Lupita nyong’o

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

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

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

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

Oscar Season Diary #1: Punditry and Responsibility

Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender

Is it appropriate to use the word “responsiblity,” in this case?

After all, it’s film we’re talking about. Not international tension or foreign policy, right?

In a way, though, is Oscar punditry not unlike a sort of international operation? Filtering the chaos of Toronto, Telluride, and all the guilds and critics’ circles to come into a streamlined, easy-to-digest pill for those non-endowed with the knowledge of such a particular competition? I think of HitFix, IndieWire, Awards Daily; each reports in a personable manner, speaking to readers versus at them. It’s all stuffed with pretension here and there, but we’re used to that. This is Oscar Season, after all.

Awards Season blogging/punditry discourse is, for the most part, a way for the knowledgeable to be at-bat with the rest of their team at the same time, fighting for the same chance to strike the Academy’s pitch. No one asks them to, but that doesn’t stop the sensationalized coverage of this year’s September festivals from forcing their way into casual Oscar discourse.

I think immediately of Alonso Duralde (film critic at The Wrap) and Adam B. Vary (film reporter for Buzzfeed) and their Twitter spat this weekend after the former expressed his distaste with press oversensationalizing the quality of films for the sake of self-starting awards season buzz. Vary insisted the praise–specifically, that for 12 Years a Slave–was genuine, while Mark Harris (writer at Entertainment Weekly) chimed in, adding that those insisting the Best Picture race is already over aren’t doing the film any favors.

I see the side to each point. It seems that though as power and sway is taken away from critics during awards season (did we have the amount of guild awards, SAG awards, and online buzz 20 years ago? I think not) as anyone with access to the internet now wields the power of broadcast. The onslaught of praise for 12 Years a Slave coming out of Telluride and Toronto is almost knowingly self-fulfilling. What Duralde is getting at, I assume, is that the praise seems more like a wank to their individual ability to find the diamond in the rough and pat themselves on the back for doing so. The awards race has transcended mere quality. It’s about buzz, marketing, studio pushes, and (most importantly) making a splash at these game-changing early-season festivals. Voluminous praise spreads like a virus, and soon everyone is on the bandwagon, an individual part of the machine that turns appeal into gold (Blue is the Warmest Color swept Cannes like wildfire in a similar fashion).

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Perhaps the praise is merely that: praise. It’s ridiculous to judge someone’s enthusiasm for a film, especially in an age where art takes a backseat to blockbuster. I’m all for championing films that break the mold of what studios deem marketable, and 12 Years a Slave certainly looks to live up to the hype. But hype can often kill a film’s chances at the Oscars. Jumping the gun and declaring the race over when Toronto hasn’t completed is ludicrous. There were those who latched on to Argo at this point last year, but that did little good. The film, after all, was left out of the Best Director category, and only then did it become the clear frontrunner (or, colossal sympathy vote) for Best Picture. I don’t doubt the quality of Steve McQueen’s much-anticipated followup to Shame, I just hope its chances aren’t killed thanks to foam-mouthed bloggers expending its welcome too soon.

It was almost as if the desire to love 12 Years a Slave preceded it. Like a shaken bottle waiting to be uncapped. The desire to praise something different, something from a filmmaker widely ignored for superior work two years ago. That’s why the praise for films like Gravity and Dallas Buyers Club coming out of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto seems more legitimate, at least in my eyes. Both seem unexpectedly fantastic, and the reviews truly reflected that. You can tell that critics were stunned by their impact. That’s not to say that quality wasn’t expected, it just didn’t have nearly as much chatter surrounding it as the buzzier flicks did. For one, they weren’t shown at Cannes, and Cuaron’s track record has been 0 for 0 for the past seven years. Surprise passion trumps informed expectation.

Alas, Toronto is nearly over, and we still have other contenders (arguably) to sift through (August reviews should begin pouring in shortly, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street have yet to screen anywhere, Saving Mr. Banks and Captain Phillips are making leaps and bounds to the forefront of Oscar discussion), and all of that only leads to the conclusion that we still have three months until nominations are announced. Sensation and accessibility to underqualified, over-shared opinions only leads one of two ways, neither favorable: building buzz (The Artist) or dying a slow death thanks to over-sharing and over-saturation of “it’s a guarantee, so lets talk about something else” (Lincoln).

Though no one asks for their opinion, bloggers an informed voice is often the best candlelight to follow in a sea of darkness. But, for once, it’d be nice to find the footing on my own.

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Current Big 4 predictions after Venice, Toronto, Telluride, and pre-screening buzz:

Best Picture
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Gravity
The Wolf of Wall Street
The Butler
Captain Phillips
Nebraska
August: Osage County
Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Director
Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)
David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Lee Daniels (The Butler)

Best Actor
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Robert Redford (All is Lost)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) – If she remains Lead, which apparently she is
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Kate Winslet (Labor Day)
Brie Larson (Short Term 12)