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Overcorrecting the Oscars

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

A slippery slope? At first glance, the new Oscars guidelines are either tokenistic pandering or outright censorial. But is it really that clear-cut?

In the last few weeks, as Disney’s Mulan producers were steadily ratcheting up their woke-points with the genocidal cadres and adept location scouts of Xinjiang’s Uyghur-imprisoning ‘publicity department,’ the Academy Awards were unveiling their latest fail-proof solution for the prevailing issue of under-representation within the film industry. All in all, it was a good time to be a crotchety movie exec.

Amidst all this back-scratching and self-congratulation came a welcome admission from academy president David Rubin and PR head Cheryl Boone Isaacs: just how on earth was this covid-riddled machine supposed to tackle the age-old problem of bias and discrimination in a meaningful way? As always, the shrill conservative commentators were decrying diversity at every turn, whilst the academy’s response was, of course, just as nuanced and considered: quotas. Problem solved… right?

Historically speaking, there are certain stories, experiences and narratives have been unfairly excluded from the cinematic zeitgeist. That’s obviously indisputable. Hollywood is only recently becoming consciously aware of its own cancers, diagnosing them as real, conceding that its output has been profoundly lopsided, both in front of and behind the camera. In 2015, the validity that was afforded the #OscarsSoWhite campaign was seemingly vindicated when only two nominees that year were from ethnic minorities. This wasn’t just odd to witness; it was palpably absurd to many who felt that the Oscars were purposefully shunning these groups in the favour of those from ‘normative’ backgrounds. The newly announced criterion for post-2024 best picture winners aims to address this problem, and, rather expectedly, it's proved divisive with audiences and critics alike – the predictable monotony of politics muddying the waters for pundits and punters on both sides of the aisle. For the left, the academy hasn’t gone far enough, and for the right, this evil institution is engaged in a malicious, Orwellian spectacle of top-down suppression and censorship. Hmm.

Of course, these purportedly ‘new’ changes aren’t as radical as someone like Ben Shapiro might have you believe. The Washington Post recently found that if these new guidelines were applied to the best picture winners of the last fifteen years, 73% would pass the litmus test without having to revise their approach in any way. For the remaining 27%, minor alterations were all that stood between the film and that all-important academy approval. In light of these facts, is this cynical publicity stunt even worth discussing if it basically just maintains the status quo? Perhaps not. But some of the concepts and ideas being peddled here are, in principle, deeply defective. The argument that we ‘need not worry’ whilst only two of these four rules remain compulsory is a disingenuous attempt to safeguard against any reasonable criticism or debate. After all, these self-proclaimed gate-keepers of cultural morality are the same people who kept Harvey Weinstein fondling golden statues as he was raping, groping and snorting his way through poor, unsuspecting starlets for almost three decades. In other words, it pays to be a little cynical round these parts.

These new ‘best picture’ guidelines (though a little puzzling) are outlined as follows, requiring that at least two of the following stipulations be met:

A. The film's narrative focus/leading players must include those from ‘underrepresented’ groups – i.e. ethnic minorities, women, the disabled and those from the LGBTQ community

B. Crew members working behind the camera must also adhere to these quotas

C. The production must employ paid interns from these particular groups

D. A film’s marketing/release team must have ‘multiple in-house executives’ from this selected collection of identities

The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative recently tweeted that these rules ‘will not make a difference.’ A sum of its parts, this system is, in its current form, vapid and empty. It goes without saying that condition C, or the employment of under-privileged interns by multi-national media corporations, isn’t exactly a challenging proviso. Neither is provision B – the requirement that a handful of crew members be from these particular groups. However, when scrutinising these conditions as principles of thought as opposed to measurable certainties, we run into some problems. Put simply, a toxic problem has consequently produced an equally toxic solution.

Without doubt, the most concerning facet of this new system lies within its first rule. Mandating that art abide by a particular set of principles is, without question, repressive. Exclusionary practices are ultimately dictating what qualifies as ‘the best,’ ironically perpetuating exactly the same issue that Hollywood has been guilty of for decades (a more reasonable proposition might be to ensure that the academy’s membership is not arbitrarily slanted in favour of old, white men.... You know, so that the range of the nominees doesn’t begin and end with Leo, Marty and Meryl). Though not currently a practical concern, this slippery slope of adhering to just two of these aforementioned criteria is not a fixed strategy, and could easily be modified to incorporate all four rules in the near future. A speculative argument, for sure. With this being said, the mere prospect of best picture nominees having to rigidly observe any quota-based directives should be concerning to anybody who claims to care about freedom of expression.

But then again, why should it matter? Diversity has evidently been lacking within the industry for decades, so what’s the harm in endeavouring to balance those scales? A perfectly reasonable thesis to subscribe to – after all, who wants to go the cinema and be bombarded with the same old droning, repetitious stories from the same old writers, producers, directors and actors? Oh… yeah. There’s a new Batman film out soon, right?

Well, consider this.

Some stories may not adhere to these new academy guidelines simply on the basis of historicity or narrative context. Does that make them any less valid? Take a film like Braveheart, or last year’s 1917. Here are two pictures that don’t include ‘underrepresented’ groups, and for obvious reasons. Are they stories not worth telling? How about if we apply this same logic to something like Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’s superb exploration of what it means to black and gay in the ghettoised suburbs of Miami – is this a film that requires more equal, proportionate representation? Realistically, isn't it about time we do away with these stupid, sweeping generalisations? Instead of all this hysteria, shouldn't we strive to assess movies as unique, singular entities, each with their own unique merits, pitfalls and implications?

Rather than adopting a rational solution, the academy have chosen to overcorrect these issues with tokenism, and most notably, exclusionary practices. Though well-intentioned, this sense of overcompensation is at the heart of a bungled, ill-advised campaign. The notion that every uneven distribution can be effortlessly explained away as bigoted and prejudiced is a dangerous generalisation that needs to be questioned. Of course, without diversity, the Oscars would be dull and drab. No film fan wants that. Compulsory enforcement, however, is a poisonous practice. It only serves to propagate segregation over what should really count – the quality and excellence of a film, regardless of the identities of the persons involved.

The need for a meritocracy prevails.

A full list of the new Academy guidelines can be found here

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