Monday, April 23, 2018
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Persall: Increasingly irrelevant Oscars leave us asking — so what?

Sunday night in Hollywood, the 88th annual Academy Awards honor the art and craft of cinema.

It's becoming easier for many moviegoers to ask: Who cares?

Indifference can be a matter of race, gender, sexuality or taste, take your pick. Each faction has reason to wonder why the opinions of such a culturally narrow organization matter.

Two consecutive years of all-white acting nominees may have millions of viewers of color tuning out after hearing Oscar host Chris Rock roast his own show.

#OscarsSoWhite only dents the surface of social dissatisfaction with the Academy Awards. At times #OscarsSoMale, #OscarsSoStraight and #OscarsSoOld also trended on Twitter. Not to mention social media sniping about blockbusters like Star Wars: The Force Awakens being snubbed for major prizes.

These aren't new complaints, but hashtags haven't been around that long.

For years, many everyday people generally haven't seen their faces, heard their words or vicariously lived through movies the Oscars reward.

An oft-quoted 2014 Los Angeles Times survey and the academy's voting record offer a reason why:

Academy voters then were 94 percent white and 76 percent male, with an average age of 63. Membership additions since then may have knocked down those numbers a tick or two.

Still, it's small wonder that Straight Outta Compton didn't get more love this year, or Selma last, or Spike Lee in forever. Or numerous critically acclaimed films through the years with women, LGBT themes and nonwhite culture at their cores.

In the past, the academy has proved itself capable of boldly diverse choices, usually not followed up soon enough to suggest true commitment.

Breaking the color barrier with Butterfly McQueen in 1940 would impress more if Sidney Poitier hadn't waited 24 years to become the next black Oscar-winning actor. Two more decades passed before Louis Gossett Jr. became the third.

After decades of easy listening winners, Isaac Hayes' Theme From Shaft was 1972's best song, striking a blow for urban rhythm not repeated until Eminem's Lose Yourself 30 years later. Last year's win by John Legend's and Common's neo-spiritual Glory restarts the clock on cultural relevance.

Making Lina Wertmuller (Seven Beauties) the first woman nominated for best director was an overdue milestone in 1976. Since then only three women were nominees, with Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) winning six years ago. No woman has been a finalist in the category since.

When it comes to LGBT culture on screen, the academy shows more regard for actors playing gay — 10 Oscar winners, all straight — than movies in which they appear. Among best picture winners, only Midnight Cowboy (1969) and American Beauty 30 years later contain notable gay subtext.

Other cultural challenges to the academy's status quo are emerging. Latinos are the fastest growing box office force in America, buying nearly one-quarter of all tickets sold. That demographic and China's multiplex boom lead studios to tailor casts, stories and locations to those audiences.

International directors Ang Lee, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro G. Iñárritu have won Oscars in consecutive years — Iñárritu may repeat Sunday night for The Revenant — yet Spanish-speaking audiences and Asian-Americans seldom see their culture portrayed in Oscar-worthy movies or performances.

Economist.com recently ran the numbers on Oscar's diversity, concluding that the academy hasn't "dramatically under-represented black actors," comparing percentages of population (12.6 percent) and nominations since 2000 (10 percent).

"Instead," the Economist's Prospero blog continued, "they have greatly over-represented white ones" at the expense of Hispanic and Asian performers.

Yet there are exceptions that academy defenders fall back upon. No sooner did anyone protest about #OscarsSoWhite than others reminded of 12 Years a Slave being named best picture the previous year.

Those defenders ignore that 12 Years a Slave was an unsettling first, establishing black culture as most likely to win Oscar's highest honor for its bleakest chapter. This year's firestorm snub of the hip-hop liberation epic Straight Outta Compton, and previous omissions like Do the Right Thing and Boyz n the Hood seem to confirm that.

For the record, the Oscars have been whiter in the post-civil rights era. Between 1975 and 1980 every acting nomination went to white performers. Another three-year streak would've happened from 1995 to 1997, except for British supporting actress nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets & Lies).

This year's outrage appears to be gaining traction. Soon after January's nominations sparked boycott threats, academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced a weeding out of older voters and the addition of three new Board of Governors seats, diversely filled. Cosmetics for now, but a start.

Overhauling a flawed preferential balloting system in place since 2010 is a necessity. Expanding the number of nominations to 10 in all major categories would allow wider cultural representation. Adding audience-friendly categories like best stunts and favorite film is a possibility, but only if the technical awards get their own show.

It may already be too late. The Academy Awards are already past the tipping point of noninterest for many moviegoers. A few more homogenized years like this one and another Twitter hashtag may be in order:

#OscarsSoWhat?

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

     
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