A few weeks ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the 88th Academy Awards nominees and to the disappointment of many, once again the Oscars were too white. Instantly, the hashtag took over social media and celebrities and non-celebrities alike eagerly gave their take. Personally, I have probably never been as ambivalent in choosing a side in this campaign, the main reason being: what is the value of an award you must petition for? There is no value in it. So what’s the real problem with Oscars? Why is it so homogeneous and what does it mean? What’s the solution, if there is one? And what actually did happen to Taylor Blaine at that party? Maybe I’ll get to the bottom of half those questions.
The conflict I’ve run across most frequently in personal one-on-one conversations and on the Internet is the idea of the need for diversity vs. the earnest recognition of achievement. At least that’s where people have chosen to draw the lines or create their narratives. I both understand and value the two issues strongly. But could it be that the two sides are mostly independent of each other?
Diversity. There are probably only a handful of fights in the modern day that are more important but it’s important to do our best to define the significance of diversity and what it seeks to achieve. Diversity isn’t always insertion of people of different backgrounds for the simple sake of variety. It’s much bigger than that. Diversity expands the aperture our collective worldview. It ensures that we as a society can benefit from as many points-of-view as reasonably possible. Diversity expands our ability to understand each other, ourselves; it increases our ability to interpret culture. It spawns new ideas by removing the limitations derived stale perspectives.
Okay, it’s easy to just say that those are the benefits of diversity, but let’s look at it a few ways in practice.
Let me start off by saying that human beings are one ridiculously amazing species. Keep tracking backwards through civilizations and we have created amazing things since the days of dragging our knuckles. Look at our innovations and discoveries in science and math, our creativity in art and music, the development of societies, philosophy, understanding the nature of behavior in animals, humanity, and the universe. But the most significant advances in any of those areas have come when a civilization is flourishing and at relative peace. The Chinese Dynasties, the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, Rome, Greece, Britain, the United States… when a society reaches a level of stability where people are free to create, experiment, and discover, great things happen. We travel to the moon, create cures for diseases, and invent new forms of communication that allows strangers to insult each other. Now, what in the world does this have to do with diversity?
Every time one of those human eggs gets fertilized and that DNA-filled zygote starts turning into a potential life, we pass on the potential for all that innovation. That microscopic cluster of multiplying cells could have the secret to a new vaccine, a new way to travel across the galaxy, or the next Hunger Games story. BUT, when we limit that life’s ability to create in a world of social constructs and barriers that WE’VE designed, we throw artistic/scientific/intellectual potential right out the window. Each life is a little lottery ticket. We don’t know which ones has that cure, that invention, or that story. But the broader we expand the field where creativity and innovation can thrive, the better off we all are as a society. And as of right now, despite all the incredible progress we’ve made over thousands of years: gender, ethnicity, orientation, economic class, among others are still real hurdles to the benefits of reaching that potential. And all of these variations that make us diverse gives us countless permutations of objectivity that couldn’t be achieved otherwise and from that we have the chance to arrive at a new conclusion, a new idea, a new creation.
So now we come back to the Oscars and what it means to this conversation. Despite all the benefits of diversity and in this case, in the realm of the arts, I still don’t think nominees should be shoehorned into categories only by virtue of their ethnicity, gender, etc. That does not mean that the lack of diversity shouldn’t raise eyebrows. Maybe, just possibly, the fact that the field lacks diversity is indicative of another problem. Maybe the lack of diversity is a symptom or byproduct of what needs to be addressed without instantly resorting to some manufactured corrective measure like inserting female or black nominees to give the illusion of inclusion. Let’s look at why a producer and the casting directors who work under them consider it a riskier proposition to cast a person-of-color in a leading role and why white actors make safer bets. Look at Cameron Crowe’s Aloha (2015) where it made more sense to cast blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Emma Stone as a Polynesian-Chinese character from Hawaii than anyone who looked like they are from the Islands. The Oscars are just the mirror to what is going on in the entertainment industry. The solution isn’t to take a Sharpie and draw what we want to see in the mirror; it’s to change what the mirror is reflecting in the first place. And it’s highly likely that there were no actors-of-color who earned a nomination for the 88th Academy Awards mainly because there were not enough quality roles to ensure one could be chosen (Sorry Kevin Hart).
Okay, #OscarsSoWhite is a good title of the story but it’s a long way from the plot of the story. We should look at this as an opportunity to take yet another baby step towards improving the world we live in, just like we’ve done for thousands of years. The 88th Academy Awards is just a reminder of how much we’ve taken for granted the importance of getting that aperture of diversity as wide as possible; it’s a reminder that we’re possibly cheating ourselves of great performances and inspiring stories because we’ve narrowed our scope of the qualities that make up what desirable actors/directors/writers can be. We’ve already disproven many of the archaic social norms of the past; not only about whether non-white actors could lead films but even if female and non-white directors, writers, producers could make films. #OscarsSoWhite isn’t about who was conspicuously omitted from recognition; it’s, in my opinion, about being remiss in our collective stewardship of moving culture and the arts forward.