White Hollywood is having a meltdown. Oscar-winner Helen Mirren became just the latest celebrity to speak out against #OscarsSoWhite, calling criticism of the Academy Awards “unfair.” If you been living under a rock, the Oscars generated a firestorm of controversy by electing its second all-white crop of acting nominees for the second year in a row. (Before 2014, the last such occurrence was 1998.) According to Mirren, this year’s Oscar shortlist “just so happened to be that way.” It was just a coincidence!
If there’s a reason that Idris Elba—who earned recognition at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild awards this year for TV and film performances—didn’t make the Academy Award list for his turn in “Beasts of No Nation,” Mirren suggests, it’s because the movie’s tough subject matter turned voters off. “Idris Elba absolutely would have been nominated for an Oscar,” Mirren said. “He wasn’t because not enough people saw, or wanted to see, a film about child soldiers.”
This is despite the fact that Brie Larson is currently the Best Actress frontrunner for “Room,” a movie in which a young mother and her son are kidnapped and forced to live in a 10x10 garden shed for six years, while the woman is repeatedly raped by her captor.
Well before Mirren whitesplained Elba’s Oscar snub, current Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years”) said she also felt the backlash was unfair—to Caucasians. The 69-year-old British actress, who later apologized for the remarks, argued that the discussion was “racist to whites.” Rampling continued, “One can never really know, but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final list.” Fellow Brit Michael Caine, meanwhile, advocated that actors of color “be patient” and wait for their turn. “Of course it will come,” he said. “It took me years to get an Oscar.”
But a recent article for the Hollywood Reporter showed that actors like Mirren, Rampling, and Caine are far from alone in the industry. In a piece titled “Oscars: The Plight of the White Nominee,” THR’s Stephen Galloway writes that Oscar voters are privately frustrated by the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, as well as Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs’ decision to expand membership among people of color and women. Currently, Oscar voters are 94 percent white and 76 percent male, but Boone has promised to double those numbers by 2020.
“I'm no longer proud to be a member of this organization,” one Academy member told Galloway, while another claimed that Boone’s pledge amounted to “a momentary appeasement of the mob.” Another claimed that she was ready to sue the American Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for age discrimination—arguing that the group’s recent decision to limit membership (and thus, voting rights) to only those that have worked in the past decade amounts to “ageism.”
Galloway suggests that these voters might be afraid to speak up to avoid generating the same outrage as Mirren’s comments received, while this year’s acting nominees walk on eggshells, afraid to address the issue at all. “Potential winners planning your speeches, watch out: You face a yellow brick road littered with IEDs,” he writes.
But why do the campaign’s critics feel the need to address the controversy in the first place? There’s an old saying, one that nearly all five-year-olds are familiar with: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
I don’t advocate that folks like Helen Mirren “be nice”—in fact, her unbridled honesty about being an actress over 40 in Hollywood is what makes her such a refreshing personality—but instead that they ask whether comments they might want to make are useful to the conversation. Why does it feel necessary to them to dismiss the criticisms of black artists like Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and Spike Lee, who have pledged to boycott this year’s Oscars? Why are white tears more important than black people’s lived experiences?
These are artists who have worked in the industry for decades and know first-hand how tough it is for people of color, and Pinkett-Smith has been particularly eloquent in her critique of the Academy. “Begging for acknowledgement or even asking [to be nominated] diminishes dignity,” she said in a video posted to her Facebook account. “It diminishes power and we are a dignified people and we are powerful. And let's not forget it.”
But Spike Lee knows better than anyone that the Oscars are a rigged game. In 1989, Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” became the most controversial, talked-about movie of the year—and also the most critically-acclaimed. It was one of the few times that the famously dueling film critics Siskel and Ebert, who disagreed on just about everything, picked the same film as their best of the year. Twelve years after it debuted in theaters, Ebert would write: “I have been given only a few filmgoing experiences in my life to equal the first time I saw ‘Do the Right Thing.’ Most movies remain up there on the screen. Only a few penetrate your soul.”
Spike Lee’s groundbreaking film about American race relations, however, was not in contention for best picture that year — Lee was nominated for the screenplay, and Danny Aiello (not Lee himself, or any of the non-white principal performers) was nominated for best supporting actor. What won best picture that year? Bruce Beresford’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” a movie in which a “magical black man” teaches an old white woman lessons about racism. Lee has yet to ever be nominated for Best Director, despite a diverse array of acclaimed films that include “She’s Gotta Have It,” “Inside Man,” “Jungle Fever,” and “Malcolm X.” (Lee went on to collect an honorary Oscar for 2015.)
This is a history that #OscarsSoWhite critics and the anonymous voters Galloway spoke to could learn from, in order to avoid continuing this legacy of marginalizing black artists. In his piece, Stephen Galloway advises actors on how to handle #OscarsSoWhite to avoid controversy—telling them to “stay silent.”
That’s not a bad suggestion for those inclined to insert their foot in their mouth—it’s certainly better than dismissing the very real concerns of people of color—but I’d like to see more actors and Academy voters do the real work of giving others a platform, one they’ve been fighting for decades to stand on. I’d like to see more folks like Helen Mirren and Michael Caine defer to their Black, Asian, Latino and Indigenous peers on the subject of race—those who are the authorities what it means to be excluded.
If you don’t have anything nice to say, pass the microphone to Spike Lee or Jada Pinkett-Smith instead.