12 years a slave

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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2 Weeks, ’12 Years,’ and Looking Ahead

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How quickly things die down once prophecy is fulfilled.

For nearly seven months–from the festivals to the guild awards–12 Years a Slave was part of the Best Picture buzz machine. Touted as the definitive winner by Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan after its TIFF premiere, 12 Years a Slave faced an uphill battle even though it never seemed to lose its place sitting atop the other contenders.

It was a Best Picture winner with a stigma that followed it all the way through to–and past–the finish line it crossed only two weeks ago. It’s a film made by black artists, starring black actors, about black characters, set during a time of intense racial tensions and that is at times what defined the film’s awards season run.

It’s a film that, by all means, was objectified as a film about race. That essentially made it “divisive” and “too intense” for some Academy members to watch. It was seldom a story of survival, of perseverance, of exemplifying the undying spirit of human will, and a prime showcase of the contingency of freedom which bolsters our nation.

I was guilty of this objectification. We are all guilty of it. The glimmer of hope at the end of a white-washed tunnel of Academy history came in the form of 12 Years a Slave. Atonement for the sins of the Academy’s past (primarily white voters, primarily white winners) seemed like it could all be over in an instant and, for a moment, it was; the black film won. The headlines were made, but at what cost?

Is the 12 Years a Slave win already feeling a bit hollow? Are we burned out on the churning of a self-serving machine that builds up a standard?

Not to say that the film is an undeserving bearer of the Best Picture torch. In many ways, it’s a fantastic film. It’s an important film in itself, and its mere release, box-office success, and popularity are the true triumphs. In the scope of Academy history, however, the film has already served its purpose, and will be defined for future audiences purely by its status as a touted “game-changer,” without changing much about the Oscar game at all.

We had publications projecting next year’s crop of potential nominees before Monday’s coverage of 12 Years a Slave‘s win was finished. Gone GirlUnbrokenInto the Woods, and Foxcatcher became the focus. Have we grown so tired of the constructed narrative of race within awards season that we’re willing to let it go so very quickly after the self-made prophecy was actually fulfilled?

It seems that many Oscar bloggers and industry journalists alike were prepared for a 12 Years a Slave loss to Gravity.   In that scenario, the Academy would again become fodder for backlash, accusations of racism, and its perpetuation of the white heteronormative culture.

12 Years a Slave winning Best Picture merely cemented it as a film which came along at the right time. It was largely objectified for its racial aspects, but it’s a film that succeeded in a still predominantly-white, predominantly-male Academy who voted it into the spotlight on Oscar night. The industry pressure for the Academy to award the film seemed solely based on racial implications.

What people need to be advocating for, then, is a changing of the Academy structure. The fact remains that 12 Years a Slave won the heart of the white voter. 12 Years a Slave was the object of the white voter seeking to atone. We’re not talking about “white guilt” and compensation for slavery, but a more compartmentalized guilt (as a result of pressure from the industry) for a lack of diversity in the Academy.

Yes, a black woman–the first in its 86-year history–is currently the Academy president. Still, the Oscars are:

77% male/23% female
93% white/7% non-white

What a “divisive” movie like 12 Years a Slave winning Best Picture does, however, is not to cement the minority status amidst a traditionally “white” institution, it merely makes the crowd-pleasers like Gravity and Argo the underdog for next year’s race, because the old white men are still doing the majority of the talking, the majority of the dictating, and the majority of the voting.

In the same way 12 Years a Slave stood out as an “alternative” in this year’s case–which ended up being a positive–with the same Academy structure, who’s to say that the next black filmmaker who comes along won’t be objectified for the same thing, only with the opposite implications? Will the next film “about” race be given the cold shoulder, as 12 Years a Slave was so highly publicized as the definitive answer to the Academy’s issues with rewarding minority filmmakers?

It’s so easy to envision Academy members thinking that since another “black” film won, it’s unnecessary to vote for a new one. Just look at what happened to Kathryn Bigelow after she won the Oscar for Best Director for 2009’s The Hurt Locker. She was completely shut out of the Oscar race for Zero Dark Thirty, even though she’d made the most culturally-relevant, groundbreaking film of that year. She belonged in the Best Director race–on top of it, actually–but I fear that her being a minority in an industry driven by white men was met with the “been there, done that” voting mentality, and she was ultimately snubbed.

The Academy needs to start:

1) Collecting and releasing statistics on how its members voted including age, race, and gender demographics
2) Releasing a full roster of its members
3) Eliminate the preferential ballot

Each of these things would put pressure on the Academy to change its internal structure far more than it already has attempted to do. It has already made its desire to diversify its ranks very clear, as invitations to high profile non-white, non-male industry members (Lena Dunham, Ava DuVernay) were publicized last year, along with the aforementioned election of Cheryl Boone Isaacs as Academy President.

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On one hand, 12 Years a Slave as a Best Picture winner does open up many doors to minority visibility in the industry. Still, it is audiences who have a say in the grand scheme of things. The standard of beauty is not created by the suits, its merely analyzed, accepted, and returned by the suits. The fantasy of filmic beauty is decided by those who choose to see and accept it. Pressuring people to vote for a film they might not have considered to be the true “best” of the year simply because it fits an overarching narrative of race in the Academy is unfair. It’s peddling race the same way the Academy has rejected it, though I believe the pushing and prodding of Oscar voters to “do the right thing” because “the time” had come for a “black” film to win is a more deliberate emphasis on race.

In the momentary spitfire of the pre-Oscar hype machine, perhaps 12 Years a Slave is an appropriate Best Picture choice. It represents so much of what the Oscar race is about. It’s more of-the-moment than anyone thinks. While we’re looking to it as a vessel for change, it could very well usher in the exact opposite, and be the default “race” choice for many years to come.

After all, it took 86 years. One film isn’t going to change much.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

In it for the Long Haul: 4 Things We Learned From Sunday’s Oscars

86th Annual Academy Awards - ShowDoubt is such a malicious feeling.

It liquifies, seeps through the tiniest of cracks, and willingly takes hold of our perspective and changes it in a heartbeat, and yet 2013’s awards season seemed to be defined by it.

From September through this past Sunday’s Oscars, it seemed as though the industry never reached a clearing of solace amidst the chaotic journey to the Academy Awards.

While Gravity, American Hustle, and sometimes even The Wolf of Wall Street seemed to lead the race at any given time, critical backlash or a guild surprise reintroduced doubt unto the emerging frontrunner’s wings before they could fully spread.

We had many frontrunners, but we ultimately had none.

12 Years a Slave seemed, on paper, to be the film with Best Picture written all over it, having fallen in line with the Academy’s diversifying image (publicizing increased minority membership while boasting its first black female president), which seemed to spell a clear path to victory for Steve McQueen’s powerful historical drama, though it became a sitting duck for critics, audiences, and Academy members who don’t like to be told what to do.

Instead, they fancy themselves as free-thinkers, seeing in the mirror rebels who buck the system instead of reenforcing it; they are, at times, both. Crash was a rebellious choice for Best Picture in 2004, though it fell in line with a general consensus to avoid the controversial. Films like The Artist, Slumdog Millionaire, and Argo reaffirmed the awards season status quo as generally-appealing Best Picture winners.

What, then, inspired Sunday’s change of heart? 12 Years a Slave–a film about black characters, directed by a black man, with a black screenwriter and black stars–won Best Picture, breaking the longstanding streak of white filmmaker dominance.

There are four key things Sunday’s Oscar ceremony teaches us about the new breed of Academy that made what is, for them, an incredibly bold choice:

1) The Academy listens to outside sources, but are not dependent upon them

With Best Picture-sealed closure to complete its narrative, the 2013 awards season arc can certainly be traced across racially-motivated factors. The Academy’s diversifying membership (more women and minorities were invited last year than any other recent year) and changing leadership (Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the first black female president in Academy history) mirrored a shift in the industry. A general push for more diversity onscreen and behind it led many prominent films starring (Gravity, 20 Feet From Stardom) and made by (12 Years a Slave, The Butler, and Fruitvale Station) minorities to critical and commercial success.

12 Years a Slave fit the bill at a time when racial tensions are ever-present in a nation that sees the split between rich and poor, black and white, and gay and straight widen across countless social and political battles day after day. People look to film as both a reflection of and comment on the society around them, and a film that deals with issues of race in a historical context is the greatest tool of all to both probe the majority and provoke thought across the board.

The Academy had many choices thrust in their face by critics circles and guilds alike. The NYFCC wanted so desperately to champion American Hustle across the finish line first, while the guilds seemed to back Gravity. Gravity winning Best Picture would have made sense statistically, given that 7 total Oscars (including two key Best Picture indicators–Best Director and Best Film Editing) were awarded to Cuaron’s masterpiece. In a split year (as the sages over at Awards Daily have consistently pointed out), the Best Director Oscar often goes to the more-respected film (in essence, the “better” of the two, for example: Ang Lee with Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi) whereas Best Picture is generally favored to win as a crowd-pleaser that pushes as little buttons as possible. This year, Gravity was the latter, though the typical awards procession was reversed. Steve McQueen went home with a Best Picture Oscar instead of one for his directing.

What prompted this? It’s nearly impossible to tell, aside from the fact that the Academy sought to forge the narrative that had been placed in front of them by audiences and industry tone. They consciously chose it.

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2) The Academy–sometimes–thinks as a singular entity

You hear it all the time when predicting the Oscars: “you can’t make generalizations. They’re not a collective brain with a singular train of thought.” This year, however, the opposite is most likely true.

12 Years a Slave was divisive, yet it was able to win on a preferential ballot, which many believed was impossible given its polarizing nature. To win on a preferential ballot, a film must acquire significant support from Academy members who rank the Best Picture nominees. Not only must it receive a substantial amount of #1 votes, it must also cover a fair share of #2 and #3 votes for the sake of the preferential redistribution process, which many thought was impossible given the film’s nature and general Academy tastes (many, in anonymous interviews with trade publications, labeled it as “torture porn” and “hard to watch.”).

All in all, the film seemed like either a #1 choice or a #9  choice; there was no middle ground. The film triumphed during a split year (which, for the aforementioned reasons, usually ends up following a certain pattern, with certain types of films winning in both the Director and Picture categories). This means that a conscious split in the votes was made by the majority as Gravity, for consistency and statistics’ sake, by all means should have taken Best Picture given its huge wins in other categories.

A majority of Oscar voters made a conscious decision to deviate from the pattern, indicating a more generalized, universal way of thinking for them than is usually assumed.

3) The Academy simply is changing

Recognizing a film like 12 Years a Slave is huge for an Academy that boasts an overwhelmingly white male voting base. 77% of Academy members are men, and 94% of them are white. This essentially means that 12 Years a Slave still had to appeal to a white audience and gain white support, aseven if the entire non-white sect made 12 Years a Slave their #1 choice–6% of the vote is not enough to win Best Picture.

Has the racial and gender majority been reflected in the Academy’s past choices? It’s very difficult to back it up with statistics, but various interviews with Academy members (like Michael Musto’s, published here) seems to indicate that things like the size of an actress’ boobs and how good they looked in a particular dress are key factors of the voting process for some. That would also, if we’re being general, describe why, on average, younger women tend to win acting awards alongside older men. Do they see the award as a prestigious boys’ club that men must work their way into, while throwing sexually-charged votes at young, pretty women in sexualized roles (seriously, look at the characters that have won women Oscars here)?

12 Years a Slave was, undoubtedly, objectified for its racial implications, but its presence in the Best Picture race is justifiable beyond the awards season narrative it perpetuates. It’s a finely-crafted film by a budding auteur, and contains as much aesthetic girth as it does thematically.

The Academy has, for the past few years, awarded the same types of films across the same genre with a very small racial angle. The Artist, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and Argo are each dramatic–structurally simple–films with general appeal, universal plug-and-play plots, and push as little buttons as possible. 12 Years a Slave is an artful, graphic examination of American history that shies away from nothing. It forces itself off the page, forces us to consider a small part of the foundation of who we are as a nation, and begs us to see African-American history as more than just an old, flat, black-and-white photo within the pages of a textbook.

The film calls for attention on black filmmakers in an age where white men overwhelmingly dominate control over the camera. The film calls for attention on black stars and, therefore, increases a diverse image at the forefront of the industry. The film winning Best Picture indicates that the still predominantly-white, predominantly-male, predominantly-heterosexual Academy, who’d never awarded a film about slavery or “black” issues its top prize before, who’d only given 4% of total acting awards to black actors, was willing to amend its historical tendency to shy away from films about the minority (Brokeback Mountain, The Color Purple).

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4) The Oscars are still entirely relevant

Argo currently upholds the legacy of Best Picture winners from the bargain bit at most major retailers (don’t believe me? Find the nearest grocery store–you know, one that sells DVDs on that shoddy rack near the checkout–and survey the films offered. I’ve counted Argo on sale at approximately three different ones in the Pittsburgh area). The Artist, in a sad turn of reality mimicking art and the film’s aesthetic, has quietly faded away. Ratings continue to climb for ABC’s telecast, however, though there’s an uneven weight of relevance distributed disproportionately between the ceremony itself and the films winning awards.

Sunday’s show functioned almost entirely as a means to re-insert not only the telecast into contemporary pop culture–both literally (Ellen’s selfie begged for interactivity) and figuratively–but also to cement the Academy’s opinion as aware, timely, and forward-thinking.

Films like The King’s Speech, Crash, The Artist, and Slumdog Millionaire range from mediocre to hugely entertaining and heartfelt. They’re the type of film that’s pleasing and easy to sit through. They’re perfectly enjoyable, though they lack the gravitas and titanic statement that only a true “best of” pick should have. I’m not sure how long even the general public would have continued to take the Academy at least somewhat seriously if films like Argo continued to win Best Picture.

12 Years a Slave is a film with something to say. It doesn’t exist as a fantasy amidst a society plagued with struggle. It will not have the same impact in Norway as it does in the United States. It is specific to our culture and to our history, whereas the last three Best Picture winners are fantasies which either glorify and embellish American culture and heroism (Argo and The Artist) or have little to do with American culture at all (The King’s Speech).

It’s a film that’s both reflective and pensive of history and the present. If anything, it increases the presence of the minority voice and offers an alternative narrative to the ones dominated by white screenwriters and white actors. It’s a film that resonates now as a genuinely fantastic work of art, but will also establish a legacy that legitimizes the Academy’s taste as in-line with contemporary social and political sentiments.

It’s a film that, to put it shortly, is in it for the long haul.

What, then, do the Oscars mean to us as a society, if anything at all? It’s a self-congratulating, self-made cycle of greatness, but it’s become a pedestal of visibility in an industry that’s teetering on the edge of a revolution for greater inclusion of minorities across the board.

Is it ok to doubt the relevance of the Oscars? To doubt the impact they have on American art and culture? To deny that, even on the smallest level, art can help someone envision a platform for themselves they never thought possible?

This year, the Academy looked doubt in the face, harnessed it, and talked all of us into certainty for the future.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Academy Chooses for the Future: ’12 Years a Slave’ Takes Best Picture

downloadLast night, the Academy thought forward and, at long last, chose a Best Picture winner for the long-haul. Below is a full list of Oscar winners (American Hustle went 0-10! Holla!). My in-depth recap will follow later this week.

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’0 – 12 Years a Slave
Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
Best Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze – Her 
Best Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley – 12 Years a Slave
Best Film Editing: Gravity
Best Cinematography: Gravity
Best Costume Design: The Great Gatsby
Best Production Design: The Great Gatsby
Best Original Song: “Let It Go” from Frozen
Best Original Score: Gravity
Best Visual Effects: Gravity
Best Sound Mixing: Gravity
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Dallas Buyers Club
Best Sound Editing: Gravity
Best Animated Feature: Frozen
Best Documentary Feature: 20 Feet From Stardom
Best Foreign-Language Film: The Great Beauty
Best Live-Action Short: Helium
Best Documentary Short: The Lady in Number 6
Best Animated Short: Mr. Hublot

Final Oscar Predictions: ‘American Hustle’ Keeps Dreaming, ‘Gravity’ Pulls Ahead

gravity-movie-review-spaceGauging the months of speculation, bickering, championing, and–of course–whipping out your notebook to take notes in the middle of a crowded movie theater, it’s unfathomable to think that it all amounts to a single night.

Tonight, the 86th Annual Academy Awards will make believers out of skeptics, perhaps proving that the Oscar voters we spend so much of our time putting faith in–because maybe they’ll do the right thing this year–won’t let us down. Maybe they didn’t even entertain the idea of placing American Hustle at #1 on their ballots. Maybe they realized how laughably out of place Jennifer Lawrence’s performance looks amidst the competition. Maybe Spike Jonze will tonight win his first screenwriting Oscar for Her‘s marvelous script over David O. Russell’s barely-there skeleton of a screenplay.

We can dream, can’t we?

It’s so peculiar that a film that’s so laughably inferior to the other films in the race relies so heavily on the very idea of lofty expectations and fantasy existence–dreams, if you will. American Hustle is about slimy characters who dream of a better life, whose grandiose expectations yield shifty crimes and short-lived highs, wrapped up in a flashy package, directed by a renowned filmmaker with an astounding Oscar track record (despite not having won a single statue). Russell managed to get his cast nominated in each of the four acting categories two years a in a row. His work represents the often never-realized dreams of the Academy’s largest branch–the actors. But, it also invites its audience to feel superior to its characters in a sense that isn’t endearing or tongue-in-cheek. We see them as scum, without much redemption.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Screen Actors Guild–with large crossover membership with the Academy’s 2o% acting membership–bestowed its top prize upon American Hustle. For so many, it embodies the spirit of the dreamer.

The dream for tonight, then, is that American Hustle goes down without a single win. It belongs nowhere near the Oscar race (save for Amy Adams’ performance, which is justifiably better than one or two of her fellow nominees’). Scantily-clad women. A plot that’s not really a plot so much as a meandering narrative that’s not really about this, sometimes about that, and all the time about shouting, sex, and trying to justify itself as something greater than it actually is. In other words, it’s typical Academy fare.

o-american-hustle-trailer-facebookWhile Academy voters are still overwhelmingly old, white men (93% white, 77% male), that didn’t stop them from listening to the industry around them when they voted Gravity and 12 Years a Slave into the race, with an astounding 10 and 9 nominations respectively.

Gravity is a British-American co-production driven by a middle-aged female performance, directed by a Mexican filmmaker, and 12 Years a Slave is directed by a black man, about “black issues,” starring a predominantly black cast–you know, to them, this is only a “black” movie, and the majority of them have objectified the racial aspect of the film. It’s great that minority representation is finding its way into the Oscar race, but does either film stand a chance in the grand scheme of the race?

If you’re a by-the-book prognosticator, your answer must be yes. Gravity has, perhaps statistically, the strongest chance of winning going into the race. What it has going for it and against it:

– 10 total nominations, with a guarantee on approximately seven (Director, Cinematography, Sound Editing + Mixing, Visual Effects, Score, and Film Editing [If you’re ticking off multiple boxes, logic would only tell you it’s appropriate to notch a #1 vote in the Best Picture box]), two of which are generally claimed by eventual Best Picture winners (Director and Film Editing) – Strong support from guilds with crossover membership (Directors Guild of America win, Producers Guild of America tie with 12 Years a Slave)
– High-profile visibility in the months leading up to the Oscars (huge worldwide box-office, largely positive response from critics and audiences, which indicates general plug-and-play appeal that the Academy tends to go for)
– Lacks a screenplay nomination

12 Years a Slave, however, has sentiment and passion on its side which, as we’ve learned, is sometimes enough to win. 12 Years a Slave‘s awards summary:

-9 total nominations (though only a lock in a single category [Adapted Screenplay]) – Strong support from critics (the best-reviewed film of the year), though underwhelming box-office indicates lesser appeal across many markets
– Huge Golden Globe win for Best Picture – Drama in January, prior to Oscar voting
– Subject matter that turned many Academy members and audiences off (if you read around the trade papers and websites, many “anonymous” Oscar voters share similar sentiments regarding the film, saying that it was “too much” or “torture porn”, in some cases)
– Inevitable racial objectification at the hands of Oscar voters (they see only the race issues, which precede the film’s existence as a cinematic achievement and work of art)

History and logic would tell us that Gravity will win, though 12 Years a Slave seems to be riding along the narrative path Oscar voters are forging. If this is a split year between Best Picture and Best Director, 12 Years a Slave will most likely have upset in some of the lesser categories with stronger-than-expected support across the board from Oscar voters. If the tide turned in 12 Years a Slave‘s favor during the eleven-day voting process, we can expect it to take things like Best Film Editing and Best Supporting Actress away from Gravity and American Hustle respectively.

years3Of all the acting categories, its surprising that the one which isn’t locked-up (Blanchett, Leto, and McConaughey are all too far out front to abdicate) will indicate Academy support across the board. I’ve had a sinking feeling that American Hustle will emerge as the surprise winner in many categories tonight, though Supporting Actress is the most likely. Jennifer Lawrence is a fabulous actress with a huge career ahead of her, though her performance in the film is stilted. The film overwhelms her. She’s wooden, aware of the camera, and has a charismatic ability to have fun while onscreen; none of this, however, translates into a good performance. She’s great fun to be in the presence of, though 30 seconds of Lupita Nyong’o’s work in 12 Years a Slave puts everything Lawrence does in American Hustle to deep shame.

It seems that Oscar voters (and the industry in general) wants to forge a path to superstardom for Jennifer Lawrence, versus letting her find the work and the roles for herself. They want to be there at the beginning of the trajectory, they want to carve her ascension to the stars with gold. Last year was justifiably the right time for her. This year, it’s simply embarrassing that she’s nominated.

Tonight has the potential to be over shortly after it begins, as key categories are often announced early. Supporting Actress and Editing generally come before the halfway mark, and have the potential to set a course for the evening. If 12 Years a Slave is to take Best Picture, look for it to steal these awards away from the current frontrunners. On the technical side, be prepared for a 30-40 minute segment where nothing but Gravity racks up statues. It’ll likely take a large chunk of aesthetic awards, but don’t let that lull you into thinking it will win Best Picture by default.

It’s difficult to imagine a film like Gravity not doing well on a preferential ballot. The race is essentially down to three films: American Hustle, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave, each with vastly different appeal. Is a voter who puts American Hustle at #1 on their ballot likely to put Gravity at #2 or #3? Is a voter who places films that are likely to be eliminated in the first few rounds–like Philomena or Captain Phillips–likely to put 12 Years a Slave as their #2 or #3? I’m of course making the mistake of assuming that appeal remains the same across each of these films in terms of voter perspective. It’s simply too difficult of a year to accurately predict.

It’s easy to tell if a voter who liked Captain Phillips for the right reasons (it’s critical of American domination) will like 12 Years a Slave, as they’re both critical of and relevant to tensions of inequality with themes applicable to contemporary culture. If an Oscar voter understood Captain Phillips to be a rah-rah America tale of patriotic heroism, it’s extremely difficult to accept that this person would put 12 Years a Slave high on their ballot.

It’s a contentious year with no clear outcome. We can only, as we do every year, put our faith in a system of voting and a crop of voters we never trust, to make a decision that essentially means nothing in the grand scheme of life. After all, Crash winning over Brokeback Mountain did nothing but tarnish the Academy’s image. The Color Purple‘s lack of a single Oscar win only hurt the voters who shunned it, not those of us who enjoy it to this day. Whether Gravity or 12 Years a Slave win the Oscar, their presence as quality films won’t diminish.

Is it so much, though, to ask that the celebration of film be done right? Is there even a right way to do it?

We never lose faith that the Academy has the potential to do just that. It’s enough faith to get us back into the awards season machine in a few months. After all, Toronto, Telluride, and Venice are right around the corner–sort of.

Predictions for the 86th Annual Academy Awards:

Best Picture:
Gravity

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity

Best Actress in a Leading Role:
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine

Best Actor in a Leading Role:
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:
Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

Best Original Screenplay:
Spike Jonze – Her

Best Adapted Screenplay:
John Ridley – 12 Years a Slave

Best Animated Feature: Frozen

Best Foreign Language Film:
The Hunt

Best Documentary Feature:
The Act of Killing

Best Documentary Short Subject: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

Best Live-Action Short Film:
Helium

Best Animated Short Film:
Get a Horse!

Best Original Score:
Steven Price – Gravity

Best Original Song:
“Happy” by Pharrell Williams – Despicable Me 2

Best Sound Editing:
Glenn Freemantle – Gravity

Best Sound Mixing:
Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, Chris Munro – Gravity

Best Production Design:
Catherine Martin, Beverley Dunn – The Great Gatsby

Best Cinematography:
Emmanuel Lubezki – Gravity

Best Makeup and Hairstyling:
Adruitha Lee, Robin Matthews – Dallas Buyers Club

Best Costume Design:
Catherine Martin – The Great Gatsby

Best Film Editing:
Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger – Gravity

Best Visual Effects:
Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk, Neil Corbould – Gravity

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Accessible Oscar: 2013’s Nominated Films You Easily Can Watch Before Sunday

The-Broken-Circle-BreakdownYou know Gravity. You know 12 Years a Slave. You’re (most likely) sick of American Hustle by now (and if you’re not, you don’t belong in a serious Oscar conversation, anyway).

2013’s crop of Oscar-nominated films contains some remarkably high-profile pictures, yet the most unoriginal commentary plebians use to describe the Academy Awards still resonates with grating ignorance as it carries over year after year.

Common man, you’re still not cool for saying “They only nominate movies that, like, no one has ever heard of.”

It’s more fair to say that the films which run the yearly awards gamut are easy prey for the burnout machine. With countless articles, podcasts, tv shows, and magazines covering the standard awards season contenders, we often grow tired of the mere sight of the frontrunners’ names, let alone are we able to force ourselves to sit through them more than once.

With the potential for 10 Best Picture nominees each year, the Academy has—in this instance only—wisely expanded the podium for smaller films to be seen by wider audiences. Without Best Picture support and the pre-nomination buzz the potential for an extra five titles brings, the likes of Philomena, Nebraska, Dallas Buyers Club, or even Her might not have found the (still relatively small) audiences–or place within awards season–that they eventually did.

It was especially evident in 2013 that studios wanted Oscar voters and audiences alike to see their films. Screeners were sent out in droves to Academy members, and multiple re-releases occurred from December through February (12 Years a Slave, Gravity, and Dallas Buyers Club each received late-run expansions in the midst of Oscar season).

Frankly, there’s no excuse for not having seen the Best Picture nominees by Sunday. All nine are currently playing in theaters. All but one are playing at over 175 locations, which means they’re more than likely playing at a theater near you. Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips, and Nebraska each are on DVD as of this posting. While its DVD release date isn’t expected until March 4, you can also catch 12 Years a Slave on iTunes for an inflated ($14.99 to own) price.

Seeing each of the Best Picture nominees also checks a great deal of have-seen boxes in the acting and technical categories as well, as the only films from the other major categories (acting, direction, and screenplay) not represented in the Best Picture race are August: Osage County, Blue Jasmine, and Before Midnight.

We’re experiencing an age where the film industry is more accessible than ever. In particular, accessibility to Oscar-nominated films is practically forced upon you. Studios want you to see their awards season contenders, mainly because the critics and guilds which usually determine the trajectory of awards season are growing increasingly rogue, throwing their weight behind whichever film makes them look like the sexiest group of thinkers.

Audiences have more power than ever before, considering the Academy tends to take a few key factors into consideration when voting, one of which being a group consensus of their peers and the public. Audiences loved Argo, The King’s Speech, The Artist, and Slumdog Millionaire, and each of those films boasts a crowd-pleasing aesthetic in all departments.

It’s easy to see how this logic would make Gravity a near lock for Best Picture by this point in the race. 12 Years a Slave is divisive, and that’s usually the last thing you want when heading into a showdown with a weighted ballot, as the Academy uses to determine Best Picture.

On a scale ranked from 1-9 this year Oscar voters will place their favorite films in order. A film needs to secure a certain number of #1 votes in order to pass the first round. Gravity is universally-appealing, secured high-profile awards from two guilds that share crossover membership with the Academy (DGA and PGA), stars two Hollywood heavyweights, has a socially-relevant narrative on its side (visibility for women! minority director!), and racked up nearly $300 million domestically (over $700 million worldwide), meaning its ascension to the number-one spot on most voters’ lists won’t be filled with many obstacles. 12 Years a Slave will easily take a percentage of #1 votes (passionate support for the film is strong), but its strengths are counterbalanced by its divisive nature, meaning it could rank far lower on many voters’ lists.

Why does placement matter? If a film like Captain Phillips receives the least amount of #1 votes in the first round of voting, its votes are then redistributed amongst the remaining titles and it is eliminated from contention. So, #2 and #3 votes then become important. This means that the film that wins Best Picture then needs to secure a decent amount of #2, #3, etc. votes so that enough are redistributed on to its pile when the other films are eliminated, until only one is left as the Best Picture winner.

Whether 12 Years a Slave wins or not, its importance lies within its mere existence, and you should see it. At a time when minority directors sparingly find work, Steve McQueen’s film has inserted itself as relevant in a society where the minority voice is threatened in all aspects of American life. It would be undoubtedly exciting to see a film about slavery win the Best Picture prize for the first time (though it would be playing into a white man’s tastes, as the Academy is overwhelmingly white and male), but its accessibility on a multitude of platforms (VOD, theaters, and DVD within the coming weeks) is key for the success and profitability of these types of films in the long run. If they’re consumed across all platforms, they’ll get made.

People will (and need to) watch it. After all, isn’t the point of making a movie to get people to do just that?

I’ve already told you where you can see the most popular of 2013’s nominees, but a great deal of smaller films from last year that were nominated for Oscars are readily-available as well. If you don’t live near a big city, you can easily find many films that populate the “lesser” categories of the Oscars on services like Netflix, iTunes, and on DVD or VOD. They are:

THE FEATURE DOCUMENTARIES (NETFLIX, ITUNES)

The Act of KillingThe Square, Dirty Wars, The Act of Killing, and Cute and the Boxer are each available to stream on Netflix for free with a subscription. You can easily make a night of indulging in these Oscar-nominated films, as they’re not very long and require a small amount of patience, as they’re all quality films with engaging subjects. 20 Feet From Stardom, however, is available to rent on iTunes for a mere $0.99.

If you only watch one, watch: The Act of Killing, as it will likely be the winner.

FOREIGN NOMINEES THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN, THE GREAT BEAUTY, AND THE HUNT (ITUNES)

the-hunt2A powerful crop of nominees in the this year’s Foreign Language category, three of the five nominees are available to watch for rent on iTunes. The Broken Circle Breakdown is one of the most devastatingly beautiful films in recent memory, as is The HuntThe Great Beauty won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, while Omar and The Missing Picture are expected to release sometime soon.

If you only watch one, watch: The Hunt or The Great Beauty if you’d like to watch the winner. Watch The Broken Circle Breakdown if you want to watch the best of the nominees. It’s reminiscent of 2010’s Blue Valentine, but bites much harder. If every Oscar voter saw The Broken Circle Breakdown, we’d be looking at a very different Best Picture race altogether. Some of the finest performances of the year are housed within its two-hour running time.

SCREENPLAY NOMINEES BEFORE MIDNIGHT AND BLUE JASMINE (ITUNES, DVD)

Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen's Blue JasmineRepresenting both the Adapted and Original Screenplay categories, respectively, both Before Midnight and Blue Jasmine are available on iTunes and DVD. While not as high-profile or as widely-seen as the other nominees in their categories (American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, and Captain Phillips are their competition, mind you), these films are easy to sit through and pay off quite nicely. Both are from established, legendary auteurs, and they shouldn’t be missed in the grand scheme of movies, let alone in this year’s Oscar race.

If you only watch one, watch: Blue Jasmine, as it’s a standalone piece (whereas Before Midnight is part of a series), and it’s nominated in two other categories, likely to win one for Cate Blanchett in the Lead Actress category (she gives one of the finest performances of all time as the titular character).

DOCUMENTARY, LIVE-ACTION, AND ANIMATED SHORTS (SELECT THEATERS, ITUNES)

Slider-Home-1Probably everyone’s least-favorite categories to predict (I admit, even I stumble when it comes to seeing these things), the shorts are often the most difficult to fit into your need-to-see schedule before the Oscar telecast. This year, they’ve played at over 400 theaters across the country since January 31st thanks to Shorts HD and Magnolia. It might take some digging, but find a local theater that’s playing them and show these little guys some love. They’re also available on iTunes as of today.

So, there you have it. You’ve just been given a wonderful insight into where and how you can watch a majority of the Oscar-nominated films. You might have procrastinated up to this point, but just know that more accessibility to more Oscar-nominated films means you’ll have no excuse for having “not heard” of or “not seen” next year’s batch.

One Week Until The Oscars: What’s Brewing Under the Surface of the Race

12_years_a_slave_night_a_lEleven days.

Roughly seven months of festival screenings, studio campaigns, critics awards, guild ceremonies, and the weight of public opinion comes down to the eleven days Oscar members vote for the winners of their annual Academy Awards.

From February 14th through February 25th, the Academy’s 6,000+ membership (a vast majority of whom are Caucasian, male, with an average age of 62 years old) will finally give validation to a single film in a race that’s spent a majority of its time without a clear frontrunner. At times its felt like the jockeying for the reins of awards season trumped the spirit of the race and the quality of the films at hand (NYFCC, I’m looking at you).

Though the battle for Best Picture has been a turbulent one, we’ve been fortunate to experience a true race, one that’s forcing Academy members to fit the multi-generational effects of slavery and gender inequality into a mere eleven-day window.

The impact of the Academy’s decision is often meaningless in the grand scheme of life, but this year—according to Oscar bloggers and industry pundits—their choice for Best Picture has the potential to really mean something.

It’s generally a race that relies on the visual, given that the medium itself is (in its purest form) an exercise in the opulence of what we can see. The Academy’s mistake is that it often takes the visual only at face value. Brokeback Mountain was immediately written off by older Academy members as an assault on traditionally-coded genres of the American Western; The Artist’s sensory gimmick harkened back to the age of black, white, and the gold-plated fantasy of the American Dream; 12 Years a Slave could potentially be dismissed on the grounds of being insufferable, as evidenced by Michael Musto’s interview with an anonymous Academy member here.

What the Academy sees is often what they think they’re getting: Gay cowboys; Black and white prestige; African-American blood. They consistently fail to dig deeper.

If anything can be gleaned from Musto’s piece, it’s that there’s a race that’s brewing far beneath the surface of studio campaigns, nominee luncheons, and precursor ceremonies: a race of stupidity that accepts the surface layer and nothing else.

Take, for example, the following quote, which sees the anonymous Academy member discussing his feelings on American Hustle:

“I remember [Jennifer Lawrence]. To me, she was fine. But my son said he read the real story and the Bale character’s real wife was 15 years older than him, not this hot young girl. God, it would have made so much more sense if she’s older and he meets this woman, who in real life is really British. It would have made more sense that he left an older woman for Amy Adams. By the way, Amy had no boobs in that dress. A beautiful dress, but she’s flat chested.”

At best, we can really only speculate about the ideology of the Academy. It’s a bit unfair to make generalized assumptions based merely on the fact that membership is overwhelmingly Caucasian and male. This quote, however, gives us a devastating insight into the mind of Oscar voters and how they think. This voter reveals a long-standing Oscar mentality that somehow correlates a woman’s sex appeal and the quality of her work.

The issue of fairness, then, becomes what prejudices and perspectives Academy voters are willing to shed when they cast their ballots. Conforming to the standards of the dominant majority is a task that many minority nominees must do throughout their individual campaigns and it seems that, as the anonymous voter above solidifies, that a woman’s ascension to Oscar glory is a track very different from that of a man’s.

Yet again, we must examine the visual component of awards season. Pre-cursor ceremonies (such as the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, Directors Guild of America Awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards, etc.) afford potential Oscar winners the ability to showcase their charisma, presence, and (if they’re lucky) ability to put together a memorable acceptance speech. They’re Oscar auditions, if you will.

One of the most recognizable symbols of industry success is the red carpet. We associate its colors with prestige and honor, but the red carpet can also be a harbinger of doom for a woman’s chances in the race.

Can you imagine saying something like that about a man? That the type of suit he’d wear would derail his chances at winning an Oscar?

Whereas men’s fashion exists relatively unchanged from event to event, a woman’s trajectory in the race is often contingent on fashion, star power, and overall presence. What catapulted Lupita Nyong’o back into the Oscar race (after having been pushed out prematurely by Jennifer Lawrence’s recognition from the NYFCC and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association) was her ability to court the audience’s eye. From the Golden Globes to the BAFTAs, Nyong’o evolved from “supporting actress” to “fashion icon,” and “rising star.” Her fashion transformed her identity, and allowed her to regain footing.

It’s shallow waters these women must traverse; depths the likes of current frontrunners in the Actor categories Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto have yet to wade through. The discussion revolves around their work and the “bravery” they’ve shown by taking on such roles, yet women must maintain a spectacle of attention.

Musto’s interviewee also calls 12 Years a Slave “torture porn,” saying that the film was far too brutal and that the film beats audiences over the head with its depiction of violence against slaves.

The racial bias of Oscar voters is apparent throughout its 86-year history. Only one film with contemporaneous race-related themes has ever won Best Picture (In the Heat of the Night). Since then, we’ve seen likes of Amistad, The Color Purple, and Lincoln, amongst others, hover around the perimeter of awards season without being given the opportunity to harvest much gold.

We’re looking at an Academy that has, without a doubt, one of the most monumental (within the ideology of awards season, mind you) tasks any Academy has ever had, though it seems that the narrative—as usual—has been crafted by those writing about the Oscars versus the Academy itself.

In fact, it’s the New York Film Critics Circle which in December took the race into uncharted territory by prematurely throwing its support behind American Hustle, derailing the momentum both Gravity and 12 Years a Slave had built since their debuts on the festival circuit months prior. Since then, each Oscar precursor has taken it upon itself to thrust the race in a different direction.

As the dust begins to settle, teetering on the edge of Oscar glory we have two films which, in their own right, would change the definition of what it means to be the Best Picture of the year.

On one hand, we have Gravity, a film driven solely by a female character for the majority of its run. It’s a monumental achievement in terms of visual effects and emotional resonance, with director Alfonso Cuaron seamlessly blending gorgeous, high-tech spectacle with a simple (yet powerful) narrative metaphor. Most importantly, the film doesn’t sexualize its female star.

If it wins Best Picture, Gravity will be the first film set in space to enter such ranks, and it will join a select few films driven only by female performances to have won the Academy’s top prize. In a year when three films driven by female characters roared into the top-ten domestic earners of 2013 (aside from Gravity at #6, the other two being The Hunger Games: Catching Fire at #1 and Frozen at #3—and climbing), Gravity would put a fitting cap atop an industry narrative calling for a greater female presence in front of and behind the camera.

o-GRAVITY-TRAILER-facebook12 Years a Slave, the other frontrunner, poses an interesting case. Never before has a black filmmaker won the Academy’s Best Director Oscar, nor has a film directly about slavery  or with a predominantly-African-American cast won Best Picture. 12 Years a Slave would usher in a new identity not only for the Academy, but for the minority voice in the industry as a whole.

What does the path to glory look like for 12 Years a Slave, though?

12 Years a Slave is not entering an arena as a representative of “the norm,” therefore it will not be treated as such by Academy voters. It will be (and has been already) objectified for being an alternative. Its filmmakers, cast, and characters are of a race that’s alternative to the norm. This is a film crafted by black hands, starring black actors, that’s entering a realm where it needs to impress white voters to succeed.

Validation by the white audience is, then, the only way for a black film to succeed on this front. The cinematic, societal, and historical worth of 12 Years a Slave would taste much sweeter with validation as the Academy’s Best Picture if it were voted on by a diverse membership.

Victory will not truly be realized until the current minority has an influential sway in the selection process, which means having to play into the standards and expectations of white Oscar voters in the current race. As it is, the Academy’s attempts to diversify its ranks are a work in progress, though not fully realized (and won’t be for quite some time).

Similarly, studios will not change what they produce until we start seeing alternatives to the standards they push. We must ask ourselves why they push what they push, however. They’re not peddling wafer-thin female bodies an the fantasy of white-dominated blockbusters without reason; it’s simply what audiences see. The audience dictates the product. While recent films like The ButlerAbout Last NightRide Along, and Think Like a Man prove that there’s a consistent audience for “minority” films as profitable entities, critical and award-based validation for films like Fruitvale Station and 12 Years a Slave only improves the perceived credibility of the minority voice for a general audience and for studios.

Visibility is key.

12 Years a Slave is not the best picture of the year. The Oscars have never been about awarding the best of the best. It’s political, so it’s time voters start understanding and accepting the game they’re playing. For the health of the industry, McQueen’s film would be the one to open doors, generate headlines, and change the face of the minority within the academy and the industry. It’s playing into the white man’s game, catering to his tastes and being validated by his voting system, but it’s a start.

You simply must play the Oscar game, whether it’s reaffirming visual standards of women’s fashion to singling out race as the driving force behind a film’s success.

Doing what’s right, what looks right, what we can see, after all, is the Academy’s game. Depth is irrelevant, and the surface is cherished.

The Academy does what it wants to do, and has done so unabashedly over the years. They pick what they like, and they stick with it.

It’s a visual medium and, despite such racial objectification voters might exercise when ticking off 12 Years a Slave, perhaps it’s time for change that we can see.

It takes eleven days to vote. We’re seven days away from the Oscars. With a mere twenty-four hours left for Academy members to cast their ballots, let’s hope that the bitter injustices done unto the likes of The Color Purple or Brokeback Mountain are burned into their memory before they let American Hustle steal what’s rightfully others’.

Red carpet coverage for the 86th Annual Academy Awards begins Sunday at 7:00 PM EST on ABC