The BAFTAs aren’t racist

These awards-show race rows are not all that they seem.

Tom Slater
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It wouldn’t be awards season without the obligatory race row. This year, it’s the BAFTAs that are in the frame for a failure to nominate enough diverse talent.

The nominations for the 2020 awards hit Twitter with a thump. All the nominees for Lead Actor, Lead Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress are white. And all the Best Director nominees are men (for the seventh year running). But with #BAFTAsSoWhite trending, race has been the main focus of outrage.

‘White, male and boring: diversity row should makes BAFTA look in the mirror’, read a headline in the Guardian. ‘What will it take to finally fix BAFTA’s race problem?’, read another, in identitarian mag gal-dem. Even BAFTA CEO Amanda Berry said she was ‘very disappointed’ by the heavily caucasian list.

But is this yet more proof that the British Academy really has a ‘race problem’, just as the Oscars and various other awards shows allegedly have?

Undoubtedly there have been some shocking oversights in this year’s nominations, with certain films dominating to an almost absurd degree: Joker, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman and 1917 have scooped 11, 10, 10 and nine nominations respectively.

The acting categories are similarly samey, with Scarlett Johansson and Margot Robbie both showing up twice across the 20 nominees. Meanwhile, Jennifer Lopez has been overlooked for her acclaimed turn in Hustlers, as has Cynthia Erivo for her portrayal of the great Harriet Tubman in Harriet.

Now, this year is a tough field. Among those dominating are great films, star actors and legendary filmmakers. But as Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin puts it, ‘With the best will in the world, Scarlett Johansson and Margot Robbie were not personally responsible for one 5th of the best acting of 2019’.

Still, the allegations of racial bias are simply wrong, and say more about our identity-politics obsessed times than they do about the alleged unspoken prejudices of BAFTA members.

First off, it’s worth remembering that there was no race row last year, due to a far more diverse showing. Best Actor went to Rami Malek, the American son of Egyptian immigrants. Best Supporting Actor went to Mahershala Ali. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman picked up Best Adapted Screenplay and received five nominations, including for Best Film and Best Director.

The idea that in the space of 12 months the BAFTA membership – the industry professionals who vote in the various categories – have suddenly become card-carrying bigots is a bit of a stretch.

Indeed, the chatter about BAFTA ‘snubbing’ this or that film rather obscures how this process works. It has a membership of around 7,500 people, all of whom are making individual choices based on their own preferences. They couldn’t organise some plot to hold down minority talent even if they wanted to.

Unconscious racial bias might be a more plausible (if uncharitable) explanation. But that doesn’t quite account for why it didn’t kick in last year. Nor does it account for the fact that BAFTA’s membership is, going by available figures, significantly more racially diverse than the British film industry as a whole.

Of course, minority filmmakers were for years both shut out of the industry and rarely recognised when they did break through. A report in 2018 found that 94 per cent of all BAFTA nominees have been white. But then again, the BAFTAs have been going for over 70 years; things have clearly changed, and are still changing.

The clustering of nominations has far more mundane causes. Industry lobbying is one of them. Each year studios pour resources into promoting certain films to members, inevitably leading to a select group of films building momentum and winning gongs in awards show after awards show.

There is also, as Collin notes, a certain groupthink that sets in about which films and genres should be recognised: while there has been consternation that Lupita Nyong’o was passed over for her freaky turn in Us, ‘Us was a horror film, and BAFTA currently gets queasy around horror’.

On the flipside, there seems to be a somewhat odd definition of what counts as diverse. The Best Film nomination for Korean dark comedy thriller and Palm d’Or winner Parasite has barely been mentioned, despite being a bit of a coup. Nor has the fact that Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma won Best Film and Best Director last year.

Similarly, as Fraser Myers wrote on spiked last year, the #OscarsSoWhite scandal has rumbled on at precisely the same time as three Mexican filmmakers – Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Del Toro – have been cleaning up at the Academy Awards.

It’s almost as if this is more about woke posturing than it is the state of the film industry.

BAFTA has already made moves to try to broaden its membership in general, as have the Oscars. And that’s all to the good. Groupthink is clearly a problem both need to address.

But it’s absurd and patronising to assume that having a more diverse selectorate will mean more consistently diverse nominees: as if black people vote for black films and white people vote for white films.

If we continue to view every awards show through this racial lens, the cycle of outrage will be neverending.

BAFTA has already gone further, introducing ‘diversity and inclusion criteria’ for two of its awards, Outstanding British Film and Outstanding Debut. To be nominated in those categories, films need to ‘demonstrate that they have worked to increase the representation of under-represented groups’, on-screen and/or off.

But to produce the kind of perfectly representative nominees BAFTA seems to be aiming at, you’d have to either rig the voting system in favour of minority filmmakers, so that who gets the nod isn’t left entirely down to voters’ own preferences, or just pile more and more pressure on members to ‘do the right thing’ and back minority talent wherever possible.

So it’s either quotas, or quotas by stealth. Neither is positive. Such a system would mean further encouraging people to think about art and artistic achievement along racial lines, something we’ve had far too much of in recent years.

The BAFTAs aren’t perfect. But they’re not racist, either. And the potential cures on offer could easily end up being worse than the disease.

Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

Picture by: Getty

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Comments

Alan Howatt

10th January 2020 at 6:19 pm

There is a very simple solution to this issue and it is to follow the example of many American universities who hold separate graduation ceremonies for students of all hues and persuasions. Why not have several BAFTA’s, one for each any every oppressed, repressed, suppressed and depressed group? The more, the merrier, I say. Everyone will be happy.

Marvin Jones

9th January 2020 at 3:15 pm

I am an Anglo-Indian. Born in Calcutta just after the British Raj ended. My father was a Jones, my mother a dark skinned Goanese whatever. My father was a drunk and a gambler died and left us in total poverty, but thank heavens for the kindness of a certain relative. I was lucky to arrive on Victoria with my mother on Christmas Eve 1965, and have never been out of work. Very susceptible to sunshine which I have always loved, played a lot of golf which was responsible for me being rather dark brown in summer and light brown in winter. Now! I have never overtly felt ANY racism ever. But since I got rather interested in politics, all I hear from people like Dianne Abbott, David Lammy, Dawn Butler and other black politicians, is that Britain is a racist country. On last evenings Andrew Neil’s show one of the contenders for the labour leadership Clive Lewis claimed that Brexit was a racist choice, and in the past said that all racists voted for Brexit. Is that the only policy and agenda that these people have space for in their heads?

Ven Oods

9th January 2020 at 8:45 am

Well, if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, then we’ll see whether the BAFTA (and other) awards were accurate from the takings figures (assuming that winning an award doesn’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course).
I’ve been disappointed so often by award-winning films that I don’t watch the ceremonies any more (apart from checking out Gervais’s pre-awards insult-fest – and that was on YouTube, not proper telly).

MARK B

9th January 2020 at 8:19 am

It should be about talent not race, gender, politics or any other relevant metric. To claim that there must be ‘x’ of such and such not only demeans the award, but the person(s) receiving it. The fact that those unnamed persons seem to be ‘race sensitive’ only highlights:

a) their own inner racism.

b) their desire to appear more virtuous to those around them. ie They are using racism as a grandstand for self promotion amongst their fellows.

Fortunately, more and more people are getting tired of their incessant whining and are either being ignored, or challenged.

Melissa Jackson

8th January 2020 at 9:32 pm

It’s notable that Guillermo Del Toro, one of the greatest film makers of my lifetime, is seen by progressives as being effectively white because he has won awards on his own merits. Apparently being creative and original is seen as a “white” thing.

It’s just so weird to see his identity as a non-white film maker completely ignored. I remember when rumours of his inclusion on The Hobbit caused gasps of excitement from all manner of cinema goers. As a younger lady I was salivating to see his Call of Cthulu movie, which sadly never came to. He is so damn talented, and yet somehow this actively counts against him as a “person of colour” because PoCs are supposed to rail against the white man instead of telling interesting stories.

Ed Turnbull

9th January 2020 at 1:16 pm

I’ve never thought of GDT as ‘non-white’. He’s Mexican sure, but that’s a *nationality* – his skin tone in no different from Spielberg, Cameron, Tarantino, Scorcese, etc. In any case, his race (and nationality) is utterly irrelevant – he’s a formidably talented film maker and that’s all that matters (at least to rational folk).

Jim Lawrie

8th January 2020 at 4:22 pm

Orientals don’t demand quotas. They’re too busy actually being successful via work based merit, and have not the time or disposition to wait for someone to come along and pity their lack of effort, ability, brain and achievement.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WeYsTmIzjkw

Ed Turnbull

9th January 2020 at 1:08 pm

Indeed Jim, orientals don’t demand quotas. But quotas are being imposed on them nonetheless: the restrictions on their number who can qualify for Harvard. I guess merit must be racist in the progressive mindset.

I’d love to see a true meritocracy prevail, but alas, it’ll never happen. Progressives have a set of ‘desired outcomes’, and a meritocracy would fail to deliver them. Meritocratic outcomes would doubtless be ‘racist’, ‘sexist’ and ‘-phobic’ of every shade imaginable.

Progs are unable understand that while the modern world is overwhelmingly the creation of straight(mostly) white men, it’s a product of *culture*, not race or sex. Given that multiculturalism is one of their shibboleths: all cultures are equal, and none can be blamed for their failures (except western culture of course). Therefore failures (economic, technological, etc) of certain groups *must* be a consequence of prejudice against immutable characteristics of the groups’ members. Once more progressives judge people based on their skin colour (or genitals) rather than the content of their characters.

Jim Lawrie

8th January 2020 at 4:09 pm

The racism in this whole screaming match exudes from the race hustlers.

Will someone stick down $250m to satisfy the outdry for a Black James Bond, with quotas of Asians, Arabs and Orientals? By popular demand, it will be a winner.
Or will people plump for what is white, male and boring?

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