Friday, January 29, 2016

The Oscars' Boycott: Agree or Disagree?

As many of you are aware, Spike Lee and the Smiths, Will and Jada, have opted to boycott the Oscars this year. For the second year in a row, no people of colour were nominated for a major award. There has been a great deal of chatter about this by both film makers and film critics, some of it quite thoughtful. As a novelist, however, my perspective on the situation is much different.

Novels and films are completely different art forms. This may sound obvious, but how often have you heard someone say "the book was better than the movie?" (That always drives me crazy) Writing a screenplay is nothing like writing a novel, and the only thing that ties the two together is story. The structure, however, and what the respective art forms can do, have little in common. If I were to suggest that a painting and a sculpture were the same art form, sculptors and painters would look at me like I'm nuts. And they'd be right to.

That said, most of the lead characters in my books are minorities. This was a conscious decision. If you follow this blog, than you know how I feel about social justice and equal rights and the responsibility of the artistic community, particularly writers, to not only see the imbalances of our society, but in some way to address those inequalities in our work. The easiest way to do this is to create minority characters and let them tell their story. Even if, as in my case, their story is set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world.


Spike Lee has been a significant film maker for a long time, even if his work has been somewhat uneven the past fifteen years or so. And I don't think he's boycotting the Oscars as a publicity stunt. He's been in the inside and has seen what goes on behind the camera. And, as the black producer Effie Brown pointed out on Project Greenlight this year, the problem is not limited to what happens onscreen, but what happens off screen as well. Hollywood is still largely run by old white men. And they are not going to be harbingers of change, not in a society where they hold most of the power. And though it has changed somewhat the past decade or so, the Oscars remain a very "white" event. (The average age of academy voters is 62. Nearly all of them are white.) 

In a time when we have candidates running for president who are clearly xenophobic and 
racist, as well as movements like #BlackLivesMatter stemming from decades of systemic racism, it is imperative that the artistic community gets it right. And for better or worse, Hollywood represents the most powerful artistic group in the world. They need to be leading the way. (And having a talented actress like Charlotte Rampling talk about "reverse racism" is so beyond idiotic that I refuse to call her an artist any more. Artists must be the soul of a moral society. I don't care how well you can act, if you're a bigot, you're not an artist.)

So in that, I agree with Lee, and his boycott.


I've always liked Will Smith. He's a charismatic actor that has starred in a number of great movies. (Or great "bad" movies, like Bad Boys) But he's never shown himself to be an activist in any way, unless he's campaigning for the lead role in a Tarantino movie. Unlike Lee, they haven't earned the benefit of the doubt. The Smiths own a powerful production company. If they want more black actors represented at the Oscars, start making films that give them better roles.Or support films like Selma with their stardom and maybe some of their own cash. (They are uber-rich)

The Academy has proven that it will reward films by and starring people of colour. 12 Years a Slave was voted Best Picture just three years ago. I didn't see one this year. (I don't see as many films as critics, so again, take it for what it is, one novelist's opinion) I thought Michael B. Jordan was excellent in Creed, but it sounds like the producers didn't mount the proper campaign for him.

That's right, a campaign. To win an Oscar requires the proper schmoozing and marketing to all the right people, and if that campaign is poorly timed or executed, films will be left out. Insiders believe that this is what happened to Selma last year.

The other issue here, of course, is that representing minorities isn't just about people of colour. What about Asians? What about better roles for women, considering how many movies are made that still can't pass the Bechdel test? (Hell, I'll bet most Academy members don't even know what it is.) And yes, I know that women get equal representation at the ceremony, but that doesn't mean they're getting equal representation on the screen or behind the camera. (I see you, Jurassic World.)

The fact is, so long as the Academy is made up of a bunch of old white guys, and producers need to run political campaigns to get their films noticed, this is going to happen. And boycotting the ceremony does nothing to change that, particularly for those who have worked their entire life for this kind of recognition. (I'm thinking in particular about the parts of the ceremony that aren't televised. the awards for short films and documentaries, etc...)

Frankly, I think the Smiths are being hypocritical. Instead of boycotting, why not show up and talk about what needs to change. This can be done in a positive way. They're both stars. And don't just talk about the dearth of black nominations, but talk about equality. Talk about social justice and the importance of the artistic community getting it right. Talk about the need for better developed female characters and better roles for Indigenous people.

Even better, become active in the community. Do what Magic Johnson has done. Or Common. Follow in their footsteps and set the ground ablaze with what needs to be done.

If the Smiths really want to be activists, do something first. Let us see some of your riches go to projects that create change. Until then, your boycott is self-serving nonsense.