Why the annual race row helps the Oscars

The diversity debate feeds the film industry’s bloated sense of self-importance.

Maren Thom

Topics Culture UK USA

The 2020 film and TV awards season has already aroused predictable complaints about diversity and representation. There is a perception that these now annual rows harm the standing of the industry. But award shows are actually more than happy for the culture wars to be fought out on the red carpet.

This is why, rather than ignoring criticisms about representation, or dismissing them as wrongheaded when it comes to evaluating art, industry representatives fall over themselves to find ways to accommodate these criticisms. Indeed, BAFTA is already planning to overhaul its voting system after this year’s race row.

Even though identitarian activists are constantly denouncing award shows as racist and sexist, award shows and identity politics are not on opposing sides in this culture-war dynamic. They share the view that culture (or film and TV in particular) determines the way the rest of us view the world, and so culture can change the world.

According to this mindset, the cultural industry is in part responsible for the disadvantages that people experience in their everyday lives. Inclusive and diverse films, therefore, have the power to shape the cultural narrative. And by recognising such films, award ceremonies can help ‘normalise’ films made by and starring women and minorities. This exposure to cultural images will, in turn, allow white men to get used to ‘Others’ in their daily lives – and allow the ‘Others’ to perceive themselves as normal. This view allows the award ceremonies to sell themselves as the arbiters of progress.

Now, some say that the ‘best’ films and actors should get the awards. But award ceremonies are not like critics. Despite how they market themselves, they have never been any good at assessing artistic and cultural worth.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the organisation that hands out Oscars – was founded by Louis B Mayer of MGM Studios in 1927. He and other industry leaders needed the Oscars not in order to venerate artistic talent, but to muzzle newly formed labour unions in Hollywood. In his biography, Mayer is quoted saying on the first evening of the Oscars in 1929, ‘I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them’. He would later add, ‘If I got them cups and awards they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.’

Award ceremonies are not about art, they’re about sales and profit. They create a market for the film industry’s products by selectively honouring people from its ranks. By default, this is a self-fetishising process. The notion that these films (and actors’ self-important acceptance speeches) represent and determine real-life social relations is a key facet of the industry’s marketing. And the industry itself has bought wholeheartedly into this illusion. This is partly why even the most deluded virtue-signalling – such as Joaquin Phoenix’s bizarre pledge to wear only one custom Stella McCartney suit this awards season to save waste – sounds perfectly normal to these people.

Filmmakers believe that they control and influence cultural narratives that have a real impact on people’s lives. This is why they genuinely see themselves as a potential force for good on race relations. Rather than weakening award shows like the Oscars, controversies about representation and diversity just make them seem far more relevant to our lives than they really are.

Maren Thom is a writer based in London.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Culture UK USA


nick hunt

17th January 2020 at 7:09 pm

“Filmmakers believe that they control and influence cultural narratives that have a real impact on people’s lives.” Spike Lee certainly had a major impact on mine, a few years when he kicked up a stink about racism preventing black actors getting Oscars. So I did the research and the maths and found his narrative to be completely false. But I don’t think he was being false when he said “I give interracial couples a look. Daggers. They get uncomfortable when they see me on the street”.

jan mozelewski

16th January 2020 at 12:21 pm

What actually feeds the bloated self importance of Hollywood is articles talking about the self-importance of Hollywood. (And, I acknowledge, people like me commenting on articles talking about it.)
I last watched the oscars when Gladiator won. 20 years ago now isn’t it? Since then, I have been to the movies maybe 4 or 5 times. The films are either based on comic books or computer games and have no characters I could care about, or they are preachy woke drivel, or British woke drivel in period costume.
The ‘stars’ are consistently more visible, to ever growing swathes of the population, through their woke virtue-signalling on social media and tv interviews than through any ‘work’ they do.
If I see a film with ‘critically acclaimed’ in its description I give it a wide berth. It will be woke to the eyeballs and, if supposed to be a comedy, will be totally un-funny. If a drama it will feature the same-old same-old identity politics instead of properly rounded-out and complex human beings.

nick hunt

17th January 2020 at 7:20 pm

I take it a step further: if today’s critics hate it, I’m much more likely to watch. I recall the ‘experts’ panning and expressing their disgust with greeted Mel Gibson’s ‘Apocalypto’, which made me ignore this masterpiece for more than a decade. When I did finally see it (IMHO one of the greatest, most realistic, thrilling and informative action films ever), the massive hate and prejudice concerning Trump, western values and conservatives in general had already cured me of leftist close-mindedness. I feel so much freer, clearer and happier now.

Ven Oods

16th January 2020 at 12:19 pm

Why don’t the disappointed parties just arrange their own non-white Oscars? (The Opras, perhaps?) Then, everyone gets to feel special and Clooney et al can know how it feels to be excluded.

eli Bastenbury

16th January 2020 at 11:56 am

That’s a good arguement and I like it.

nick hunt

17th January 2020 at 7:22 pm

Me too. I’d also like to see them explaining why excluding whites isn’t racism or even revenge racism

Michael Lynch

16th January 2020 at 11:26 am

Hollywood is in real trouble. I went to se 1917 the other night and fell fast asleep half way through! This the second so called Blockbuster that I have nodded off to at the Cinema over the last 12 months. Bad news, as I’m a film nut and it’s usually my wife who naps! The film reminded me of my how my old neighbors recounted their war experiences to me when I was a child. They’d naturally sanitize the events so as not to frighten me and this how 1917 came across. A rather strange way to present a war film to adults and not exactly the best way of trying to point out the futility and destruction of war. Was this Raimi’s way of trying to avoid triggering a Millennial audience? Furthermore, when my wife and I discussed the performance afterwards I complained that I didn’t see men being blown to smithereens or shot dead; especially during the last battle sequence. She replied that she preferred to see a war film like this; no unnecessary blood and guts. It dawned on me at that point that Raimi has tried to pull off the impossible, he’s also made a war film for chicks! Hollywood, it seems, is intent on putting the woke noose around it’s neck. Come on Hollywood, give us Warhorse 2, now that was a war film for modern audiences. I was reluctant to go see it at first because I thought it would be a sanitized job yet I ended up crying my eyes out. Wouldn’t it also be refreshing if someone adapted Wilfred Owen’s war poetry for screen. Especially ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ – now that really would see off any glorification of war.

steven brook

16th January 2020 at 9:52 am

“This man is a winner… wearing custom Stella because he chooses to make choices for the future of the planet. He has also chosen to wear this same Tux to reduce waste. I am proud to join forces with you,” McCartney, wrote on Twitter.
“he chooses to make choices for the future of the planet” are these people supid?

Michael M

16th January 2020 at 8:26 pm

I’ve always wondered what happens to the education of actors who begin early in life. Mr Phoenix started at 8, and got his first major film role at 12. I suspect they must have to do something to stay within the law, but I’ll bet most child actors don’t get the best educational foundations.

According to https://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/joaquin-phoenix#page2 Phoenix said : “I’m just saying that I think [awards ceremonies are] bullshit. I think it’s total, utter bullshit, and I don’t want to be a part of it.” Yet he still goes to them. In’t posturing great?

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