My former boss was adamant about entering me in a trivia contest (yes, in a manner that sounded more like the process to win a county fair livestock competition), in large part because of my encyclopedic film knowledge. It probably looked more impressive than it was- his memory isn’t great, and he doesn’t watch very many movies. But if it appeared impressive, it wasn’t for a lack of work on my part.
I study and deconstruct film in the same way many read books or dedicate themselves to laboratory or social science. Despite the advent of streaming technology, I still maintain a healthy collection of physical films on VHS and DVD. And I have maintained a Netflix account from the very beginning- one of very few things I can admit to having for over a decade. Even the notation on my college degree as a film studies minor confirms it: films are a huge part of who I am.
But this year, the decision is clear: a day that I’ve counted as my Super Bowl for nearly twenty years, is going intentionally unobserved for the first time in my home. This Sunday, I’m not watching the Oscars. #SorryNotSorry, Academy.
By now, the swell of criticism surrounding the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, founded by BroadwayBlack.com managing editor April Reign, is at a fever pitch. The hashtag was actually created last year, after a similarly white nominee list emerged across the board. Acting categories, technical categories, technical categories- while pockets of recognition were noticeable, a larger problem had made itself evident. And after a second consecutive year of such a slate, despite talk of wanting to make changes, action had to be taken.
Many will argue that this has been a problem far longer than the last two years; I’d agree. Others will argue that it’s less of a nomination problem and more of a “pipeline problem”; that too is remarkably true. But for me, the problem is far more deeply personal than either of these issues. As a black woman, I can’t see myself in the spotlight that the Academy has created, and it has gotten too hard to revere a system that would allow such an omission for so long.
Popular culture, like it or not, is the lens that we hold up to one another to reflect what’s important in our society. We hold up what we want to see, we fund what we find valuable, we reward the best examples of this. The Academy’s current voting system, both in makeup (overwhelmingly white, male, and old) and process (you can vote for movies you haven’t seen, regardless of buzz or familiarity), means that important stories can sink to the bottom just because they’re unfamiliar. This means that incredibly valuable and entertaining stories that look different from what has previously been rewarded (Beasts of No Nation, Straight Outta Compton, and Tangerine being three outstanding examples from this year alone), will remain unheralded.
Does this lack of recognition matter? Ask anyone who has gotten more work as a result of being able to append “Academy Award nominee” to the start of their name. Ask anyone who has been billed “an overnight success” as a result of being at the ceremony. And ask award winners from other disciplines who have caught up to this need to reward more unique, complicated, different stories. Viola Davis will tell you, as will Audra McDonald, Gina Rodriguez or the cast of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It feels nice to see someone who looks like you, who grew up like you did, who has had to fight for the spotlight when others haven’t wanted to share it, finally make it. The fact remains: being noticed by the Academy opens a door to future success and viability. I hate that there are locks on that door, and that those locks can be opened by how someone looks or where they’re from. For as much as we’d like to believe that such a fight isn’t necessary anymore, a damning collection of testimonies shared in the New York Times this week tells a very different story- from a saddening multitude of perspectives.
Now, this isn’t a lifetime ban. I actually have high hopes for the proposed revisions to the Oscar voter system- not because it kicks out white guys, but because it gives more weight to younger active filmmakers who are closer to trends and shifts in what’s being made. And what’s more, I don’t carry any disdain for many of this year’s nominees. Room was a beautiful film that Brie Larson deserves every bit of praise for. But come Sunday, I’ll be spending my day quite differently.
I’ll be focused less on who everyone’s wearing, and more on what I’m wearing (preview: pajama pants, probably plaid). I’ll focus less on award show banter and more on whatever I find on Netflix (most likely Beasts of No Nation). And I’ll pay less attention to what I’ve always seen, and more on what I truly hope to see. I’ve spent almost thirty years, tens of thousands of dollars on coursework and a degree, and boundless reverence on a system that presently doesn’t value me. At last, I’m choosing to place my energy similarly. Have a great night, AMPAS- and I truly hope to see you next year.