when are the oscars

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 #10: Frontrunning to Instant Death

gravity-bullockAt the heart of divisiveness is passion.

You’re either for something or against it, and dividing love and hate into two binary categories with regards to the appeal of a film is often necessary when talking about it within the context of a race where only one can win. It’s natural to love what you love, push it forward, and let your next-best choice fall off the wagon to the side of the road.

I guess it’s unfair to say that, if you’re an Oscar voter, your #2 choice for Best Picture is one you don’t favor in general. It’s simply one that you don’t favor to win, and is automatically othered as a result. On a preferential ballot, #2 is essentially #9485 on the same scale.

Alas, only Oscar voters have to worry about that. Everyone knows the Academy has a huge task ahead of them after such a magnificent year jam-packed with quality cinema from around the world.

One one hand, the Academy could award the first ever black-made, black-themed film with a Best Picture win; on the other, they could break a 17-year pattern of awarding male-driven films their top honor. The latter seems likely since Alfonso Cuaron–director of Gravity–took home the top prize at the Directors Guild of America Awards last week. 90% of the time, those who win the DGA’s top prize go on to have their film recognized by the Academy as Best Picture of the year. In fact, it has happened a staggering 11 times since 2000. Only Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain have the unfortunate honor of being awarded the DGA’s top prize without a follow-up Best Picture win (both films were directed by Ang Lee, funny enough).

Gravity is also poised to win key technical awards, including Best Film Editing (essentially the third-tier Best Picture Oscar).

Still, these statistics are displeasing and unconvincing to some. Pundits are overwhelmingly in favor of a 12 Years a Slave win, as a staggering 18 out of 23 of those surveyed on GoldDerby have it predicted in their #1 slot. If 12 Years a Slave wins, it would be a nearly unprecedented feat, as not only would the Academy defy statistical expectations, but 12 Years a Slave would rank amongst the least-decorated Best Picture winners in Oscar history, as the only other category it has a shot at winning is Best Supporting Actress.

What about the brewing tide making Gravity the statistical frontrunner doesn’t resonate? How can so many look so deeply into the face of such certainty and pick the opposite course? There’s little to no basis for predicting 12 Years a Slave to win other than hope, which is never a bad thing. It would be momentous if Steve McQueen’s film could pull off an upset in the face of Gravity‘s late-game dominance.

The fact remains, however, that we have two fantastic films on our hands, and one cannot be appropriately valued over the other.

As we saw the guilds, critics, and audiences file into their respective, individualized tributaries flowing into the Oscar picture (American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, and Gravity have each shared the spotlight as frontrunner), certainty seemed to be something each of us lacked as we hunted for a singular film to throw our weight behind.

Once Gravity won the DGA and PGA, the ball finally started rolling in one direction, and the tides turned. From its premiere at Venice to its near unanimous praise from critics, Gravity became one of the most prominent, highly-regarded films of the year. It was praised as a technical revolution, as well as a monumental achievement for actresses, as it is largely a one-woman show that went on to gross nearly $700 million worldwide.

It’s funny, then, that we’re currently witnessing the same things that happened to 12 Years a Slave after the fall festivals and to American Hustle after the critics circles prematurely ejaculated all over it; people are turning against Gravity because its footing is firmly planted at the front of the pack. With Oscar voting beginning in a matter of days, Gravity‘s late-entry status as the Best Picture frontrunner carries a stigma few films escape. When you’re perceived as the best, you’re no longer the sexy choice, even after you win Best Picture. The film will become predicated by what so many will harp on as an unjust triumph over a more “socially important” film like 12 Years a Slave.

It’s also around this time of year that the awards season narrative has an end in sight after bloggers, journalists, and audience wallets started writing it nearly 5 months ago. Early in the season, pundits championed 12 Years a Slave not only as a powerhouse film in itself, but as a beacon for the minority voice to finally reign supreme at the Oscar ceremony.

Generally, black-themed films are either ignored or shoved to the side as honorees in minor categories (Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, very rarely in other categories)but 12 Years a Slave entered the season strong, and will likely finish along those lines as well. It’s a film that recalls an ugly part of American history, but an important one–ever more so during times when the first black President leads our country, modern racial issues pervade our society, and when a societal surge for minority equality across all fronts should be represented and recognized in our art.

So, then, which social cause do you chose? Gender or race? Should it even be based on such factors?

Pundits on both sides of the Gravity/12 Years a Slave debate have essentially turned on each other, digging into their respective opponent because it doesn’t fit the awards narrative they desire. According to them, Gravity would undermine the doors that 12 Years a Slave would open for minority filmmakers, and to others 12 Years a Slave would only win because it’s the black movie that rides to victory on white guilt.

They seem to be forgetting one key fact: a film does not change once it wins Best Picture. It does not become any better or any worse. It merely becomes the permanent frontrunner, and this passionate discourse that’s tearing apart two camps representing two of the best films from a monumental cinematic year proves that once you’re first, you’re automatically dead.

Weighing which social narrative you’d like to triumph is poison. If 12 Years a Slave wins, then it makes it a hell of a lot easier for the Black New Wave to begin in full-force. If Gravity wins, it represents the first plot that’s female-driven to win Best Picture since 1997, and the first film driven solely by a female character to ever win.

The Gravity detractors nearly always fall back on the argument that it’s a film about a woman that’s been directed and written by men, and therefore crippled as a vehicle to advance the position of women in the industry. But, these people forget that we’re talking about a visual medium. When discussing any film, you must begin on the most fundamental level, and that’s what’s in front of us. On the basis of familiarity, general audiences often identify with a movie through its actors and what they’re able to see. That’s largely what makes Gravity so wondrous; its visual effects, and its charismatic lead (Sandra Bullock), who proved herself as a box-office pull in the age of fading individual bankability. She transcends the film’s visuals and becomes the one thing–aside from the visual effects–that people associate with the film. The only people arguing about Alfonso Cuaron vs. Steve McQueen are the film nerds who make a living off of fueling the debate.

Gravity’s plot is also a beautifully sustained metaphor throughout, and a Best Picture win for it would be a fitting cap on a year when a female-driven film topped the US box-office for the first time in 17 years (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire). Things are changing for women, but pundits would rather pick and choose their social narratives in the hopes that they actually might have a hand in shaping them.

Chiwetel EjioforOne of the most prominent Oscar pundits out there, Sasha Stone, recently downplayed Alfonso Cuaron’s position, implying that he would only be significant as a Mexican director in this year’s Oscar race if he directed something about the Mexican experience, which is absurd and reinforcing of the dominant majority. So, by that logic, the minority is only worth something when he’s talking about the “other” to the white man and playing into the white man’s tastes?

While I tend to agree with the generally fantastic pundits over at Awards Daily, their most recent podcast irked me. Ryan Adams, an Oscar blogger I’ve come to respect, states that white voters and critics were “with” 12 Years a Slave until something more “white” and acceptable came along that they could latch on to, and that a viable “white” option was validated by the New York Film Critics Circle (American Hustle) early enough in the race that white voters were able to default onto it because it is more acceptable to them as a predominantly-white voting base. That makes absolutely no sense. The love for 12 Years a Slave came from a predominantly white voice in the first place. The overwhelmingly white pool of film critics across the country made it the best-reviewed film of the year, and I’m not sure Academy voters think with the same sort of racial bias many pundits have been spouting about all year. I don’t think it’s a conscious decision to switch from a “black” movie to a “white” movie that easily.

It seems that the mere existence of 12 Years a Slave is victory in itself. In a year with black filmmakers taking huge strides into the industry as a whole (in addition to McQueen’s success, Lee Daniels directed a “black” film to over $150 million in world box-office, and Ryan Coogler generated significant critical acclaim and impressive box-office for Fruitvale Station), it would be a fitting Best Picture winner after three prominent black men helmed films that began this important dialogue about race in the industry.

While a Best Picture win for 12 Years a Slave would certainly validate the minority voice in a white-dominated industry, the long-term success of the Black New Wave movement has largely already been determined by audiences and their wallets. There’s often a vitriolic backlash against studios for their overarching control of societal norms–that they reenforce unfair standards of beauty for women by casting thin actresses, that they avoid “black” or “minority” subject matter, etc. While studios and executives shape what’s presented to the public, it’s audience preference that dictates where the money goes, and that dictates what the executives put out. If we don’t want to see it, we shouldn’t take ourselves to indulge in the fantasy of what is largely unattainable for so many.

It’s disappointing that most successful films star men, are directed by men, and are marketed to men, but moviegoers are capable of changing that. Perhaps the smartest thing moviegoers did this year was drive box-office sales for female-driven films like Gravity, Frozen, Identity Thief, The Heat, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

It’s undeniable: while the industry isn’t an equal place for women just yet, 2013 was a turning point, and Gravity‘s impending Best Picture win will represent it well.

The divisive bickering, valuing one great film over the other on the basis of a single award, however, is unfair, and puts us right back at the beginning with no end in sight: squabbling about injustices and forgetting to feed our empty stomachs when a full-course meal sits mere inches below on the table.