12 years a slave best picture

Is There Beauty in the Breakdown of Race at the Oscars?

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While TIME Magazine gears up for its annual 100 Most Influential People issue—one that features politicians, artists, women who made a difference for women, minorities overcoming the plight of inequality—People magazine is sticking to its guns, reporting on stories about “Every Selfie Anna Kendrick Has Ever Taken” to crowning Lupita Nyong’o as the Most Beautiful Person in the World.

It’s an amazing thing to see a woman with dark skin on the cover of a magazine circulating in a predominantly-white culture. Movies are white-obsessed, the very Academy Awards that bestowed an Oscar upon Nyong’o for her role in 12 Years a Slave—the first film “about” slavery to win Best Picture—is white-washed (94%, to be exact), and our collective desire last year was to see this sort of overturning of the status quo become the status quo.

Of course, in hindsight, it’s easy to see that 12 Years a Slave is not the sort of groundbreaking film we all so desperately want it to be. It was objectified for its racial components (albeit for a positive cause) and, while still a perfectly acceptable, appropriate choice for the Academy, their decision could impact how future films about black characters fare at the Oscars (i.e., the “been there, done that” mentality might come into play.)

Some might say that Nyong’o, however, is a trailblazer. She’s breaking barriers within an industry that has tipped in the favor of the young, white, male actor. In an age where Pharrell is recontextualizing the image of Marilyn Monroe for his latest single cover and films like 12 Years a Slave are winning Best Picture at the Oscars, it should be obvious that the tide is turning in favor of the minority voice, but it just doesn’t feel that way.

The fact remains that, by awarding 12 Years a Slave Best Picture, the Academy essentially fulfilled a circular, pre-constructed prophecy that was waiting in the wings, bound to be completed whenever it was most appropriate. After films about minorities like The Color Purple and Brokeback Mountain missed out on a gold-laden party, accusations of bigotry within the Academy intensified. It reached a head this year, with outside pressure mounting as the Black New Wave movement saw the release of three high-profile films from black directors (Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in addition to 12 Years a Slave) take the awards race by storm. Timing is everything.

86 years of black filmmakers taking a backseat to the white pictures, directors, and actors resulted in a monumental Best Picture victory for Steve McQueen’s period drama about Solomon Northrup, a free black man from the north who was kidnapped and sold into the southern slave trade. It’s a film with real-world implications for both Hollywood and American society. Racism is not a historical fantasy; it exists in every corner of the nation, and the minority is so often stifled in the film industry.

It’s clear that the Academy never really warms up to films laced with controversy, and 12 Years a Slave forces us to confront these issues and shouldn’t have to apologize for its mere existence because it doesn’t make the whole thing look pretty. Yet, all you’d hear coming out of industry parties was that Academy members weren’t watching 12 Years a Slave because it was difficult to sit through. Its members shy away from controversy and gravitate toward crowd-pleasing fare, and it’s difficult to please the majority when whips, flesh, blood, and the implications of modern racial inequality are looming over Academy members’ shoulders as they vote.

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The Academy heeded the pressure to make a monument out of the past Oscar year; 12 Years a Slave was a headline. It was the first “black” film, directed by a black director, starring a predominantly-black cast, to win the Best Picture Oscar. The white voting majority took it upon themselves to so graciously lower their standards, and they heeded outside pressure to award the film a compensatory win for every Do The Right Thing, Precious, or The Color Purple that slipped through the cracks.

Nyong’o’s arc of success rode similar superficial waves. She was consistently played up as a “fashion icon” on the red carpet. Her dresses became the conversation; the bright colors were the distraction from the brutal situation her character endured. She became an image instead of a person. She was the beautiful red carpet fixture being asked about her dresses versus the preparation she had to do for the role or how difficult it must have been to play the part of a woman who endured the hardships of slavery in real life. The conversation always turned to who she was wearing, her charm, her pizazz, how beautiful she is while the boys discussed the craft. That’s all empty, fading praise, just like the cover of a magazine celebrating exterior beauty. It’s almost as if the film and its cast had to distract the industry from the stigma of being “too difficult to watch” that the film had taken on, and Nyong’o’s People Magazine cover is still a ripple in that pond.

The fact remains that 12 Years a Slave did not succeed based on the votes of an equal Academy voting base. There are far more men than women, far more white voters than there are from any other race, and far more older people than there are younger. 12 Years a Slave found a way to appeal to the white majority. The accomplishment will come when the black filmmakers are able to reap the same benefits that white actors do after winning an Oscar.

This year’s cover of People magazine’s Most Beautiful issue hasn’t entirely missed the mark, however. It does celebrate women and diversity, namely select women who’ve made a difference in the film industry over the course of the past year.

The cover itself also features two women over 40 (Julia Roberts and Juliana Margulies) alongside Jennifer Lawrence, who’s a female movie star proving that:

1) While the age of the true movie star is dying, actresses like Lawrence and Sandra Bullock can still drive box-office and headline films almost single-handedly

and

2) That women can drive a film to the top-earning domestic spot at the yearly box-office (Catching Fire took in over $400 million in the US alone, while Frozen grossed over $1 billion globally)

But, what are the long-lasting implications for a woman like Nyong’o, who can lay claim to such a title bestowed by People, yet go home to a script pile that’s nowhere near as bountiful as the one Jennifer Lawrence gets to pour over?

I’d love to see Nyong’o get as many magazine covers as she can, but “Fashion Icon” and “Most Beautiful Woman” are fading titles. What Nyong’o needs is a casting director willing to take what the rest of the industry would consider being a risk by placing her in a high-profile role originally intended for a white actor (or even a man). What Nyong’o needs is work. She doesn’t need frivolous praise; she endured it enough on the red carpet.

The cover is an accomplishment and a step in the right direction. Visibility is visibility, and that’s key to changing the standard. My gripe is not with the magazine itself, but with the industry at large. Nyong’o is being heralded as the “It” black girl, as if there’s only one to choose from. Bigger changes need to happen before we can find solace and comfort in her presence on the cover.

The awards cycle has turned Nyong’o and 12 Years a Slave into is a flavor of the moment. Flavors fade. The next black film to come along will likely be shunned by Oscar voters because they’ve been there and done that with 12 Years a Slave. So, will the People magazine cover matter after she’s taken the inevitable Halle Berry route post-Oscar? Or will the roles open up to her? Will she get the chance to headline prominent films originally intended for white actresses? Will a studio have the balls to change a script–alter character, race, and gender–to fit her in, to give her a chance, to truly make her Oscar mean something?

Could Lupita Nyong’o be the next Ellen Ripley?

Absolutely: whether the industry around her is ready and willing to foster such a thing remains to be seen.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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Oscar Season Diary #9: ’12 Years a Slave,’ the PGA Awards, and the Dangers of Expectation

PGA-tie-618x400So much of the film industry is driven by expectation.

Studios expect box-office returns. Audiences expect to be entertained. Critics expect to be impressed.

Most Oscar bloggers and awards season pundits place themselves outside of these categories. Most of us have no interest in the business side of the industry, nor do we elect to be as willingly passive as those who think going to the multiplex on a Saturday night is an excuse to switch your brain into idle mode.

We chug along on the perimeter of the industry, poking and prodding at the seams of awards season, championing our favorite films of the year and (sometimes) throwing the others under the bus, because we expect the Academy’s taste to coincide with quality, not whichever film happens to press the least amount of buttons to fall in line with a safe consensus.

The most dangerous thing about awards season, however, is the baggage that expectations can place on prognostication. It’s not a particularly important part of the actual awards, but predictions and expectations are often the push that gets the ball rolling.

Usually, by mid-January, all of the guilds and critics circles have announced their annual set of winners, and the consensus generally tends to funnel into a single lane. By this time last year, Argo was set firmly ahead of the pack, and a year before that The Artist was sitting pretty in a similar position.

If this weekend’s Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild ceremonies proved anything, it’s that the immense quality of the films released in the calendar year have interfered with the industry’s ability to come to that dreaded (but necessary) consensus.

The SAG (the largest voting base of any industry guild, with about 120,000 eligible voters) often aligns with the film with the broadest appeal (in essence, the film that’s easiest for its members to come to a consensus on), which, for 2013, is unmistakably American Hustle (Lupita Nyong’o, however, was able to notch a win over Jennifer Lawrence, plunging the predictability of that race further into oblivion once again).

As all prepared to stick a fork in 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, the seemingly-impossible happened: the PGA announced its first-ever tie, awarding top honors to both films at its awards ceremony last night. Not only were Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron’s respective films kept alive in a race they’d otherwise fallen behind in, they were actually catapulted ahead of American Hustle just as it was gaining the upper hand.

We’ve got the Directors Guild of America left, and their top honor will likely go to Alfonso Cuaron for his work on Gravity. That would, effectively, place Sandra Bullock’s one-woman show in prime position.

Alas, what have we learned? Expectations are limiting and evil, especially in such an unpredictable Oscar year. Just take a look at the likes of Inside Llewyn Davis and Saving Mr. Banks, two films largely expected to dominate this year’s race, but only mustered a paltry three Oscar nominations between the two of them–not a single one in a major category. Again, this goes against what our expectations would tell us. Both Emma Thompson and the Coen brothers have excellent Oscar track records–both are winners–and worked on films that were immense critical successes. 2013 taught us not to listen to history, generally a fail-safe way to predict the Oscar mentality.

The tide could very easily shift toward 12 Years a Slave, bringing the narrative of the season back full-circle onto itself. When you think about it, the path is always uncharted, it’s just the critics, guilds, audience wallets, and pundits that determine who lives and who dies in the race. After all, the hype machine is to blame for building up most of our expectations and then violently shooting them down. It happened with Silver Linings Playbook last year, nearly happened to 12 Years a Slave this year, and is (most likely) currently unraveling American Hustle‘s late-race dash for Best Picture.

rs_560x415-140118172006-1024.Lupita-Nyongo-SAG-011814_copyIt’s a constant circle of self-made praise. Each publication–from Variety to Entertainment Weekly to Awards Daily–wants to be there at the start of glory. They want to champion the buzzy film-that-could that comes out of Toronto, Venice, and Telluride. They want to advance the narrative, and gain traction for pin-pointing excellence.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but this essentially kills any genuine reaction from general critics (the “legitimate” ones are usually already at these festivals, and are doing their fair share of feeding the hype monster) and audiences, as they’re either over-hyped to the point where it’s impossible to be impressed, or they’re unable to think for themselves and merely pile on the praise to fit in with the tide that’s been crafted around them. It’s a self-starting, self-destructive bubble.

12 Years a Slave is, on paper, a film that seems a fitting Best Picture for the 2013 calendar year. The Academy appointed its first female black president and made numerous efforts to diversify its voting base by inviting more women and people of color than ever before.

It only makes sense, then, that a film like 12 Years a Slave would be championed as a harbinger of change, as the perfect vessel to carry us through this monumental year for change.

As evidenced yesterday on Twitter as the film was announced as one of two PGA winners, many champion the film because they say it’s a symbol of hope for minorities in the United States. I’ve always had a problem with this, seeing as the film is a triumph in its mere existence, and doesn’t need what is essentially a majority award to justify its presence.

According to the LA Times, the Oscar voting base is overwhelmingly white and male (90% white, 75% male). If 12 Years a Slave were to win with these voters, the only thing it proves is that the film is playing into the majority’s taste, and isn’t really triumphing over the majority, then, anyway. Do not let the film be a symbol of “hope,” as that is a false appropriation of credit. All this means is that the film received the white majority’s approval, and played to their tastes. If it wins, the film will win as a great film, and should not be used as a tool for validation of race or presence. If hope lies in the hands of playing to the majority’s fancy, freedom for the minority voice is a missing part of the equation, as objectification then becomes the issue.

Again, people’s expectations for the film are that it must be the harbinger of hope simply because it was crafted by black hands, stars black actors, and is adapted from a book written by a prominent figure in African-American history. It is a marvelous film that should be championed because it does represent the minority voice, and represents it extremely well.

12 Years a Slave is a moving, powerful work of art that both challenges the majority stylistically and thematically, but to demean its value by validating its greatness at the hands of a white male-dominated is an insult to what it stands for.

The seething, lurking, ever-present tentacles of expectation have no right to impede 12 Years a Slave‘s existence as a cinematic landmark.

Oscar Season Diary #7: Passion and Transformation

Gravity-Movie-Space-2013-640x360We spend so much time arguing about movies. 2013 is no exception, as one of the most intensely scattered races in recent memory has brought showers of praise–and an equal amount of detraction–upon a vast array of potential frontrunners.

Tomorrow, the Academy’s 6,000 members begin the nomination process, which should provide a bit of clarity by the time their selections are made public on January 16th.

As last year proved, the Academy encounters another difficult task thanks to the date change. Without the usual nominations from the DGA or PGA to use as a springboard, Academy members must again this year do two things they’ve never been much good at; see every film in contention and make up their own minds.

The film purist in me holds on to the idea that the sacred art of quality cinema is what leads Oscar voters to make the right choice. Year after year, that’s proven to be nothing more than a fantasy we go out of our way to believe will prevail when, 90% of the time, we’re slapped in the face with the exact opposite.

There’s an affection for longevity of career and for persistence that runs in-line with Academy voting. It’s at the root of all praise, regardless if it’s capped off with a golden statue at a fancy, televised ceremony, but thanks to the preferential ballot the Academy has used for the past few years, affection can now be wielded as a champion’s sword.

Last year, we saw Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour garner critical nominations in key categories over seasonal favorites such as Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow. We all know how that one turned out.

2013’s frontrunners tout themes about passion or attaining the ideal (Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle) or trying to regain it (12 Years a Slave, Gravity). These are films with intense emotional pull and drive, things that people very easily latch on to. With these 5 films heading into the Oscar nomination process as frontrunners, it’s not difficult to see the full affect of the Academy’s decision to up the cap of Best Picture nominees to 10.

With the old 5-nominee standard of yesteryear, you’d never see more than two films heading into mid-season runs at the head of the pack. This year, we have five, perhaps six. If anything, the expanded category has inspired more passion for individual projects from wider nets of people in all corners of the industry.

Gravity and Her tied for the LAFCA Best Film award, American Hustle stampeded into the race with a major early Best Film from the NYFCC, and 12 Years a Slave continues to rack up multiple, consistent nominations and wins in major categories with each of the critics circles and industry guilds.

In a continued ripple felt throughout Oscar season, each guild, each critics circle, and each Oscar blogger is out to prove one thing in the midst of the Academy’s shift to earlier voting deadlines: that they, solely, are to be trusted as prognosticator.

So who, then, does a film need to impress?

With scattered results, it seems that each precursor award thus far has only served to bolster the frontrunners’ positions as, well, frontrunners. Impressing the overall Academy is absolutely vital to scoring a Best Picture nomination.

The Wrap predicts that some 549 votes are needed to secure a nomination in this category. Films with general or overly emotional/passion-based appeal succeed on this system (even those that are divisive, like Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild). For acting, directing, and technical categories, smaller nominating branches choose nominees, the largest being the directors and the actors, which makes the SAG and DGA Awards perhaps the most indicative of Academy voting behavior.

Let’s take a look at how past Best Picture front-runners have fared with precursors, and how they’ve fared in key categories that usually indicate an impending Best Picture win (Directing, Editing, and Screenplay):

PastWinnerPastWinnerTechUntitled(Frontrunner Key Category Ranking is projected position based on my opinion on their likelihood of winning)

It’s important to note that this year there is not a single film from 2013 which casts its net of appeal over all categories or precursors. Each have taken a top award somewhere. Gravity is hampered by its lack of an ensemble or strong script, while Her lacks push in the screenplay department as well. Gravity does lead the race in two key non-Best Picture categories, however, as its looming presence as a technical masterpiece (game-changer, some have said) will propel it to wins for Best Film Editing and Best Director.

Taking the burden of too-early over-ecstatic praise unto its shoulders from 12 Years a Slave, Gravity is victimized only by the sheer praise it received upon release that seems to have exhausted itself to the point of becoming one-note. People were rightly ecstatic about it for all the reasons it would become one of the most interesting Best Picture winner in history, but the praise got ahead of itself.

If it were to win Best Picture, Gravity would be the first female-centered film to win in nearly 10 years. It would also become the first “science fiction” (note: I don’t consider it science fiction, but the trade headlines have been labeling it that since its release, so I’ll side with the inevitable, here) film to win the top prize. These would be two precedents that would solidify the Academy’s attempt to diversify its membership.

Its close competition, American Hustle, teeters on the edge of the director race, though Russell’s film follows the hugely-successful Silver Linings Playbook. Hustle appeals to actors thanks to its huge ensemble cast–it garnered a SAG ensemble nomination as well as a nomination in each individual category–but, none of those performers are frontrunners. Best Picture is extremely hard to attain without a strong performance-based award (another reason Argo was such a glaring anomaly last year), and Hustle‘s luck fate will be determined by the SAG and HFPA and if they choose to push Jennifer Lawrence ahead of Lupita Nyong’o.

12 Years a Slave seems like, on paper, the safest choice for Best Picture at this point. Though, with reports coming from Academy screenings for The Wolf Of Wall Street of older members recoiling viciously in shock and disgust, one begs to question the Academy’s ability to handle powerful, disturbing material as in 12 Years a Slave.

Black films tend to have the least amount of luck when it comes to the Best Picture race. The Color Purple most notably garnered a staggering eleven nominations without a single win. Older voters might have appreciated the film if it were a straightforward, Americanized version of slavery, but the film is an intensely challenging, artful refocusing of the historical drama. It’s clear that there’s a push for this film, but it remains to be seen if the Academy will bite. If they’re going based on historical sentiment, they will. If they’re going based on the actual content of the film, it won’t be hard to understand if they don’t.

Each film has its strengths, but other weakness which would mar its chances in any other year. Where one film falls short, another is there to pick up the slack in a different category and vice versa.

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What will ultimately propel a film ahead of the others? Unless Gravity pulls an upset and adorns Sandra Bullock’s performance with its Best Female Actor award, I think we’ll have another Director/Picture split this year. American Hustle is the film to beat, if only for David O. Russell’s persistence. American Hustle is picking up steam (and substantial box-office) as the season rolls along, and that indicates only one thing: passion.

There’s a huge, generally-appealing blanket of passion for Russell’s recent work that transcends any rules or formulas used to predict the Oscars. Silver Linings Playbook was popular enough to receive surprise acting nominations in all four categories, and American Hustle will be Russell’s restitution. It’s lighter, prettier, and settles far more traditionally than 12 Years a Slave does, and Gravity simply lacks the push from the actors that Hustle has on its side.

It’s hard to get at what exactly is driving the Oscar race this season. Pundits and bloggers each seem to be skirting around the issue while being afraid to say it, but everyone is talking about everything and nothing with the 2013 Oscar race. No one really knows which way the race is headed.

It’s clear that a genuine love for championing artists, their visions, and the pure impact of their work is making its way back to the forefront of the Oscar discussion. The race is now justifiably a multi-perspective arena where every voice does matter. While Argo‘s win was insufferable because of the quality of the film, it gave the Oscars a voice, one that said–while their opinion may be juvenile at times–it’s getting back to being its own. I hope the trend continues, that these past two years have not been flukes, and that next year we don’t regress back to the campaign-and-steamroll process.

You can’t predict the heart, and the Academy might have finally found a way to let voters follow good old individual passion as its pulled along in front of their faces, seeping back into the race.