In short, it’s not that the Academy thinks white actors or directors are necessarily better than any other actors or directors, even on a subconscious level, but the vast majority of movies being eructed by the industry for their consideration, and those under the Academy’s consideration, are of a particularly narrow and often exclusionary sort. For example, one of the films vaunted by the critical community in the 2012 Oscar season, and so cast into the Academy’s field of vision, was the small independent hit Beasts of the Southern Wild. While it is remarkable, and in some ways heartening, that this feature got recognition of the kind that it did from the Academy and other awards groups – as part of an emerging pattern in recent years of small independent productions being nominated and featured fairly prominently, some of them genuinely great films (The Tree of Life, Black Swan, The Grand Budapest Hotel etc.) – one feels that one of the reasons it was so readily received was because of the frankly unsavoury view it takes of its black characters. While the director, Benh Zeitlin, clearly has real affection for both his actors and the characters they portray, the picture smells strongly of his condescension, relegating them to the part of charming, folksy, rural, ignorant, naive blacks; while a movie of real black urban experience – told, for a change, by a black director and writer – which deals with the lives of many black people in American cities in real circumstances, Creed, is nominated in only a single category, Best Supporting Actor for Sylvester Stallone’s performance. As Richard Brody suggests, the Academy affirms that what’s really worth acknowledging in such a film is the part that depicts a white man’s experience.
(Read The Back Row’s reviews of Joy and Spotlight.)
As it happens, my own personal selection (which can be read in my post on the movies of 2015) would have Trainwreck out in the front of the pack, snatching up the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, and fighting it out for Best Director (against Carol and Joy), Best Actress for Amy Schumer (against Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol and Jennifer Lawrence in Joy again, as well as Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades of Grey), and Best Supporting Actress for Tilda Swinton (with some show of competition from Tessa Thompson in Creed). I’ve not yet seen 45 Years, Room, or The Danish Girl, but I could easily countenance Johnson pushing Saoirse Ronan’s rendition of banal purity – and pure banality – in Brooklyn out of the race; as well as Swinton and Thompson’s stunning performances replacing the dull and restricted work of Rachel McAdams in Spotlight and Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs (of course, these artistic disappointments are hardly attributable to the actresses, who have delivered formidable work on other projects; as with nearly everything I blame the directors: John Crowley, Tom McCarthy, and Danny Boyle).