The Oscars, And What To Do About Them image

The Oscars, And What To Do About Them

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Last week I wrote a glowing review of Selma, a film that everyone was expecting to get a lot of awards attention. As it turned out, when the Oscar nominations came around, it got a sympathy vote for Best Picture and a nomination for Best Song but was ignored everywhere else. This omission means that for once, I'm going to pay the Oscars a bit more attention and even write about them.

Every film fan knows the awards are a little bit silly; hugely expensive marketing campaigns are launched just so films can win prizes, so the end result is less ‘Best Picture’ and more ‘Picture With The Most Effective Advertising.’ Plus, there is something inherently vapid about awards season, as the same people are carted from red carpet to red carpet where women are ogled and respected more for their dress choices than their talent. It’s a seemingly endless parade of backslapping, but for film fans it is also the time when everyone – not just sun-deprived screen gazers like me – is talking about films, so it’s still a fun event, ultimately celebrating cinema, even if it is frivolous. So every year the ceremony is enjoyed, but treated with a pinch of salt; we all know that the awards don’t mean much for a film’s legacy. Who still watches or talks about Argo?

Even having acknowledged this, however, the absence of David Oyelowo and Ava DuVernay from the nominations is absolutely crazy and, to be quite honest, it stinks. I don’t know enough about the inner workings of the Academy, the phrase ‘institutional racism’ or libel laws to properly write about this matter, but something seems distinctly amiss when Selma is largely ignored except for two nominations while praise is heaped on American Sniper, an admittedly complex film that nevertheless has the majority of its non-white characters filmed through the scope of a rifle. There were twenty acting nominations in total, and every single one of them is a white person, and all the director nominations were male – hardly a victory for diversity, even if there is no intent behind such homogeneity.

Now, films should not be praised simply because they have a good message or because they are important, and it would certainly be silly to demand awards because it shares a similar ideology. Yet the absence of Selma only serves to highlight the inescapable blandness of the nominations. The worst offender is The Imitation Game, a film that could be used as a dictionary example of mediocrity. Benedict Cumberbatch – an actor I admire, largely – serves the film well with a solid performance but is a bit sub-Sherlock, while the directing nomination for Morten Tyldum is astonishing, given the fact that I can’t remember a single interesting shot or directorial decision in the entire film. Elsewhere Meryl Streep gets nominated because she is Meryl Streep, American Sniper and The Theory of Everything both get inexplicable nominations for Best Screenplay and even some of the great, interesting films that have been nominated (such as the astonishing Whiplash, or Grand Budapest Hotel) will likely be drowned out by more conventional choices. The good news in all of this is that Boyhood still stand a reasonably good chance of winning some big awards, and anything that film wins it fully deserves.

My theory – and it’s hardly original or controversial - as to why Selma is largely ignored is that the film is a bit too real for many of the voters. A statistic bandied around is that the average Oscar voter is a 63-year-old white male, meaning that a lot of the voters will have been brought up being taught the things that Martin Luther King was trying to change, or watching the marches on television. It can’t be comfortable watching a film that for them isn’t a national history lesson but a personal one. There is, however, another deeper rooted problem, and that is not with the Oscars but with the film industry as a whole. The Academy is not a thermostat but a thermometer, simply presenting the state of the industry without, probably, affecting it much. It’s just a sad fact that Hollywood is still not a particularly diverse world, with white males still given the most opportunities within the current system. The onus, then, lies on anyone creative to tell more diverse stories, and to cast more diverse films.

In the end, though, Selma is still one of the best reviewed films of the year, has something important to say and does great job of saying it. It doesn’t need awards: just go and see it.

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