November 18, 2018

Why I don’t want to watch the (white) Oscars this year

In my family, the Academy Awards are an annual event celebrated with the kind of specific rituals more often associated with major cultural events: the days of predictions beforehand; the festive spread of Fritos, onion dip and enough nosherei to feed a small army; the red-carpet gossipfest; even the inevitable boredom — all are part of our family’s life cycle, as ingrained as the Fourth of July. Even as our children grow up and move out of town, we watch the Oscars in virtual togetherness, texting feverishly: “Can you believe what she’s wearing?” “Adele Dazeem?!”

But this year I won’t be breaking out the onion dip. I can’t. The almost-complete shutout of any artist of color in any category is too nauseating. To hoist a glass and laugh along with the jokes will feel like enjoying a party at a whites-only country club.  

There may be a million reasons why “Selma” was shut out almost entirely from awards, starting with the inaccurate representation of LBJ’s conversations with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “Selma” got nods only for best picture and best song, notably bypassing director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo; as a comparison, Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-theory movie, “JFK,” which took far more liberties with the truth, was nominated for eight Oscars, including best director, best supporting actor and best screenplay. Even this year, “The Imitation Game,” whose director was nominated, has been widely criticized for exaggerating Alan Turing’s role in cracking the Nazi codes; “Foxcatcher,” whose director was also nominated, bears so little resemblance to actual events that it is astonishing that the DuPont family has not sued for defamation.

But for me, it’s not only that the near-shutout of “Selma” feels particularly galling in the context of Ferguson, Eric Garner and marches in the street to remind America that #blacklivesmatter. It’s not only that DuVernay, however you may feel about her interpretation of LBJ, has made a powerful portrait of a movement whose work is still not finished, nor that Oyelowo has given a stunning portrayal of King, nor that Carmen Ejogo is luminous in her portrayal of Coretta Scott King.  

It’s that there are no other African-American nominees from any other movie at all. In a roster of dozens of nominees, there is only one single person of color — Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu — and he is not American, so, in fact, there is not a single American person of color.  

To contextualize this whitewash, remember that the Oscars are taking place in Los Angeles, a city whose population, according to the latest U.S. Census, is less than 50 percent white — 48.5 percent of people living here are Latino; 9.6 percent are African-American. More than 11 percent are Asian, and the rest are mixed race, American Indian or Pacific Islander. These minoritized groups, taken together, are, in fact, the majority of Angelenos. Am I crazy if I feel sick celebrating an industry that, despite being based in one of the most vibrantly multicultural cities in the world, almost exclusively tells stories by and about white people? Am I crazy when I bristle at the word “minority” when used to refer to a majority of our population?

We can dismiss all of this by saying that the Academy is made up a bunch of old, out-of-touch white men, but these awards are a pretty accurate reflection of the movies that Hollywood green-lights. The Writers Guild of America reports that 95 percent of screenwriting jobs in 2014 were taken by white people. According to a recent UCLA report, film directors of color make only 12.2 percent of movies, while actors of color play only 10.5 percent of leading roles. Of the 90 percent of movies with white leads, half of them featured a cast that was over 90 percent white.  

This gross underrepresentation speaks to the entrenchment of Hollywood’s white bubble, but the problem goes far deeper; it goes to lack of access in the entertainment business to internships and job opportunities, which in turn goes to the lack of educational equality for children of color, who are far more likely than white children to grow up in poverty. Latino-American children are twice as likely to grow up in poverty than whites. African-American children are three times as likely to grow up in poverty. In turn, children growing up in high-poverty communities are being educated in a system that has been decimated by slashes in funding that have eliminated arts education and even libraries from low-income neighborhoods.  

When I taught in a high school in South Central Los Angeles, I was stunned to find that many of my students could not sing a single note on key. Why? They’d never had a music class. Ever. High schools are required to offer students one arts class during their entire four years; many offer only that, and some offer none at all, despite the requirement. In a city with so much talent, where the entertainment business is the fifth-largest income producer, why have no companies reached out to low-income communities to offer any arts education for children?  Where is the bridge between the glitter of the red carpet and the hundreds of thousands of children living in poverty only a few miles away?  

So, forgive me if I skip the party in front of the TV this year. I can’t have fun celebrating an industry that, so many years after the civil-rights heroes were beaten down in the streets in their quest for justice, remains starkly segregated. I can hope, as King said, that the arc of our moral universe bends toward justice. And I will shut my eyes and try as hard as I can to believe it. 

Ellie Herman is a writer, teacher and life coach.