begin to look at it through that lens filter, you can start putting things into their proper perspective. If the Oscars was to be looked at like a consumer product (which it should be in my opinion), the first thing that would jump out at you (especially if the product doesn’t satisfy your tastes) is the lack of competition. I mean, there’s the Golden Globe awards (which in my opinion should be held in equal esteem to the Academy Awards, given who does the nominating and voting), but outside that, where’s the competing offering?
If the Motion Picture Academy were a single piece of consumer technology, there’d have been a competing product on the market decades ago, and we wouldn’t be sitting in our homes or on social media in 2016 talking about a lack of diversity in its membership and awards process. If you were to look at the Academy through that lens, the next obvious question would be, why isn’t there a competing product? Not for me to answer… I’ll leave that one to the experts. At the end of my opening statement though, I suggested leaving the Academy Awards process alone so that it can fix itself. Here’s what I meant when I said, “but don’t sit around waiting for that to happen.”
Why not create and cultivate a parallel awards show. The film industry is bigger than any single collective group of judges. As a collective group, film industry professionals have more than enough money to create a recognition process that could make it possible to reap similar benefits to those enjoyed by any and all who receive Oscar nominations and awards. In the information technology sector, a suggestion like this is what is known as a “workaround” (a satisfactory, albeit temporary remedy to help customers overcome software glitches (bugs), while the product developers work on creating, testing and deploying permanent fixes).
Without a doubt, I feel that a competing awards committee/ceremony needs to be created to address the lack of diversity within the Academy, but the question is, what do you want that to look like? Do you want it to be a workaround? Sure, creating a perhaps “lower quality product” could work to allow actors/actresses to be recognized for outstanding achievement in film, but it may not really fix the original problem (I’ll explain at the end of this article). On the other hand, creating a competing awards committee and giving it the same prestige as the Oscars (from promotion to presentation) might in time, make both viewers and film industry professionals alike, forget that once upon a time, actors of color (Black, Asian, Latin or other: see Susan King’s 1/21/2016 LA Times article) felt undervalued, marginalized and overlooked when it came to outstanding achievement in film.
To use a sports analogy (and I know comparing sports to the arts is like comparing apples to oranges, but ride with me for a minute), both tennis and golf, respectively, have four major championships (Tennis: Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open; Golf: The Masters, US Open, British Open, PGA Championships). If you don’t win one, you still have an opportunity to win one of the other three. Once you win one of those tournaments, you’ll forever be recognized as a Grand Slam champion. Why should motion picture awards be any different? Perhaps motion picture industry professionals should look no further than the literary industry, wherein there exists a host of different awards brands, giving authors multiple opportunities to be recognized for outstanding work.
Obviously the field of sports is more about results and less about judgment, where who wins is determined by who has more points at the end of the game, and because of that, there can never be any argument about not having a fair and equal shot. On the other hand, art is more about expression and interpretation, and less about results. Maybe if ticket sales were all that was considered for determining which pictures/actors were best, the resultant scorecard would make the film industry more like a sport, per se, hence cutting down on some of the inequality complaints. But that’s not the case. Motion picture awards are granted based on votes rendered by academy members, but who says one panel of “experts” is the end-all/be-all with regards to who’s considered the best in XYZ category? Are those “experts” any better judges than, say, the moviegoer? Why is their opinion valued more highly than other artists or film aficionados? After all, how many times has a professional film critic or someone on social media judged a movie as good or bad, but when you saw it, you had an opposite opinion (do you see where I’m going with this)?
So let me wrap this up by talking about why I said the Academy is fine the way it is and why there’s a problem with simply calling for a boycott of the Oscars.
To be fair, the last time I checked, the Academy was a private organization, not a government agency. Whether you agree or disagree with their decision-making processes, the fact that they’re private gives them the right to operate as they so choose (not siding with them on the judging, just stating the facts). So with that said, if the Academy thinks there’s nothing wrong with the way they nominate and select awards recipients (and for obvious reasons that seems to be the case), let them be. It’s their product so it’s their call, but don’t let that stop you from getting recognition for noteworthy performances. If you see something wrong with a current product or see a way things can be done better, create a better product. It’s called innovation and it’s one of the greatest things about being human.
As far as boycotting the Oscars with the hopes that the Academy will change and be a bit more inclusive from a diversity standpoint, well, isn’t that sort of like yelling at an elephant lying in the road, blocking your path on a safari? Even if the elephant decides to look in your direction, is your fussing at him going to make him move? Probably not. By boycotting the Oscars, you not only run the risk of wasting your time (well, I guess going could be a waste of time too ?), you also run the risk of receiving a gratuitous nomination, which to me is worse than not being nominated at all (and Heaven forbid the nomination be handed out for work that was less than stellar). And yes, I’ve heard that titles like “Academy Award Nominee” and “Academy Award Winner” open up a new set of opportunities for the artist/director, but do they really? Is the award itself greater than the body of work? After the ceremony is over and the awards are all handed out, isn’t it still about the role? Does your title of “Academy Award Winner” automatically get you the next role? I personally don’t think so. In my heart of hearts, I believe the top actors/actresses keep getting the top roles because, well, someone saw them in their last film and think they’re “the guy or girl.”
Let’s once again look at a sports example. What if Cam Newton, current starting quarterback of the Carolina Panthers had just settled for being a backup at the University of Florida? How might his story have ended up? (For the benefit of those of you reading this who don’t follow the NFL, Cam Newton couldn’t start at UF and showcase his full ability, because he had an upperclassman ahead of him who was also a winner. He made the difficult, but necessary decision to leave Florida, and transferred to Auburn University, where he not only won a national championship (earned because his team scored more points), but also won a Heisman trophy (granted to him by, you guessed it, a panel of judges ?)).
If you want to fix The Oscars, leave them alone and circle back around to good old American competition. Start a competing product. Do it bigger; make it better. Build an awards process where the voices of the people are heard. Give more recognition to the writers; they’re so vital to the film industry (both screenplay writers and authors of the original works upon which the screenplays are based). Start searching for great stories written by diverse authors. In doing so, you will create more opportunities for actors/actresses of color to get great roles. When you combine great roles with great actors, you get award-winning performances that are much more difficult to overlook.
To state the obvious, yes, there are the Golden Globe Awards and the SAG Awards, but the Oscars has no serious competition (and most in the industry will attest to that). If you want to properly address that issue, you won’t get far by simply lamenting the lack of inclusion. You’ll have to create that serious competition! Consider partnering with wealthy investors who share similar passion and interests. They’re the ones that will help build the ecosystem that will sustain that competition moving forward by financing the purchase of land or leasing of space to build film studios. They are the ones who’ll help with buying or building theaters that will play the films that may not get slated for appearance by the current, top movie theater companies.
Calling for a boycott or sitting out the Oscars will do very little to address the real problem. The previously referenced LA Times article suggests that lack of diversity at the Oscars is nothing new; but what also isn’t new is sitting around doing nothing useful to address it. With that said, I think it’s time to abandon this practice of crying out for someone else to recognize you. YOU recognize YOU! Use that same creative energy you call upon when bringing storybook characters to life, to create something new that will eliminate the need to call for boycotts of the current offering. If done right, The Academy will eventually correct itself. If you treat the Academy like a company that offers a consumer product, it may empower you to move away from asking to be recognized. And like all companies that offer competing products, to stay relevant, the Academy will eventually have to cater to the consumer (but even if it didn’t, would it matter if you had a competing product with which you were happy)?
I’d like to close out this article with a final thought. I hope that we can (one day in the very near future) move away from making things like awards snubs about race, though right now, the obvious cannot be ignored. Of all the arts disciplines, sadly, acting is the only one where skin color/ethnicity is regarded ahead of the work (and I’m not sure there’s a perfect way to get around that). When compared to visual art (painting/photography/sculpture), literature, music and culinary art, where the consumer cares less about who created the work and more about how it makes them feel, acting for some reason seems to be judged less fairly. Perhaps because with the former, you either don’t see the creator, or don’t care because the finished product makes you feel so good. The opposite seems true for the latter. Perhaps the reason is that in the course of cutting the story down to a length of time that is suitable for viewing, the thing that make us all similar (the human spirit: certainly far greater than the superficial things that make us different) is somehow lost in editing (not sure that’s the case, just a thought). In any case, it doesn’t seem like we’re going to be able to get away from the fact that acting seems to be the only arts discipline where people care about how the artist looks, so if we’re going to put this “lack of diversity” to bed, we’re all going to have to work on it together. The following list is a great place to start:
- Recognize that the Academy is a private entity and is free to conduct business as they so choose.
- Realize that the Oscars committee is no more than a panel of judges who are rendering an opinion on art, not reporting on numbers (so in that sense, “best” is really an opinion, at best ?).
- Consider the possibility that based on whatever criteria the nominating committee uses, in their own minds (and sometimes contrary to popular opinion) those who were nominated actually were the best in those categories (I didn’t say you had to agree).
- Understand that because acting is an art and awards granted for that discipline are based on opinion. Because no one opinion is paramount when it comes to interpretation of art, the Oscars committee can’t get it right (or wrong technically – it’s just an opinion).
- Whether Black, Asian, Latin or other, if you take your own color out of the picture long enough, you’ll realize that White actors and actresses often feel the same raw rub of being overlooked time and time again, especially when the viewing public admires one individual’s work above that of others who were selected (one of my all-time favorite daytime soaps actresses, Susan Lucci aka “Erica Kane,” is a great example).
- To ??? with begging and waiting for someone to tell you you’re “good.” If the title of XYZ Award-winning Actor gets you more work but you can’t get such title from one brand, create a 123 Awards process/ceremony, continue to do good work, and see if you’re recognized by that committee.
- Music has the Grammys and the AMAs. Beauty has the Miss America and Miss USA pageants. If film only has one major awards recognition process, perhaps it’s time the Oscars had a little competition, right?
And finally, for the record, since the Oscars is the biggest game in town, I’ll say that I felt there were several films released in 2015 with leading Black actors (not just American) that had performances worthy of nomination (as a c_ncer survivor myself, “Creed” moved me like nothing else I’ve seen to this point). But then again, I’m not an academy member myself, now am I? ?
Before becoming a full-time author, Matt D. Talford spent 14 years in Microsoft’s Product Support Division, working both as an engineer and a Technical Account Manager. He has since published the award-winning memoir, “From Fear to Faith: A Survivor’s Story”, a powerfully compelling story of love and hope in the midst of incredible circumstances.
“From Fear to Faith: A Survivor’s Story” is available digitally on Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks, and in paperback at Amazon.com, the author’s website and at select bookstores. For more information, visit http://www.mdtalford.com/products