The Academy Awards

I Thought Oscar Nominee ’20 Feet From Stardom’ Was Down With Sisterhood, Until…

53966_38e5f603f4085f24d4a0b82934869943_194c0351f9aae66208af9dd312dc3458One of the finest documentaries released last year, Morgan Neville’s Oscar-nominated 20 Feet From Stardom, quickly establishes itself as a celebration of song, passion, and sisterhood.

It’s a film that, like most great documentaries, takes us beyond the veneer of something we so often take for granted. Background artists (whether in film or music), by all means (given their proper name), are relegated to second-tier status during any major performance. Extras create a believable scene around the star, and backing vocalists bolster the solo performance.

20 Feet From Stardom takes us on an almost fantastical journey through the lives of several vocalists who’ve made a living making as the building blocks of performance. Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Merry Clayton, and Judith Hill have shared the stage with the likes of Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, and Sting. Their names aren’t synonymous with solo success but, through 20 Feet From Stardom‘s lens, their stories are beautiful, their presence justified to an audience who, in any other context, would’ve let them blend into the shadows of the stage.

While the film is a marvelous exercise in allowing us to glimpse into another facet of the minority voice, it’s also a celebration of the unity–an almost subcultural family–that these singers formed. They share experience, talent, and an adoration of the craft they’ve perfected over the years. We’re watching artists who’ve overcome the same racial, social, and industry biases as those who receive top billing on the marquee.

Neville makes it clear–like a great documentary filmmaker should–through the juxtaposition of images and patient observation, that these women are, in many cases, more talented vocalists than the singers they stand behind. We don’t need to be told much of anything, as a great documentarian establishes his status quo without words, rather through the overall establishment of a quiet narrative ideology within his work.

Neville, for the most part, allows his subjects’ stories to speak for them. No words exist that could possibly match the tragedy of an seeing artists such as Claudia Lennear and Lisa Fischer teaching Spanish and standing in line at the DMV. Our judgments aside, however, the artistry is what’s important to them, and there’s a sisterhood, a companionship, and a yearning for comfort and validation that unites these women in their shared struggle for fulfillment across different avenues–musically or otherwise.

Neville’s camera is present, yet never prodding. We feel as if these stories are unfolding with us along for the ride, like a child curled up at the lap of a grandparent, drinking in the history, the experience, and years’ worth of pride layed out before us.

There’s a scene, however, which nearly derails the entirety of Neville’s work, that removes the camera’s appreciation for its subjects and replaces it with a sharp, judgmental tone that doesn’t jive with the rest of the work.

A large portion of the film is spent so lovingly engaged–like a hapless soul love-drunk in the presence of a voluptuous other–in his subjects’ work, that there’s little judgment that seeps through the cracks, until Neville takes a very noticeable jab at a contemporary artist.

Toward the end of the film, we’re introduced to Hill, a backup singer who was prepping for Michael Jackson’s This Is It tour shortly before he passed. After Jackson’s death, Hill performed at his funeral and found momentary attention from the media. Her image was defined by association with a superstar. She was a backup singer famous for being a backup singer, though she values her individuality as an artist. Her desire to go solo is made clear, and she consistently notes that she rejected every touring or stage background singing gig she was offered so as not to become pigeonholed by the industry.

Shortly thereafter, we’re shown a clip of Jay Leno introducing Kylie Minogue as a performer on his show, with Hill singing backup. Hill claims countless people dismissed her for lowering herself to such a position, and that she even tried to drastically alter her appearance (with a wig and heavy makeup) in hopes of not being recognized.

It was undoubtedly a move that would pay Hill’s bills, and Minogue clearly shares a different career and artistic trajectory than Hill, though Neville’s inclusion of it begs the audience to compare both women’s talents, and ultimate come to the conclusion that Hill is superior to another.

A film which seems to value and explore the alternative to the norm, the diss is surprisingly off-key, demeaning whatever path Minogue took to achieve her success.

UntitledThe jab not only upsets the tone of companionship and celebration of artistry the film seeks to establish, but is also unfair to Hill, as it forces the audience to consider the legitimacy of what she’s saying about desiring to be a true artist instead of a check-hungry star. This forces us to then carry judgments over to other aspects of Hill’s career. She appeared on NBC’s “The Voice” just last year, though Neville wisely does not include any mention of it in 20 Feet From Stardom. Is that not, from the perspective of the filmmaker who chose to diss Kylie Minogue, similarly deplorable for a true “artist”?

It’s here that the technical seams begin to show. When a documentarian’s hand is evident, the world we’re soaking up onscreen starts to unravel. Neville’s opinion on artists and their genre is irrelevant, and the focus is momentarily distracted from the well-made points he established earlier in the film.

It opens the film and its subjects up to unnecessary criticism. It’s a dark cloud of negativity and personal opinion that momentarily takes the film from celebrating artistic value and struggle to elevating itself above an alternate facet of the art form we’ve spent the last 90 minutes celebrating.

Individuality, on the other hand, is something Hill should by all means strive to savor. The film hits upon so many meaningful topics of survival. Bills need to be paid, but singularity in any form is natural to human existence. Whether hearing their voices on radio hits without shared credit with the main artists or watching solo projects circle countless drains, that’s where the beauty of the film shines; the persistence of art and individuality comes at a price, though happiness doesn’t have to go down with the ship.

2013 was a strong year for documentaries. Affect turned to action for many who viewed the staggering amount of quality documentaries released last year. Blackfish stirred a sleeping public to action, while films like Stories We Tell and The Act of Killing inspired intense introspection as they deeply explored their subject matter.

Tomorrow’s Academy Awards will likely tip the balance of a heavily-competitive year for documentary films in the favor of one. 20 Feet From Stardom and The Act of Killing are the likeliest contenders to win the Oscar. Experts predict The Act of Killing, though the broad appeal of 20 Feet From Stardom fits nicely within the narrative of the season. 20 Feet From Stardom puts minority voices put on display, much the way 12 Years a Slave amplifies the racial tensions we still endure in our society to this day.

The accessibility of 20 Feet From Stardom works in its favor. Its editing and technical construction are brilliant but, like a fictional narrative, however, its constructed nature seeps through the cracks and reveals various inconsistencies, and for that it’ll likely be singing backup for The Act of Killing  come Sunday evening.

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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