Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Exploring the #OscarsSoWhite Controversy By Looking at Four Black Films

Creed was one of the best movies of 2015, but barely got any
notice at the Oscars.
Earlier this year when absolutely no people of color were nominated for acting Oscars for the second year in a row, there was a justifiable backlash that was succinctly described by #OscarsSoWhite.

As with any racially charged issue about unequal treatment, there were a fair share of white people who blanched at this movement. And it wasn't just racist white people, but good-hearted and kind white people who simply seemed unwilling to acknowledge systemic racism because it's uncomfortable for them. Did you ever think, these people argued, that maybe there's no story here? That maybe the nominated actors just happened to give the best performances?

My answer to that would be a resounding no. And I don't even need to bring people of color into the argument to prove my point. Ready? Here goes. There is absolutely no way in hell that the 40 acting performances the Academy nominated over the last two years were even the best 40 performances given exclusively by white people. The people who get nominated for these awards are almost never the best, and that holds water beyond the acting categories. So can we please just take that argument off the table?

The reality is that people of color don't get as many opportunities, partly because stories featuring diversity are not being funded as much and partly because ethnic artists aren't being considered for choice gigs that should be race neutral. That's what makes the casting choices of Star Wars: The Force Awakens so damn awesome.

Somehow, this whole thing became a black and white issue that left other minorities out in the cold. And that's unfortunate, because the issue is even more dire for them. At least black films get distribution and black actors are occasionally cherry picked for choice roles. Most people with a clue about current pop culture can probably name at least two dozen black actors off the top of their head. But what about Hispanic, Indian or Asian actors? Hard to imagine most people could list 15 combined.

Of course, that actually makes it easier to focus on the black community in this argument, because they do actually get some opportunities, meaning we are able to see how much they are getting screwed when they don't net nominations. In thinking about all of this, I bounced over the to the wiki page of the Black Reel Awards and realized I've seen most of this year's feature-length award winners with the exception of Spike Lee's Chi-Raq and the French film Girlhood.

Straight Outta Compton is a standard biopic with a topical hook.
Readers of this blog already know how much I loved Creed. It was the big winner at the Black Reel Awards, and it deserved Oscar nominations for director, actor and screenplay at the very least, not to mention other categories where black artists weren't the ones getting hosed like Best Picture and Cinematography. It's not the first great movie to be mostly ignored by the Academy -- hell, 2015's best film, Ex Machina, was worthy in multiple categories and only got one nomination as well. Then again, Creed wasn't the only black movie on the Oscar radar. The two most successful black movies of the year were Creed and Straight Outta Compton. Each received exactly one nomination (supporting actor and best original screenplay, respectively), and somehow both of these nominations honored white people. What the hell is that about? Doesn't it seem strange?

Generally speaking, having an opinion on any of this is all just theoretical unless you've seen the movies. Well I have seen some of them, and since I'm trying to get combo reviews out here during my break from school, I thought I'd offer thoughts of some of the films that won awards at the Black Reel Awards but failed to gain traction with the Academy.

A lot of what I've been talking about here focuses around #OscarsSoWhite, but really the problem with the Oscars goes beyond that to include #OscarsSoVanilla. There's a certain type of movie that caters to the Academy, and this "Oscar bait" is typically a period piece or some other serious drama. Biographies, tragedies and war films historically do very well, as do films focused on disabilities. Comedies, especially those without dramatic weight, have little chance. Science fiction and especially horror face even longer odds. Better to be middle of the road than refreshingly off center or anything that isn't dramatic.

Because of all of this, I would've expected Straight Outta Compton, which revolves around the rise and fall of rap group N.W.A., to have a better chance to grab a Best Picture nomination. When black films hit all these quotas, they tend to do well, particularly when they have proper financial backing and powerful producers along the lines of Brad Pitt (12 Years A Slave) or Oprah Winfrey (Precious). Straight Outta Compton is a solid boilerplate biography with tragic elements, one that was received very warmly and had a lot of money and star power (Ice Cube and Dr. Dre) behind it. It's also an extremely topical film given the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the fact that N.W.A.'s biggest and most controversial hit was F**k the Police, an anthem they continued to play at arenas around the country despite pressure from government authorities.

Ultimately, Straight Outta Compton probably just missed being good enough to make the Best Picture cut, something it might have done with a little more narrative meat to chew on. That's really the problem here. The film is never boring and the cast is uniformly strong as one would expect from it's best ensemble award from the Black Reel Awards and it's nomination in the same category by the Screen Actor's Guild.

However, it's all surface level stuff. As Easy E, Jason Mitchell navigates the only real arc of the film well, and O'Shea Jackson is particularly magnetic playing his father Ice Cube (kid's a dead ringer and really delivers in his musical performances), but the script never provides them enough material to get them into any sort of serious awards discussion. That may have to do with the real-life events not lending themselves to the same level of pathos found in something like Ray or Walk the Line, or it could be because the presence of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre as producers limits how close to the bone the film gets.
Dope is one of the most fun films of 2015.
As I alluded to above, Straight Outta Compton did land a nomination this year for best original screenplay, an odd choice given how stock ordinary this one seems. It's not a bad script by any means, it's just hard to believe it's deserving of a nomination. Like the movie itself, the script is adequate bordering on good. I'd argue Rick Famuyiwa's script for Dope would've been a far more deserving option.

A longtime director and writer of black focused cinema like The Wood, Brown Sugar, and Talk to Me, Famuyiwa hit one out of the park with Dope. It's a quirky coming-of-age crowd pleaser, sort of a mix between Risky Business and Boys n the Hood. On it's face, that doesn't sound like the kind of movie Oscar voters generally gravitate toward, even if you take race out of the picture. Then again, the script for Boys n the Hood landed a nomination, and the coming of age dramedy Juno took the top prize in this category as recently as 2007, so it wouldn't have been unprecedented if recognition had gone toward this vibrant, witty and well-observed script.

Dope is chiefly concerned with identity, particularly what it means to be a young and black in a post-racial world. It revolves around Malcolm (Shameik Moore), an outcast in Inglewood due to his affection for 90's fashion and music, dedication to making good grades, and other geek proclivities. Like Joel in Risky Business, Malcolm is a prospective ivy league student who gets pulled into a seedy and illegal business opportunity (drugs instead of prostitution) only to come out the other side wiser, better off and equipped with a romantic interest.

It's an immense boon for the film that this is every bit the star making film for Moore that Risky Business was for Tom Cruise. The kid is funny, vulnerable and magnetic -- the real deal. Unfortunately, it is extremely rare for young upstarts of any color to get traction in the best actor category, especially for a movie like this, so he had no chance. If Michael B. Jordan didn't get in, Moore had no prayer.

Also like Risky Business, Dope offers an irreverent yet insightful examination of the constricting weight of preconceptions and expectations. It's all very craftily done, with stylized editing and assured directing aiding Famuyiwa's fantastic script. My favorite part about the film is that it's not just Malcolm who proves more than what you'd expect on first glance. For instance, A$AP Rocky is both charming and terrifying as Dom, an articulate and quick-witted drug dealer who is bemused by Malcolm, probably because he reminds him of himself before outside influences and bad decisions led him too far down the wrong path.

Meanwhile, Kiersey Clemons busts stereotypes as Diggy, a lesbian tomboy who is adorable, loyal and confident, but still a nerd in transition, an outcast that will have no problems flourishing and getting girls when she comes into her own in college. In that way, she fits in perfectly with fellow outsiders Malcolm and Jib (Tony Revolori, great in a role that's quite a bit different than his turn as Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel), her partners in BMX biking and all things '90s, not to mention fellow band mates in a punk band called Aweeroh (pronounced "Oreo"). These three are entirely believable as friends in a way many other teen comedy leads are not. Their also atypical representations of urban youth, and that's pretty damn dope. The movie is too, even if it was always slated to be an improbable Oscar nominee.

Tangerine puts two real-life trans women front and center.
If Dope would've been an improbable nominee, the uncompromising Tangerine would've been an impossible one. That would've been the case even if the story starred white actors, because there is simply no way in hell that a movie shot on iPhones and focused on the sub culture of trans sex workers on the streets of LA would get that level of recognition. Like I said, #OscarsSoVanilla.

Starring transgender actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, Tangerine concerns a day-in-the-life of Sin-Dee Rella (Rodriguez), a trans sex worker who, upon being released from a four week prison sentence on Christmas Eve discovers that her pimp and boyfriend Chester (James Ransone from The Wire) has been cheating on her with a biological woman. With a flair for the dramatic, Sin-Dee goes off on a rampage to find Chester and set her rival straight.

Alexendra (Taylor), Sin-Dee's friend and fellow sex worker, reluctantly tags along when she's not handing out flyers for her musical performance later that evening or servicing clients like Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian cab driver with a wife and daughter at home. It's basically an episodic buddy adventure, one that is often funny and occasionally poignant but always fascinating.

Credit to director Sean Baker for getting such empathetic and powerful performances from Taylor and Rodriguez, two novices with real-life experience in this world, one most people are unaware of but that many in the transgender community are forced into due to hate, discrimination and a general lack of options. The shooting style was necessitated due to lack of funding, but it's inspired all the same, as it lends a vital intimacy to the proceedings. Best of all, Tangerine has a dynamite denouement that concludes a disappointing and embarrassing day, one in what is assuredly a long line of days characterized by struggle and hardship, with a moving gesture of graceful friendship and quiet empowerment.
Idris Elba got robbed of a nomination. Was the snub race or
distribution platform based?
Up until this point, I've mostly highlighted avenues where the Academy could've gone with black artists but where they didn't make a glaring omission by neglecting to. However, that all changes when you consider Beasts of No Nation, the first of the films highlighted here not to be set in Los Angeles. Written, shot and directed by Cary Joji Fukanaga (True Detective season one), Beasts of No Nation tells the story of Agu (a phenomenal Abraham Attah), a young boy in Africa who is recruited into life as a ruthless soldier by a rebel Commandant (Idris Elba) after his family is killed during a dehumanizing and horrific civil war.

Throughout the film, Agu undergoes traumatic hardships and does some terrible things only to come out of the conflict wondering if he is now just a beast and looking to resume some semblance of childhood. Beautifully lensed and thematically reminiscent of the likes of Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and maybe even City of God, Beasts of No Nation is a visceral, sobering, disturbing, and yet ultimately hopeful examination of war and lost innocence.

This is exactly the type of film you'd expect to do well at the Oscars, possibly in the best picture, directing, writing, and cinematography categories, and certainly in the acting categories. Nominations for Fukanaga would've meant recognition for a Japanese artist, and then there are the superlative performances from the black Attah and Elba. Attah never had a chance -- as I wrote earlier, young actors have a very difficult time in the Best Actor category -- but it's extremely hard to fathom how a beloved and respected actor like Elba did not get recognized for such searing, revealing and transformative work. It's particularly hard to figure out how Christian Bale edged him out. Bale is great fun in The Big Short, but Elba does something far trickier, offering a restrained and humanizing portrayal of a monster.

I'm inclined to believe the film and Elba in particular didn't garner nominations because the Academy refused to embrace a Netflix production out of some sort of high-minded fear of new distribution platforms. At the same time, it's totally fair to wonder if Elba's being black had something to do with it. Recent history leaves cause for doubting the Academy. Michael Keaton in Birdman aside, David Oyelowo's work in Selma was more impressive than all of the Best Actor nominees last year and he still didn't get a nomination. This is true even though he had a role and film that screamed Oscar bait.

For what it's worth, the prize didn't even go to Keaton. Instead, it went to Eddie Redmayne for a totally fine turn in The Theory of Everything, a lesser film and performance in every respect, save perhaps it's Oscar bait-iness. #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoVanilla indeed.

Straight Outta Compton B-, Dope A-, Tangerine B+, Beasts of No Nation B+