2013 oscar race

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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Tomorrow: DGA Decides Who Lives and Who Dies in the Race – 6 Directors to Watch

ryan-coogler-2-fruitvale-stationAll eyes are on the Directors Guild of America to sift through the murky depths of the 2013 awards season and bring some much-needed clarity.

Sitting firmly at the tail-end of the major precursor nomination timeline, the DGA is usually the wisest of the group. I get the sense that they vote with their hearts a great deal of the time, favoring grand, difficult, complex works which reflect the best of their faction–at least they have for the past 10 years or so.

While clarity is the last thing the DGA brought us last year–they actually broke a 9-year streak of agreeing with the Oscar winner by giving Ben Affleck (who wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar) their top prize for feature film–their nominations will help whittle the current race down to a solid crop of contenders.

Things to look out for tomorrow, when the DGA announces its annual nominees:

1) Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis has had a rough week. Days ago, they missed out on any love from the Producers Guild. Shortly thereafter, though, they nearly swept the National Society of Film Crtics’ awards. The film is polarizing audiences and industry figures alike, as the critics seem to love it, but the guilds are hesitant to reward such a peculiar, subtle film.

The highs and lows the film has seen over the last month don’t bode well for its once-promising position as a prime Oscar contender. The DGA aren’t fond of the Coens. They’ve won once for 2007’s No Country for Old Men, and Joel was nominated for Fargo in 1996. True Grit missed out on a nomination entirely, as did A Single Man, both of which were Best Picture contenders within their respective years. If Inside Llewyn Davis misses a nomination here, the film’s Oscar chances will drop drastically.

2) Ryan Coogler and 3) Lee Daniels

Along with Steve McQueen, both Coogler and Daniels have helped make 2013 a historic year for black filmmakers. Each has directed a film that was highly influential. Coogler’s Fruitvale Station riled overwhelming critical and precursor support (its name has consistently shown up everywhere from honorary critics’ awards to the Independent Spirit nominations).

Daniels’ The Butler might not be on the same trajectory to Oscar greatness as McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but it has solidified itself as a legitimate hit with audiences worldwide, grossing $116 million domestically and another $45 million around the globe. Daniels has also established himself as perhaps the most prominent black filmmaker of the modern age, what with his 2009 film Precious also garnering intense awards season love. Both Coogler and Daniels represent the shifting landscape of American cinema, where black films and filmmakers are no longer voices the American public are afraid to hear, but rather ones they are willing to shell out money to see on more than just a fluke basis.

Daniels’ film is an epic of vast proportions, encompassing a huge ensemble cast (that was nominated over with the SAG, mind you), and shows the director’s ability to effectively helm material with a gargantuan scope. Coogler’s film is a bit small for the DGA’s taste, but Daniels could very well prove to squeak a nomination out of a guild that favors drama and spectacle not unlike that which he gave us with The Butler.

4) Alfonso Cuaron and 5) Steve McQueen

Both filmmakers have dominated the Best Director discussion since their respective films wowed festivalgoers at Telluride, Toronto, and Venice late last year. Both helmed fantastic films, and will become first-time DGA nominees tomorrow morning. The only problem is that their films are vastly different.

Gravity is a showy spectacle for the most part (not to discount its thematic and visual metaphors running throughout the film), while 12 Years a Slave is a challenging, gritty masterwork that remains firmly rooted in an emotional tone that lacks the grandiose, loud, overwhelming visual presence of Gravity. My money is on Cuaron for the win, but McQueen’s story would fit nicely into the narrative the Academy would like to weave (McQueen would be the first black director to win at the DGA or the Oscars, or both) what with their evolving image, membership, and taste.

Gravity fits within a narrative as well. In a year where, for the first time since 1997, a film with a female-driven performance rules yearly U.S. box-office (Catching Fire today surpassed Iron Man 3 as the year’s top-grosser), the Sandra Bullock-driven, one-woman show that is Gravity would be a welcome Best Picture winner for the Academy’s diversifying image. The DGA nominations for both men will tomorrow cement their positions as leaders within the race.

6) David O. Russell

Only nominated here once before (for The Fighter), even Russell’s heyday failed to impress the DGA. Even as Silver Linings Playbook swept the early awards discussion in 2012, his name was left off of DGA ballots in favor of Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper, and Ben Affleck (Lee and Spielberg had been locks for quite some time). This year, his monumental achievement American Hustle is far too big for the DGA to ignore. He’s played the Oscar game so well, crafting three drastically different films over the course of four years, showing range, dynamism, and an ability to get three Oscar-winning performances out of his casts (along with another four acting nominations for other cast members). His on-set antics undoubtedly rub many directors the wrong way, but his achievements are no less significant. A nomination here will further fuel American Hustle‘s position as one of the top three contenders for Best Picture.

Though the DGA has little clout over Oscar nominations with the recent date changes (their announcement comes only one day before Oscar ballots are due), their crossover membership with the Academy is generally good for influencing winners once Oscar nominees are announced.

The Directors branch of the Academy tends to favor more independent, smaller films than the DGA, most likely because the guild itself is for the advancement of their craft, and showy films like Avatar or Argo encompass vast sources from all reaches of the industry, and people can easily see the spectacle a showy director creates. This is how you explain Tom Hooper getting in for Les Miserables last year over the likes of eventual Oscar nominees Benh Zeitlin and Michael Haneke.

The issue of Martin Scorsese has come up a lot, as well, and I just don’t see him making it into the race this year. His film is polarizing, and the film was released far too late in the year to have been a legitimate awards contender. Recognition for the film will come for the picture as a whole  when the Academy nominates it for Best Picture, a broad inclusion that doesn’t pinpoint anything specific is the least controversial route to go. Honoring Marty with a nomination implies that they agree with the film and its trajectory as a thematic vehicle, not just as a spectacle of superb film direction.

My predictions for tomorrow’s DGA nominations, ranked in order of potential:
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