american film

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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Who Defines Film Culture: The Oscars or the MTV Movie Awards?

Host Conan O'Brien closes the show after Sam Claflin and Josh Hutcherson accepted the award for Best Movie of the Year for "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" at the 2014 MTV Movie Awards in Los AngelesThe burden of guidance is so often placed upon the shoulders of the most youthful generation. After all, they are the future.

But, they’re also the first group we criticize when examining the state of things, and the last we feel safe putting our faith in. According to the old and wise, they’re either setting sail in the wrong direction or dragging the vessel down; the youth of the nation can’t catch a break.

And so enters MTV, which has served as perhaps the most reflective mirror of youth culture for over four decades. What began as an outlet for the naturally-countercultural voice of the young has become a mold that defines the youth mentality instead of complimenting and accenting its evolution. Creativity and music videos gave way to reality television and cheap trash, which only makes sense; the defining media source for the culture of youth must mimic the devolution of the younger generation from a pre-adult, naïve mass into a noisy, pots-and-pans banger of endlessly empty product and consumption. Regardless of the network’s level of quality, it’s timelessly synonymous with the demographic that anchors itself at the forefront of popular culture.

When MTV first began airing its now-annual Movie Awards in 1992, they offered an alternative to the adult-oriented culture of the Oscars. The 1990s saw a resurgence of the adult film, what with the likes of Silence of the Lambs, Pulp Fiction and The Piano washing the bad taste of Chariots of Fire and Rocky out of the public’s mouth. Not since the 1970s had the film industry seen such a desire to release and market films to the older crowd. The public was hungry for maturity once again, so it only makes sense that MTV would step in with a youth-fueled alternative to the stuffy, graying status quo.

The MTV Movie Awards offered a timely chance for the general crowd-pleasers to find their stride and spotlight where the Oscars offered no shelter. The Oscars have always been more inclined to recognize adult-oriented fare,  and the MTV Movie Awards have always been there to crown things like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Wedding Crashers, or Napoleon Dynamite as the best film of the year.

The type of voter choosing the respective winners has always defined the gap between the Oscars and the MTV Movie Awards. The Academy is comprised predominantly of older white men who are professionals in the field, while the general public chooses the recipients of the MTV Movie Awards. Perhaps it’s here that lies the key to understanding the recent melding of the adult niche and popular appeal, only it’s not the MTV Movie Awards that are changing.

As a matter of fact, it’s the Academy that’s come to conform to the standards of the general public.

The MTV Movie Awards have very little changed their format over the years. There’s a Best Film category that shows little to no discrimination against any particular genre (films from The Matrix, Scream and The Ring to There’s Something About Mary, Bridesmaids, and JFK have each found nominations and/or wins here), whereas the Academy generally sticks to its dramatic guns when it comes to Best Picture. What does this tell us about the Oscars’ standing in American culture? That the Academy is often out of touch with popular mainstream culture—that is until you get to 2009, when the decision was made to expand the Best Picture category from five nominees to a maximum of ten. Five more slots meant five more chances for something like Avatar—2009’s James Cameron blockbuster—to partake in a race it normally would have only entered in the technical categories, as did MTV Best Pictures like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Matrix.

Generally, the MTV Movie Awards’ Best Picture category shares around 1-3 nominees with the Oscar Best Picture race, and often the MTV Movie Award winner isn’t even nominated for the Academy’s Best Picture (nor are the other nominees) and vice-versa. On three occasions a film has won top honors at both ceremonies in the same year. It began in 1997 with James Cameron’s Titanic, followed by Ridley Scott’s 2000 smash Gladiator, and then again with Peter Jackson’s 2003 epic The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Each of these films had an immense budget and grossed hundreds of millions of dollars internationally. They were perfect examples of when spectacle of screen and gross become far too big to ignore. The tide of Oscar voting was shifting to favor the crowd-pleaser over the artist.

mtv-movie-awardsThe rise of the blockbuster indicated a key turning point in the film industry; the disappearance of the adult-oriented film in favor of a big-budget spectacle. The blockbuster became par for the course instead of a singular event that came two or three times a year. The melding of the popular moneymakers with traditional Academy fare became ever more apparent when the Oscars—declining in viewership over the years—saw more and more big-budget films that would have normally only found traction with the MTV Movie Awards (District 9, The Blind Side, Avatar) began creeping into the Best Picture race.

The Oscars began their quest for all-inclusivity, which ultimately resulted in easy-to-swallow, non-polarizing, universal films like The Artist, Argo, and The King’s Speech to take Best Picture.

The streamlining of film culture into an amalgam of crowd-pleasers that resonate with adults and youth alike led to the increasing relevance of the MTV Movie Awards, which were once considered a useless appendage as a celebration of everything that was already gratuitous about Hollywood; cheap laughs, violence, spectacle, big stars, hot sex, and superficiality (what else can you expect from an awards show that contains a “Best Shirtless Performance” category?). With the rise of the $100-million grosser as the studio norm and the Oscars’ increasing pandering to a more generalized audience, the MTV Movie Awards complimented the industry’s shift toward flashiness over sophistication without evolving at all.

The MTV Movie Awards remain the one facet of the network that inserts its audience into mainstream culture instead of shaping their tastes for them; MTV executives seem to nominate films and performers that the target demographic has responded to in other ways (whether it be big box-office or social media interactions), and then lets the public vote to determine the winners. The MTV Movie Awards largely reflect the true general consensus of the average American moviegoer, where the Oscars now find themselves as the potential outcast caught between championing the adult film and appealing to the masses by recognizing popular films and performers.

It used to be that the rift between the Oscars and the MTV Movie Awards represented the split tastes of the American public. Today, the tentpoles that define summer and the crowd-pleasers that permeate the Oscar race often share recognition at both awards shows. There’s no need for the MTV Movie Awards to champion films that wouldn’t have a shot in the Oscar race; now there’s more room for everyone everywhere, and the culture at large is far more inclined to watch and tweet about three hours of bubblegum stars winning bubblegum awards at a bubblegum awards show that offers the same films up for grabs as the much-stuffier Oscar race.

Even recently, the Oscars are still a place where the adult film can flourish. Challenging pieces like Amour, The Tree of Life, and Beasts of the Southern Wild have proven that the Academy’s taste has not completely gone soft—and that this affinity can even propel little-seen, mature films to actually win Best Picture, like 2009’s The Hurt Locker. The problem is that the studio-shaped landscape is shifting so greatly that space for these films to grow and find an audience is shrinking by the day to the point where the Oscars are becoming the only place for films like this to succeed. For every Grand Budapest Hotel we get six of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though The Academy is likely to recognize both in categories with varying levels of esteem attached to them.

So, then, the MTV Movie Awards have separated themselves from the serious-minded awards groups without doing a single thing different over the course of their 22 years. They’ve become reflective of why our culture both works (the voice of the people, what with social media, has never been stronger) and what’s wrong with it (taste is far too often defined by the powers at large pushing dreck like superhero movies and big-budget blockbusters on a weekly basis so that they’re no longer event pictures but the standard). The MTV Movie Awards reflect the reality of our star-obsessed, instant-gratification culture far better than the Oscars do, and that’s evident by the way the Oscars have shifted their own categorical structuring since 2009 to include a wider range of films. The public demands more inclusivity as their wallets get bigger and their dollars more attracted to larger spectacles.

The people who watch the MTV Movie Awards are probably not the same ones who highly regard film awards in general. They’re the same people shelling out dollar after dollar to see blockbuster after blockbuster in quick succession; the audiences might be throwing their money at the same thing over and over, but it seems that MTV and their target demographic know which way to point the sails.

Their most recent Best Film winner (Catching Fire) also happens to be the top-grossing domestic film of the year, so it’s about time we start paying attention; they seem to know where the ships are docking.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi