Remember last year I talked about the issue of Oscars and race that took over headlines? Yes, it’s nice to see people pay attention to something about the Oscars besides who wears what? However it did focus on a problem in which many people including myself hoped would only exist last year. Unfortunately it was not the case.
THIS YEAR’S HOPE
Last year was a big focus of the lack of diversity. I even did a focus on it myself and even explained how things worked in all my 15 years of ‘OscarWatching.’ Many including myself were hoping that this year would not have the same mistake this year. And this year had a performance by a black actor eligible for a nomination: Idris Elba in the Supporting Actor category for Beasts Of No Nation. It had all the eligible clout: a Golden Globe nomination, a Screen Actors Guild nomination and a BAFTA nomination. Although nothing is guaranteed or earned in showbiz, it had the right amount of juice to clinch the nomination in that category. Many wanted to see the nomination happen. I also wanted to see it happen. I know that if it didn’t happen, there would be a whole whack of controversy and outrage. I even thought the Academy wouldn’t deny him the nomination, not after the #OscarsSoWhite embarrassment from last year.
The nominations were announced on January 14th. Elba was not among the nominees in that category. There were the nominations of Christian Bale and Mark Rylance which were also nominated for the same awards previously mentioned, the was Golden Globe winner Sylvester Stallone. However there was Mark Ruffalo who had earned a SAG nomination and Critics Choice nomination and Tom Hardy who had amassed only a Critics Choice nomination. All the acting nominees were white. All eight Best Picture nominees consisted of a predominantly white cast and predominantly white crew. As for directing and writing, the only non-white nominee was Mexican Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
The lack of diversity wasn’t just the black-and-white issue. Gay director Todd Haynes was heavily favored to be nominated for Best Director for Carol and even for Carol itself to be nominated for Best Picture but those didn’t happen either. If there’s one positive thing, there were four women who receive scriptwriting nominations: up from zero from last year.
People were already speaking their outrage. A new Twitter hashtag– #OscarsStillSoWhite– came about. Civil Rights leader Al Sharpton, whom last year said he would set up a ‘diversity task force,’ was outspoken in his outrage and urged boycotts. Boycotts did happen from Spike Lee, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. Some actors who did not intend to boycott like George Clooney, Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o spoke their criticism. Host Chris Rock was under pressure to boycott the Oscars. He declined but he will be focusing on it during his opening routine at this year’s ceremony. Even Barack Obama spoke out about the controversy: “I think that when everyone’s story is told then that makes for better art, it makes for better entertainment it makes everybody feel part of one American family, so I think as a whole the industry should do what every other industry should do which is to look for talent, provide opportunity to everybody. And I think the Oscar debate is really just an expression of this broader issue. Are we making sure that everybody is getting a fair shot?”
The Academy especially came under fire as they were scrutinized and analyzed and it was revealed that over 90% of the Academy were white in comparison to 65% of the population of the United States being white. In addition three out of every four Academy members were male. Despite the criticism and outrage, there were defenders coming from the likes of actress Penelope Ann Miller: “I voted for a number of black performers, and I was sorry they weren’t nominated. To imply that this is because all of us are racists is extremely offensive. I don’t want to be lumped into a category of being a racist because I’m certainly not and because I support and benefit from the talent of black people in this business. It was just an incredibly competitive year.” Even black actors like Ice Cube and Whoopi Goldberg dismissed the labeling of the Academy as racist. Ice Cube described the labeling of racism as “crying about not having enough icing on your cake.” Whoopi whom herself has won an Oscar and even host the Oscar ceremonies for many years stated: “Even if you fill the Academy with black and Latino and Asian members, if there’s no one on the screen to vote for, you’re not going to get the outcome that you want. I won once, so it can’t be that racist. I’ve been black the whole time.”
THE AMPAS PRESIDENT
With all the criticism the Academy faced this year, the one person who had to do the responding was AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1949, Boone Isaacs grew up in a middle-class African-American family. She graduated from Springfield Central High School in 1967 and from Whittier College in 1971 with a degree in political science. Her studies in college included a program studying abroad in Denmark.
Her introduction to showbiz came at the age of 25 through her older brother Ashley Boone Jr. who worked as an executive in Hollywood. She started work in Hollywood as a publicist for Columbia Pictures. Her first job was being a publicist for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. She would work for various film companies as a publicist. Her publicity work on films would eventually lead to higher stature such as Vice President, Worldwide Advertising and Publicity of Melvin Simon Productions and Director of Advertising and Publicity for The Ladd Company. Under Paramount Pictures starting in 1984, she would start as Director, Publicity and Promotion, West Coast and then eventually become the Worldwide Publicity Director. Some of her marketing campaigns included successful Oscar campaigns for Best Picture winners Forrest Gump and Braveheart.
Success continued for Boone Isaacs as she would become President of Theatrical Marketing for New Line Cinema, the first black woman to hold such a position. She even has her own promotion company, CBI Enterprises, Inc., where she has worked on successful promotion of Best Picture winners: The King’s Speech and The Artist.
Boone Isaacs has been a member of the Academy since 1988. In 2013, she was promoted to the position of AMPAS president in 2013and became the first African-American president of the Academy as well as only the third woman, after only Bette Davis and Fay Kanin. Since her inception as president, he achievements have included lifting the cap or restriction on the number of Academy members. she also initiated a drive to invite over 400 new members coming from many ages and backgrounds.
THE PRESIDENT AND THE ISSUE OF DIVERSITY
“It’s easier to be the president of the United States as a black person than to be the head of a studio.”
The issue of the Academy and diversity appeared to be making progress since the start of the new millennium. Actors of various races were earning nominations more than ever before as well as non-white directors. Even in the minor categories, minorities were getting an increasing number of nominations. However it’s almost always in the acting categories where the issue of the Academy and racial diversity gets the heaviest scrutiny. That was the case last year when the first hashtag #OscarsSoWhite came out.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an African-American woman herself, knew this was an issue that needed looking into and she made her efforts. This was especially noteworthy at the AMPAS’s annual Governor Awards on Saturday November 14th. One of those awarded was Spike Lee where he was given an honorary Oscar. Before Boone Isaacs announced her plans, Lee talked about the lack of diversity even commenting that when he goes through Hollywood offices, he only sees white faces and the only non-white is the person checking his name at the door.
At those Awards, Boone Isaacs announced her plan which she called A2020: an initiative to age, gender, race, national origin and point-of-view, in Hollywood over the next five years. Her A2020 initiative is a five-year plan to study practices at the Academy with the aim of improving the diversity of its own staff and governance while also bringing new voices into the organization. Outside of the Academy, the plan is also intended to encourage and to push the industry to examine its hiring practices and to begin to make changes. Boone Isaacs stated: “When it comes to fair and equal representation in our industry, words are not enough. We also have a responsibility to take action and we have an unique opportunity to do so now.” At those ceremonies, Lee thanked her and said: “she’s trying to do something that needs to be done.”
THE PRESIDENT RESPONDS TO THE CONTROVERSY
“The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up.”
-Cheryl Boone Isaacs
If there’s one thing most people would feel upon learning of this year’s nominees, it’s that Cheryl’s A2020 plan isn’t happening fast enough. Even though the set of 51 new members of the Academy was more diverse especially with 17 of them being women, the end result on nomination day was one of disappointment. Boone Isaacs herself came under fire by some for not doing enough. Even civil rights leader Al Sharpton ridiculed her by referring to her as a pawn in a predominantly white members-only club.
No doubt Boone Isaacs felt the heat. It was only a matter of a mere eight days after the nominations were announced that Boone Isaacs announced the sweeping changes to the membership rules for Academy members. This was published on the AMPAS website under the title ‘Academy Takes Historic Action To Increase Diversity.’ For those interested in the plans, click here to the official document.
The day before, the Board Of Governors approved through a unanimous vote a set of sweeping changes coming to the Academy’s membership. Its intent was to make the Academy members more diverse and open the door to more women and visible minorities. However one of the things they most wanted to get tough on was the membership of their older members. Examples of the proposed changes starting this year are:
- New members lasting 10 years and renewed if that new member has been active in motion pictures during that decade.
- Lifetime voting rights after three ten-year terms or if they’ve won or have been nominated for an Academy Award. Standards also applied retroactively to current members.
- Current members that have not been active for 10 years can still qualify if they meet the other criteria.
- Members not qualifying for active status will be moved to emeritus status and will be denied voting privileges.
- An ambitious global campaign will be launched to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity.
- To increase diversity in its Board Of Governors, the Academy will establish three new governor seats that will be nominated by the president for three year terms and confirmed by the board.
- New members who are not governors will be added to its executive and board committees where key decisions about membership and governance are made. This allows for new members to become more active in the Academy’s decision-making and help the Academy identify and nurture future leaders.
Most of the response has been good. Some of the biggest came from Selma director Ava DuVernay through Twitter: “One good step in a long, complicated journey for people of color + women artists. Shame is one helluva motivator.” Lee stood by his boycott but applauded Boone Isaacs and the Board of Governers for: “trying to do the right thing. It’s a start.” Steven Spielberg also reminded us: “I do think that what the Academy is doing, in a proactive way, to open up the membership to diversity, I think that’s very, very important. But it’s not just the Academy, and I think we have to stop pointing fingers and blaming the Academy. It’s people that hire, it’s people at the main gate of studios and independents. It’s the stories that are being told. It’s who’s writing diversity — it starts on the page. And we all have to be more proactive in getting out there and just seeking talent.”
I admire Cheryl Boone Isaacs for taking the initiative for making these needed changes. The Academy always was aboard with its own membership rules and needed reform back in the 1960’s because of its own issues then. Issues came again now and reform was needed. The changes proposed look great: less members for life.
However I do believe they are not a 100% guarantee of diversity happening on a consistent basis. No kidding diversity will be increasing at double the rate it’s been happening in past years. However it doesn’t mean that every year from next year onward will feature a diverse array of nominees. I’ve seen the various film seasons over the years and see how certain films excel more than others. I’ve seen years that have been very generous towards minority actor and have given them roles that can contend for glory at various awards shows including the Oscars. However I’ve also seen years which have been lackluster for them and they would lack parts that can propel them among the ‘elite of the year.’ I know it’s a start and there will be more to come but I’m still a bit cynical it’s a solve-all.
Also it also depends on the media too. I’ve seen them label some films long before the Oscars full of ‘Oscar buzz.’ And most of them are predominantly white. The media can’t just simply label a film ‘Oscar bait’ because it has characteristics that are common with what wins the Academy over. They should call it ‘Oscar bait’ because of top notch quality, and skin color should not matter.
Nevertheless next year is the first year when these changes are to come into effect. Hopefully over time we will see a more diverse Academy. And not just more blacks; more women, more Hispanics, more Asians, more of all minorities. As for 2016, potential is already showing as this year’s Sundance showed The Birth Of A Nation: a film with a predominantly African-American cast that had rave reviews and huge buzz. The release date to the box office has not been set but Fox Searchlight has bought the film’s rights at $17.5 million, the most ever for a Sundance film.
The outrage over the lack of diversity at this year’s Academy Award nominees was just the catalyst needed for the necessary changes to happen. The future will tell if these changes pay off or not. However the lack of diversity is still an ugly reminder of what happens when you turn art into a competition.
WIKIPEDIA: 88th Academy Awards. Wikipedia.com. 2016. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/88th_Academy_Awards>
WIKIPEDIA: Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Wikipedia.com. 2016. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheryl_Boone_Isaacs>
Kilday, Gregg. “Spike Lee: Getting a Black President Is Easier Than a Black Studio Head” The Hollywood reporter. 14 November 2015 <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/spike-lee-getting-a-black-840371>
Gray, Tim. “Governors Award Winner Spike Lee to Hollywood: ‘You Better Get Smart’” Variety. 15 November 2015 <http://variety.com/2015/film/news/governors-award-winner-spike-lee-to-hollywood-you-better-get-smart-1201640307/>
“ACADEMY TAKES HISTORIC ACTION TO INCREASE DIVERSITY” Oscars.org 22 January 2016 <http://www.oscars.org/news/academy-takes-historic-action-increase-diversity>
How many of you were surprised to hear of Trayvon Martin’s shooting death? How many of you were surprised to hear of the motives? And now how many of you are shocked over the verdict? I can’t blame you. I won’t talk of this being an issue of racism but I will talk about this being an issue of faulty self-defense laws. Even if racism was an issue of this, it wouldn’t be the only issue. These laws need to be looked at in good detail.
First of all let us have a look at the Stand Your Ground law in the state of Florida that started this hullabaloo. It’s a law passed into legislation in 2005 while Jeb Bush was governor of the state at the time. If you want to have a look at the exact text of the law ,click here. The law states deadly force is unnecessary unless it appears the person feels such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm. The law appears to pretty much set the grounds for self-defense and its boundaries, right?
Obviously not. This was brought to my attention from a year-old video from Adam Buckley of A Dose Of Buckley. In that video he pointed out that in the year the Stand Your Ground law was enacted (2005), the number of murders in Florida increased by over 25%. He also pointed out that the per-year number of ‘justifiable homicides’ in the five years of the passing of the law was triple the number of justifiable homicides in the five years before the passing. That’s sad. Stats like those should make anyone want to reconsider either the law or the police and legal system involved in this. Also I liked how he referenced the mentality of the state of Florida. That could have something to do with it!
Now onto the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin side of that law. It was February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida. Trayvon Martin had celebrated his 17th birthday three weeks earlier. He lived in Miami Gardens with his mother and brother. He was an A and B student at Dr. Michael Krop High School. However it didn’t stop him from succumbing to the typical peer pressures of a teen like spray-painting graffiti and owning a marijuana pipe. He was also suspected of burglary once because of police searching him and finding jewelry and a screwdriver. However no evidence was found against him and he was dismissed.
Born to a German-American father and a Peruvian mother, 28 year-old George Zimmerman was an insurance underwriter on his way to completing a degree in criminal justice at the time. He had been married for years and had just moved to The Retreat at Twin Lakes just three years earlier. The previous year he was part of a citizens forum and even protested the fatal beating of a black homeless man by the son of a white police officer. Zimmerman had a history of violence such as assaulting a police officer while intoxicated in 2005. That same year he was also charged with assaulting his ex-fiancée.
Then there’s the neighborhood of Twin Lakes. The Retreat is a gated 260-home community in Sanford. The community was racially mixed with almost half the population white with 23% Hispanic and 20% black. Both George Zimmerman and the fiancée of Trayvon Martin’s father rented homes in The Retreat. The Retreat however had an unsafe feel for many of the residents. From the beginning of 2011 up to the date of Trayvon’s shooting, there were eight burglaries, nine thefts and one shooting. Police received over 400 calls to The Retreat during that period of time, mostly for suspected burglaries. Twin Lakes decided to start a neighborhood watch in September of 2011 and Zimmerman was selected to be the program’s coordinator. During the six-month period Zimmerman, who has been licensed to own a gun since 2009, made seven calls to the non-emergency line to the police. The most recent was more than three weeks before the shooting
Then the evening of February 26, 2012 was the moment when all hell started to break loose. Martin was returning to his father’s fiancée after leaving a convenience store. Zimmerman was driving by on a personal errand. Zimmerman then called police about what looked like to be a ‘suspicious person’ in the neighborhood. Zimmerman observed that Martin was walking around homes with his hand in his waistband. Two minutes later he told the police martin was running. Zimmerman followed him but was told by police not to do so. He stopped and the call ended. However Martin and Zimmerman encountered each other again, things turned violent and that’s when Zimmerman drew out his shotgun and fatally shot Martin. The bombshell: all Martin had on him was a can of Arizona ice tea and a pack of Skittles.
It took weeks of court meetings and legal discussions before Zimmerman was finally arrested for second-degree murder. Zimmerman pleaded ‘not guilty’ due to self-defense. The ‘Stand Your Ground’ law was not used by Zimmerman’s defense team during the trial but is part of the required Jury Instruction of all Florida murder trials. Zimmerman even requested a ‘Stand Your Ground’ hearing but his defense elected to bypass it. Nevertheless Zimmerman was found not guilty.
I’m not going to deny that racial stereotyping may have something to do with the whole mess-up of justice but if it does, it’s not the only thing that is a mess-up. Just as much of a mess-up is the Florida self-defense laws like the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law. In fact current Florida Governor Rick Scott responded to the heat of the highly-publicized news story by commissioning a 19-member task force to review that law just three weeks after the shooting. There were seven public hearing held all around Florida and there was a total of 11,000 comments from the public with three comments opposed to the law for every comment in support. Nevertheless the task force recommended against repealing the statute defending the use of self-defense. Several bills attempting to revise or repeal the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law since the task force have died before a committee hearing.
To sum it up, the shooting of Trayvon Martin was the result of a very paranoid person. George Zimmerman acted before he thought. He caused many alarms in the past and the shooting of Trayvon Martin tragically was his actions coming back to bite him. However a declaration of innocence would not be considered valid, except in the state of Florida. I’m confident in most other states, George Zimmerman would be found guilty and would receive a stiff sentence. They would see his shooting as a result of his paranoia rather than justifiable self-defense. Many people would believe that a black teenage boy in a hoodie is no excuse to panic and suspect crime in one’s area. However the jury in Florida thought otherwise. This is a failure of the law.
The Stand-Your-Ground law was already showing signs of the problem but were overlooked. The verdict of ‘innocent’ on George Zimmerman shows that the law cannot be overlooked any more. Not while someone like Trayvon Martin would be a victim of this. Will they revise the law, or bring it up for debate at the very least? Only time and the efforts of the state of Florida will tell.
WIKIPEDIA: Shooting Of Trayvon Martin. Wikipedia.com. 2013. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trayvon_Martin#Trayvon_Martin>
I know what you’re going to say before I talk about The Help. There have already been a lot of movies about racism and segregation. Yes there have been. Nevertheless The Help is a well-made story about showing a black woman’s point of view on racism from a state most synonymous with segregation: Mississippi.
The movie revolves around three women in particular. The first is Abilene; an African American maid whose latest maid work comes right after the death of her son. The second is Milly; another African American maid who was recently fired from Hilly Hollbrook–Jackson’s white female ringleader–for using a toilet meant only for Hilly’s white family and is only rehired by a white ‘misfit’. The third is Skeeter; a white journalism grad from Ole Miss who is unmarried and wants to make a career for herself in writing but lacks a story.
The setting is Jackson, Mississippi. Segregation is alive and well but is facing abolishment. The black maids have had enough while the white upper class females want to see it kept. Hilly herself wants to enact a passage of a law to make it standard for separate bathrooms for white and colored people. Skeeter is tired of writing a housekeeping column and wants an actual story. She comes across it just after her former maid Constantine, who she always looked up to as a child, is mysteriously gone, Hilly speaks her pro-segregation mind at her ‘clique meetings’ and she encounters Aibilene and Minny. They have quite the story to tell and she learns a lot from what they have to say and what they’ve experienced. Even Milly’s story of her revenge on Hilly with ‘the pie’ makes for some colorful. Nevertheless a book publishing company wants to have the points of view from twelve maids, not two. It’s a struggle for Skeeter as she becomes more of a misfit in Hilly’s clique for being unmarried and being opposed to segregation and because of state law: Mississippi law can imprison writers and interviewees for cross-race writing. It isn’t until the shooting death of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers that Skeeter finally gets her twelve to interview, however giving them pseudonyms to protect their identity. The result is the novel finally being made and boy does it stir up a lot of debate and reactions.
One thing about the ending is that a lot is accomplished and many good things come out of it. Despite positive changes, some bad things still remain and the movie doesn’t end on a completely positive note. The ending takes a turn for a different more negative ending. Nevertheless it did so on the right note. It reminds us that even after segregation was ended for real in the Southern States, some negative aspects of racism still remained and some changes didn’t go as far as it should have.
There have been movies about racism in the past and conquering racism but hardly has there ever been such where it’s on the basis of the black maids for white families. It touches on a common notion. The white children were raised and cared for by the African American maids and many of the children would look up to them as a mother figure. As most of those white children grew up as adults, they would then go on to the hiring and firing of them. They would adopt the cruelness to the maids their own parents had. The story is set in Jackson, Mississippi around the time of the civil rights movements and around the time Jackson, the capitol of Mississippi, is where segregation is possibly the most alive and well. The story features Skeeter, an aspiring writer who’s looking for a story and sees one. Remembering how Constantine was like a mother to her and wondering whatever happened to her, she hasn’t developed the hardness of heart her girlfriends had developed over the years. It is with her willingness to see the maids’ side and write about it that made her want to set the record straight. That helps to create the intrigue of the story.
One of the interesting themes in the movie is oddly enough its use of toilets. Many people including myself still look at toilets as something taboo but in recent decades, many people and many creative artists have defied this taboo and become more public about it and even incorporated it into art. In this film, it plays a significant role because as we remember, toilets were a part of the days segregation: separate ones for whites and colored. The Help presents toilets in many different references. It is Aibilene’s toilet teaching where she shows she’s a better mother to Mae Mobley Leefolt than Mrs. Leefolt is. It is where Minny uses a toilet for white people only in Hilly’s house that gets her fired. It’s where Hilly strongly believes in segregated bathrooms to the point to where she’s willing to take her plea to the surgeon general. It’s also the prank Skeeter uses to pull on Hilly for her lobbying. As taboo as it is, there’s no denying the significance of toilets in the movie.
One thing about the movie The Help is that it’s based on a novel that is complete fiction. That fact might make some question the triumphant moments in the movie. Question it all you want. One thing you can’t deny is that despite it being fiction, there are a lot of hard truths experienced by the African Americans in Mississippi that are portrayed very well and will make you think. Seeing how Hilly treats her maids meanly to the point of firing them instantly and even getting them arrested makes you think how many others were as mean as Hilly. That scene where Minny is with her eldest daughter in a maid’s uniform about to board the bus can also disturb you. Imagine a future that limited. Also that scene where Charlotte told how and why she fired Constantine. How many times do you think that has happened in the past? So the novel may not be based on a true story but possibly based on a thousand true stories.
The directing from Tate Taylor was top notch. He did an excellent job of directing the movie and writing the storyline well. The acting however is what made the movie most. The standout without a doubt was Viola Davis. Her performance of Aibilene was the glue of the movie and had the most to tell. Her acting was full of believability from start to finish. Octavia Spencer was the top scene-stealer as Minny. She was able to make for an excellent turn with adding elements of humor to her role. Emma Stone delivered possibly the best performance of her career. Already people are saying she’s the next big thing. Her performance of Skeeter demonstrates she can also make a good actress of herself. Also a standout is Bryce Dallas Howard. Her character acting was so excellent, she will easily make you hate Hilly.
Overall, The Help is a very excellent movie revealing a harsh reality of 60’s Southern racism. Some say it’s not as harsh of a depiction as it should be. Nevertheless we shouldn’t forget that even in racism situations that aren’t as harsh, the hurt can still be felt and the picture can have an ugliness of its own.