On Monday’s Martin Luther King holiday, one of the first Facebook messages I picked up was a link to a video featuring Jada Pinkett Smith, respectfully, elegantly and persuasively explaining why she was boycotting the Oscars this year. She insisted that we as people of color have to recognize our own power, and our own responsibility to make change, and that begging for the attention of others diminishes that power. Within a few minutes, my timeline blew up with responses to her announcement, and shortly thereafter, Spike Lee’s own articulate advocacy of a boycott appeared. Mr. Lee, recipient of an honorary Oscar last fall, noted that the battle is at the executive level — the Hollywood studios and TV and cable networks, where the gatekeepers decide what gets made and what gets jettisoned to “turnaround” or the scrapheap.
Now, I’m no stranger to complaining about the lack of diversity in Hollywood. In fact, last year I wrote an article that appeared here, addressing what I thought was a snub to Selma and other films, and postulating that the reason Selma was overlooked had something to do with the fact that perhaps too many of the people who green-light Hollywood films just don’t share the same vernacular with me or people like me.
Indeed, I was so fired up that I helped organize a protest action — a backwards march from Selma (Avenue) to Hollywood (Boulevard) on Oscar Sunday 2015. A committed but enthusiastic handful of us braved (a little) rain and made our statement last year in the hours before the Oscars telecast. We even made a few of the local newscasts that evening. But of course, we only saw those clips after we finished watching the red carpet and the whole Oscars telecast. You see, it’s one thing to protest the lack of diversity. But missing the Oscars? What’s a black gay man to do?
For me, the Oscars is the Super Bowl, the culmination of all those playoff matchups — SAG Awards, DGAs, Golden Globes. But there is only one Oscars. For a card-carrying gay man, interested in film, filmmaking, the arts, and all things Hollywood, to miss the Oscars is like taking a whole semester course but missing the exam, or watching a Tennessee Williams play and leaving before the third act. You just don’t do it. You might complain that the host wasn’t so funny this year or that the gowns lacked a certain panache. But how could you competently dish and criticize if you didn’t watch?
Well, this year, I’m thinking I might have to give up on the dishing.
One Facebook friend told me I was missing the point because I shouldn’t be boycotting the Oscars. "It’s just an awards show, it’s not the makers of the films that just happened not to include many people of color this year." I had to remind him that at least as of 2014, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences consisted of 94 percent white, 76 percent male members with a median age of 63 (we have no idea how many are LGBT). Those are the people who make the movies that become the Oscar nominees. So if those people aren’t committed to improving the diversity of representation in Hollywood films, then nobody is going to.
Then he suggested to me that the Oscars are all about quality and argued that if the powerful blacks in Hollywood, like Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, and Spike Lee, would just make more movies, that would solve this diversity problem. I pointed that if only black people were responsible for projecting (financing, green-lighting) “black” images, then it would be fair to assume that it would be all right for white people to just make films about white people. In the end, I had to yield to the notion that his commitment to being “right” would never allow him to see my point — that his “right” privilege could never leave room for my point of view, so he ended by saying he wished me luck and didn’t think the boycott would do anything anyway. I ended by saying, “We’ll see.”
In thinking about all of this, I was reminded that Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the head of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an African-American woman, is a vocal and fierce advocate for improving diversity in Hollywood. Both Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee acknowledged her and her efforts with respect, as well as the decision to have the program produced by African-American producer Reginald Hudlin, and hosted by Chris Rock, who will surely not be a shrinking violet on this issue.
But in the end, Boone Isaacs is a noble captain, and I applaud her efforts to make change where she can and to creatively develop initiatives that can improve the Academy’s record. Choosing Rock and Hudlin are two small examples of her agenda. But it takes more than a worthy captain to change the direction of an ocean liner like the Academy. I’m a product of “elite” academic and professional institutions. and I’m convinced that the vast majority of the individual members of those institutions are right-thinking and would like to see diversity improve. But it takes more than just right thinking to change course. It takes action. And it takes more than a few oarsmen, and navigators, and sailors to change the course of an institution. It takes them all, and all with the same will, to reach a new destination.
So, at least I’m going to put my oar in the water. I’m going to organize Backwards From Selma (Avenue) to Hollywood (Boulevard) Part II, and I’m going to have faith that it will help things go the right way. And when we’re done marching, I’m not going to find my way to a TV to watch the show. I’ll try to find some local theater or another arts outlet, or maybe screen a past Outfest Fusion film featuring LGBT people of color. After all, there’ll be pics to dish over on line the next day. I figure I’ve only got one oar. And if I don’t use mine, why should anyone else use theirs?