In a recent story about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Washington Post reporter Drew Harwell raises an issue that has gone mostly unremarked in the ongoing controversy regarding the Oscars and diversity.
Quoting the director Rod Lurie, who first recounted the story in the Hollywood Reporter, Harwell describes Lurie visiting a Los Angeles coffee shop and bumping into a group of fellow Academy members, who perfectly reflected the white, male and older demographics of the Academy.
“All men, all 70 or older, all white,” Lurie said, describing the Oscar voters he encountered. “Each but one said they didn’t even bother watching F. Gary Gray’s terrific ‘Straight Outta Compton.’ The one who had seen it dismissed it with a wave of the hand. ‘Too loud for me,’ he said in full-on Larry David mode. ‘I didn’t make it all the way through.’ ”
Lurie’s story gets to an uncomfortable truth about the 6,200-member Academy, which is that, as a microcosm of a disproportionately white and male industry, its members not only fail to hire and promote filmmakers who don’t fit their own description, they literally don’t see them — or, more crucially, their work.
In other words, the film industry elites who compose the Academy aren’t just filmmakers, they’re filmgoers, subject to the same biases, blind spots and emotional baggage as the rest of us.
For most of the past century, African Americans could be counted on to patronize movies by, about and featuring white people, because there were few, if any, alternatives. What makes a dominant culture dominant, after all, is that even those who don’t belong to it are forced to adopt and internalize it as their own. The flip side is that white people haven’t been nearly as willing to see movies by, about and featuring mostly black people. In 2011, University of Indiana telecommunications researcher Andrew Weaver conducted a study that found that white audiences prefer to watch films with white people in them, and when black people are cast in the lead roles, those movies are viewed as “black films” aimed at African American audiences and not “for them.” By contrast, a study undertaken the same year by BET Network found that 80 percent of the films African Americans attend do not feature predominantly black casts.
Like the sample in Weaver’s study, that Academy voter immediately and instinctively perceived that “Straight Outta Compton” — about the formation of the 1990s rap group N.W.A. — wasn’t “for him.” Just as, one could argue, white romantic comedy fans overlooked “The Best Man” and white costume drama fans overlooked “Belle” and white melodrama fans overlooked “Beyond the Lights” — missing out on delectable examples of those genres simply because they didn’t see themselves up on screen.
To which generations of non-white filmgoers might understandably respond: Welcome to our life.
When writer-director Ava DuVernay visited Washington a few years ago with her drama “Middle of Nowhere,” she remarked that even white indie-film audiences — who otherwise pride themselves on their cosmopolitanism and intersectional sophistication — don’t turn out for movies by and about people of color.
“I loved ‘A Separation,’” DuVernay said of the Iranian film that had just won an Oscar. “Did they make it for me? No. So why can’t others love our cinema?”
The fact is that the kind of crossover filmgoing that African Americans have had to engage in for practically a century represents a existential bridge too far for white filmgoers who are accustomed to being the cultural standard (and who have the luxury of tuning out on the rare occasion when they’re not). At the Oscars, this assumption has taken a subtle form of condescension in the name of “diversity” that perpetuates black protagonists as the often subservient “other” and not the norm. With a few very welcome exceptions, when the Academy has recognized an African American film or performance, it’s been for a project that was explicitly about racism and race relations and usually a historical period piece, rather than a present-day thriller, love story or drama that happened to feature mostly black people.
The Academy is far more likely to honor the fantastical exoticism of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” or the patronizing uplift of “The Help,” in other words, than the contemporary realism of “Fruitvale Station” or “Pariah.”
Is this why “Creed” — a classic come-from-behind boxing story of perseverance and eventual victory — only garnered one nomination, for the supporting performance of a white actor? Is this why “Straight Outta Compton” — another quintessential tale of struggle and triumph set against an exhilarating musical backdrop — similarly received only one nod (to the white screenwriters)? Were “Creed” and “Compton” simply too black to be seen as universal — or too universal to be reflexively pigeonholed as “black”?
Maybe for the Academy, but not for audiences: According to ComScore’s audience polling service PostTrak, “Straight Outta Compton” demonstrated huge crossover appeal with white and Hispanic viewers, deriving 43 percent of its audience from those groups (African Americans accounted for 48 percent). The audience for “Creed” was similarly ethnically balanced.
Part of the public’s frustration with the Academy’s nominations this year is that its choices feel so painfully out of step with its audience: Evidence indicates that younger viewers aren’t nearly as hung up on seeing movies through an ethnic lens as their elders. Witness the soaring success of the “Fast and Furious” franchise, whose organic, unforced multiculturalism has resulted in a global phenomenon with an audience that’s co-equal parts Caucasian, African American, Hispanic and Asian.
Lurie’s 70-something Oscar voter embodies a state of mind — about race, identification, imagination and vicarious pleasure — that is being outrun by a profound generational change, defined by Beyoncé at the Super Bowl, “Black-ish” on TV and John Boyega in “Star Wars.” As the Academy seeks to make its membership more inclusive, it may find that age, rather than race or gender, is far more determinative in how open voters will be to to movies that cross the lines of ethnicity, language and genre.
Just as culturally fluent filmmakers know that blinkered homogeneity is commercial and artistic death, culturally literate viewers don’t need to see someone who looks exactly like them on screen in order to relate, escape, identify or simply be entertained. Filmgoers who see crossing over as a bridge too far aren’t just depriving themselves of the riches to be discovered on the other side. They risk being left behind when the entire structure comes crashing down.