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Richard Linklater’s decades-spanning masterpiece has already won. It’s time for another movie to stand alongside it.
The Internet’s favorite Little Indie Movie That Could hit yet another milestone on its way to the Oscars: Along with today’s Golden Globe nods, Boyhood notched three Screen Actors Guild nominations yesterday—for Best Cast, Best Supporting Actor (Ethan Hawke), and Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette). Arquette, in particular, looks like a shoo-in for an Oscar win this year—after she won bids at the New York Film Critics Circle and the L.A. Film Critics Circle. The LAFCC even bumped her up to Actress, overtaking likely Oscar winner Julianne Moore, who gives the performance of her career in Still Alice. Boyhood also reigned supreme at both N.Y. and L.A.’s groups, the first time since L.A. Confidential in 1997 that both coasts have agreed on the same movie.
The state of the Oscar race
If this surprises you, you must not have logged onto the Web in the past six months. Boyhood scored a historic 100 on Metacritic, the only current wide-release to ever get a perfect score in the history of the review aggregation website (classics like The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia share the honor of perfection). However, if there’s one movie that’s been making moves on Boyhood’s critical prowess, it’s Selma, the Martin Luther King biopic that’s been on a hot streak with mentions in AFI and the National Board of Review’s year-end lists. Even though Selma has yet to hit theaters, it’s already up to third place in Gold Derby’s Best Picture predictions, behind Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s gonzo Birdman and, you guessed it, Boyhood.
Early reviews for Selma have been overwhelmingly positive—with critics like the Wrap’s James Rocchi calling it “one of the best American films of the year—and indeed perhaps the best”—but Selma was shut out at SAG completely. It’s up to another op-ed writer to discern the reason: Did it lose momentum coming out so late, while Birdman and The Imitation Game had time to build buzz? Are its awards chances hurt by following 12 Years a Slave so closely, as voters might be reticent to give it to “The Black Movie” two years in a row? (It’s frankly astonishing that it happened once.) Either way, Selma’s Oscar hopes shine a little less brightly after this week’s announcement—a movie hasn’t won Best Picture without a corresponding bid in SAG’s Best Cast category since Braveheart in 1995, and look how that turned out for Mel Gibson.
I’m one of those Internet people who fell hard for Boyhood this year (I currently call it my favorite movie), but I can’t help but root for Selma instead. As one of the most breathlessly fawned-over movies in recent memory, Boyhood is likely not only to go down as this decade’s defining masterwork but also one of the great movies ever made—sitting aside Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey as films that redefined cinema, what it is now, and what it can be. As New York magazine film critic David Edelstein put it, “I’m not saying Boyhood is the greatest film I’ve ever seen, but I’m thinking there’s my life before I saw it and my life now, and it’s different.” I would say the same about filmmaking itself: There will be the movies made before Boyhood and the ones that come after, many of which will be possible because of Linklater’s gift to history. To paraphrase the attendants at Abraham Lincoln’s death bed, Boyhood belongs to the ages.
Let’s face it, though: The Oscars kind of suck
Other than being two of the greatest films ever made, what do Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey have in common? Neither of them won Best Picture. Citizen Kane lost to John Ford’s How Green Is My Valley, while Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn’t even nominated. Those bids went to more conventional fare by the standards of 1969, including Funny Girl, The Lion in Winter, and Oliver!, the evening’s big winner. In fact, most of the films critics now consider the greatest movies ever made were snubbed at the Oscars, if they were on the Academy’s radar at all. Of Sight and Sound’s list of great films, Singin’ in the Rain, City Lights, Vertigo, The Searchers, and Some Like It Hot didn’t even get nominated for Best Picture; the only Sight and Sound movies that did win Picture both have Godfather in the title.
You can make any excuses you want to explain why—they were ahead of their time, etc.—but the most plausible reason is the simplest: The Oscars aren’t about awarding the best movie. As respected Oscar blogger Sasha Stone has long argued, the Academy Awards are about what the Academy likes right now. Although a challenging piece of art like The Hurt Locker or No Country for Old Men occasionally slips in, these are the exceptions that prove the rule. The past decade, like every decade at the Oscars, has been dominated by consensus picks, the kind of nice movie a lot of people can agree on liking. The award goes to the best film that works within certain parameters of the sort of thing the Academy likes. This is why The English Patient beat Fargo and Forrest Gump bested Pulp Fiction.
Although the occasional fiasco on the level of Crash or The Greatest Show on Earth occurs, the movies that win are rarely objectively bad. I hate Forrest Gump with the fire of a thousand suns, but I recognize that it’s a beloved classic that speaks to a certain moment in the history of popular cinema, just as American Beauty, Titanic, and Rocky are all time capsules of another era in filmmaking. Praying that the Academy will recognize A Separation, Mulholland Dr., or The Tree of Life is a foolhardy exercise in masochistic futility, and the best an Oscar pundit can usually hope for is an Argo or The Departed, a reasonably good movie whose victory you won’t lose sleep over. Sometimes, like Schindler’s List or 12 Years a Slave, a great movie happens to also work within those parameters of Things the Academy Likes.
And if it doesn’t, who cares? The cultural legacies of The Social Network, Taxi Driver, Do the Right Thing, The Dark Knight, Goodfellas, and Brokeback Mountain are in no way diminished by not winning Best Picture—and in the case of the latter, getting snubbed in an embarrassing public display of homophobia likely helped boost its profile. Although a great deal of money is spent on Oscar campaigns, and it’s nice to see some of that investment returned in added revenue, these films have little to lose. The Dark Knight already changed big-budget tentpoles forever, with each blockbuster released in its wake bearing a bit of its indelible mark. Did it even need the stamp of approval of a bunch of old white guys?
A brief history of race at the Academy Awards
While Boyhood might not need the Academy Awards, Selma does. If the film were to win big on Oscar night, it would be just the second movie with a predominantly black cast to win Best Picture—and its director would boast an even more historic feat. In the history of the Academy, no black filmmaker or woman of color has ever won Best Director. This morning, Ava Duvernay became the first black woman ever nominated for the Golden Globes’ director honors, and she would be the first at the Oscars, just five years after Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to take home the trophy for The Hurt Locker. Bigelow’s win was a much-needed tipping point for the Academy; in the years since, Director honors have gone to a Brit, a Frenchman, an Asian-American, and a Mexican-American. However, only three black directors have ever been nominated—John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), Lee Daniels (Precious), and Steve McQueen, who sat on the sidelines last year even while his film, 12 Years a Slave, won top honors.
McQueen’s snub follows an unfortunate tendency to sideline the individual achievements of black artists, unless they’re in subordinate roles. While Mo’Nique, Octavia Spencer, and Lupita N’yongo have taken home Best Supporting Actress trophies, only one black woman has ever won Best Actress in the history of the Academy: Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball in 2001. Since then, Viola Davis looked like a surefire winner for her star-making turn in 2011’s The Help, but Meryl Streep took home her third Oscar instead for The Iron Lady, a performance some consider to be among her worst. After 12 Years a Slave rocked the Toronto International Film Festival, Kyle Buchanan’s Vulture prediction that the film was destined to dominate proved right, but not for its lead actor. Chiwetel Ejiofor lost to the charming guy with the Texas drawl—because the charmer made for better ratings.
But it’s Hollywood’s problem, too
But the fact that a black lead actor or actress haven’t won in eight years is as much the industry’s fault as it is the Academy’s. A recent op-ed in the Hollywood Reporter from comedian Chris Rock pointed out just how dire the situation is for black actresses in Hollywood:
There are almost no black women in film. You can go to whole movies and not see one black woman. They’ll throw a black guy a bone. OK, here’s a black guy. But is there a single black woman in Interstellar? Or Gone Girl? Birdman? The Purge? Neighbors? I’m not sure there are. I don’t remember them. I go to the movies almost every week, and I can go a month and not see a black woman having an actual speaking part in a movie. That’s the truth.
The statistics back up Rock’s claim. According to data from IndieWire’s Women in Hollywood survey, men made up 71 percent of all speaking roles onscreen in 2013; of those remaining 29 percent who happened to be female, only 14 percent were black. This means that, in 2013, only 4 percent of movie characters were black women—and Asian women and Latinas fared even worse, making up around 1 percent of all speaking roles. Behind the scenes, women direct just 6 percent of movies, and the state of women of color is even more dismal. How many female directors of color can you name? How many black female directors can you name? I would be surprised if a majority of Americans can even come up with one.
If the industry has been making strides in any area, it’s on the small screen, as the past few years have been a boom time for non-white actresses. Kerry Washington, Lucy Liu, Viola Davis, Cristela Alonzo, Tracie Ellis Ross, and Gina Rodriguez have all found acclaim on hit shows, with Rodriguez and Davis earning Golden Globe nominations this morning for their work on Jane the Virgin and How to Get Away with Murder, respectively. Davis also looks like a sure shot to break the Emmys’ color barrier, becoming the first black woman to win Best Actress just three years after the Oscars shot her down. Meanwhile, Kerry Washington, a two-time Emmy nominee, still can’t get a decent role in Hollywood. (A bit part in Django doesn’t count.)
This wave of color on television isn’t a fluke. Executive producer and TV mastermind Shonda Rhimes forced diversity into her programming—casting Sandra Oh and and Shandra Wilson in Grey’s Anatomy and enlisting Taye Diggs and Audra McDonald for Private Practice. Scandal, however, proved an even bigger step forward, featuring black actors Joe Morton and Columbus Short and the openly gay Guillermo Diaz. In addition, Rhimes cast the aforementioned Washington as political fixer Olivia Pope, the first black female lead on a network drama in four decades. Scandal proved such a ratings monster, currently TV’s 17th most-watched program, that Rhimes did it again; in doing so, she netted even bigger numbers: How to Get Away with Murder, with Viola Davis at the center, is the ninth biggest show on television.
Would How to Get Away with Murder feature four black actors in major roles, as well as network TV’s first explicit gay interracial romance, without Rhimes’ influence? That’s highly unlikely, or television would be doing it all the time. While ABC has shown a commitment to diversity from a network standpoint—pushing shows like Cristela and Black-ish, as well as the upcoming Fresh Off the Boat—the problem is that we need more producers like Shonda Rhimes in Hollywood, those with the power and clout to push the racial envelope. However, we still have a long way to go on that front as well, as IndieWire’s statistics show that only 25 percent of producers in Hollywood are women. How many of those do you think are black women? Not many.
How to fix a broken system
Although white directors and producers have the ability to be inclusive, it too often gets left behind with the bottom line. Ridley Scott’s Exodus movie, which features Christian Bale as Moses and Joel Edgerton as King Ramses, has been faced with criticisms of racism, with the hashtag #BoycottExodus trending in the weeks before its release. Of course, Scott’s major concern isn’t political correctness but simply getting a big-budget movie funded by a studio, and Scott told his critics to “get a life.” And Scott’s mindset is going to be the prevailing mentality until we have artists behind the camera for whom race does matter—because it’s a part of their daily reality. Right now, most of our power players look more like Scott Rudin, who figured that Obama must be a Kevin Hart fan, y’know, because he’s black.
The way to create more black power players in Hollywood is to put them in positions of power, whether through a studio hiring process or an Academy of peers anointing them into the A-list. As long as cinema has almost no black female producers or directors with clout—aside from Oprah—the state of black women in Hollywood will continue to be as dreadful as Rock suggests. In an essay I wrote on the subject earlier this year, I outlined the fact that black women are too often relegated to playing nurses, maids, nannies, or vampires in film—which is one of the reasons so many black Oscar winners are moving to TV. Halle Berry’s Steven Spielberg-produced Extant and Octavia Spencer’s Red Band Society launched this year, and Oscar also-ran Steve McQueen will follow them next year, producing his first TV show, Codes of Conduct.
If Hollywood hopes to keep its black talent at the multiplex, we need to show them that the system can finally work for them, by investing in them and awarding their efforts. Selma isn’t just one of the most acclaimed films of the year, as well as an ideal “Oscar movie,” at least on paper. The one factor is shares with Boyhood is that it’s a miracle it got made at all; while Richard Linklater had time working against him, Ava Duvernay was faced with the prejudices of an entire industry, one that has shut out black talent for too long. It’s fitting that a film about American civil rights could just as easily be about Hollywood, an industry that is struggling to change along with the rest of America. As Ferguson and Eric Garner remind us of the state of inequality today, we need to remember those lessons extend everywhere. Hollywood needs to wake up, too.
No matter what happens three months from now, Boyhood already won. It’s time for Selma to stand alongside it.
Photo via IFC/YouTube
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.