When The Big Short won the Producers Guild Award last weekend it was both expected and a surprise. The film has performed extraordinarily well with the guilds and received BAFTA nominations for Best Film and Best Director, putting it right in the top 3 of the current crop of Oscar hopefuls. Spotlight had just won the Critics Choice (with Mad Max: Fury Road’s George Miller picking up Best Director) and The Revenant won big at the Golden Globes (Picture and Director). But it’s really the PGA that matters. After the critics and HFPA have spoken, it’s the first industry award that sets the pace for what’s to come. Sometimes it’s the film we know that’s pre-ordained or the industry decides to take a left turn and follows a different path.
Surprise PGA winners like The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech and last year’s Birdman is where the tide turned before moving onto victory at the Academy Awards. The PGA winners in those years beat out either the clear critical favorite (The Social Network and Boyhood) or what was, at the time, the highest grossing movie in history (Avatar). This year, Spotlight and Mad Max: Fury Road are the critical favorites and they were beat out by the lowest scoring film (via Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes) since Crash.
That said, The Big Short is a very well-reviewed film. Curiously though, it did not receive a single Best Picture win from any of the 40+ groups, critics or otherwise, leading up to the PGA. Does it have to? No, but it’s unprecedented in the history of the PGA awards as even The King’s Speech eeked out a win from Phoenix back in the day. So why, you ask, is The Big Short the worst choice the PGA could have made? Because in the midst of a now nationwide controversy over the lack of racial diversity at the Oscars for two years in a row, they picked the film which consists almost solely of straight white guys yelling at each other, features the most limited roles for women of any Best Picture nominee and whose dearth of POC is glaringly apparent by the all too brief appearances of Adepero Oduye and a Chinese guy (played by Stanley Wong) whose character exists solely for a 4th wall breaking race joke. Worse for Oduye, her character actually has more screentime than Oscar winners Marisa Tomei and Melissa Leo in the film yet she didn’t make the cut for the Screen Actors Guild Cast nomination.
But it’s not as simple as pinning the blame on Oscar voters, old or otherwise. Not when it’s studios and producers that continually shoot down the possibilities of non-white (or straight) leads or storylines and choose to prioritize film without either to be their awards ponies. No other studio this year is worse than Warner Bros. The studio had a summer blockbuster in Mad Max: Fury Road but didn’t see it as anything but summer fare and put everything they had behind their fall release Black Mass. Multiple screenings and Q&As, boatloads of cash spent on getting Johnny Depp nominated for an Oscar which didn’t happen and all while Mad Max was scooping up Best Picture and Best Director wins left and right. Then came Creed in November. Assuming it was only going to be a crowd-pleasing moneymaker (which it was) they completely ignored the potential of the film and its stars to be major Oscar players (Michael B. Jordan won the National Society of Film Critics Best Actor award) and got on the band wagon too late. Ironically, the only nomination the film got was not for its African-American director, Ryan Coogler, or star but its white co-star, Sylvester Stallone. This weekend, Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsukihara said, in response to stepping up diversity, “At Warner Bros, we’re committed to this goal, but there is more we must do.” Yes, Kevin, there certainly and most definitely is. But Monday morning quarterbacking only makes you look late to the game.
That whiteout was also felt with Straight Outta Compton, a film that hit SAG and PGA yet missed out on a Best Picture nomination while its white screenwriters were nominated. Whose fault is that? Well, like Warner Bros fumble with Creed, Universal Pictures had a massive hit that the guilds also loved. But what did they do? They focused all of their energy, cocktail parties and meet and greets on Steve Jobs, one of the highest profile flops of the fall.
So why does this continue to happen and in a way that is far from subtle? The problem is actually very simple. It’s that white men, through generations of upbringing, have not really been taught to empathize with anyone other than themselves. With the Oscars, it’s why see Best Picture winners that are largely about white men, from a white male perspective. There isn’t room in the scope for a majority of straight, white men to embrace stories about women or people of color or gays and lesbians. That isn’t opinion, look at the history of the Oscars; it’s empirical fact. When your group is 88% white and 76% male it makes it hard, and disingenuous, for outspoken voters to claim otherwise. That isn’t even to accuse AMPAS voters of outright racism (or sexism or homophobia). Sure, there will be some members who most definitely are one or all of those things (the now deceased Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine proved that when Brokeback Mountain came out) but it’s the subconscious level of discrimination that is the most damaging. As it is in the rest of U.S. culture, you don’t have to scream “NI**ER!” to be a racist; you just have to rob someone else of their opportunity or visibility in a way that is neither seen nor felt by the one doing it. One of the more egregious responses that people come up with when accusations of race bias is thrown at them are things like “Well, Crash and 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture, how can we be racist?” Because yes, picking out the two examples in 87 years really strengthens your case. Especially when the former exists solely to assuage white guilt and the latter as a box-checking solution to addressing slavery. “Halle Berry won Best Actress!” is another. Yep, she did, back in 2002. She’s also still the only non-white actress to win Best Actress. The Academy loves to think that it solves its problems with race or sexuality when they reward someone in such a way. It’s a pat on the back for themselves and it’s nauseating.
Right now there’s a film breaking big at Sundance from Nate Parker. It’s called Birth of a Nation about the slave revolt let by Nat Turner. By all accounts it’s a brilliant film and of course, Oscar talk has begun. It just got bought by Fox Searchlight (who distributed 12 Years a Slave) for a whopping $17.5M, the biggest buy in Sundance history. But for how great and awards-worthy it might be it would be nice if the film that breaks this #OscarsSoWhite stranglehold wasn’t about slaves, maids, athletes, criminals, musicians or poor people. This is the problem when you compare historical biopics available to white people vs. black people. It means that original, contemporary stories need to happen and break through, that again the idea of the ‘Oscar’ film needs to change. That something like Birdman could have just as easily been written with a cast that wasn’t entirely white and still been an electric, visceral film.
What the Academy is attempting to do, under the direction of current President, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, with its membership and committee changes is commendable. But when you take a look at the vitriolic responses from some Academy members you can see just how much these changes are needed. Angry letters filled with ‘don’t take away what’s MINE!’ mentality that doesn’t make any effort to actually address the issue or even possibly come up with an alternative. It’s all ‘me, me, me.’ Some go as far as to accuse the Academy of ageism. The entitlement is astounding, if not surprising and the conversation has actually emboldened some to speak up in ways that are so overtly racist and vile, exposing the organization, at its center, as the broken group that it is. However there are some who have spoken up in support of the changes such as director and Academy member Rod Lurie (in a letter to The Hollywood Reporter) where he talks about meeting with a handful of directors – all over 70, all white – who didn’t bother watching Straight Outta Compton. The one that did said it was “too loud” and “I didn’t make it all the way through.” In his letter, Lurie suggests a blue-ribbon panel (much like how Foreign Language Film and Documentary Feature nominees are chosen) that must forego studio-sponsored events, which might interfere with the objective look of a movie. It’s a brilliant idea, but I can’t see any studio not scoffing at it. Can you imagine if Weinstein wasn’t allowed to campaign like he normally does? I mean, we can’t even get campaign finance reform for government politicians, I don’t know how we’d expect the movie industry to police itself in such a way.
One has to wonder what these new rules and committees will actually be able to accomplish, at least in the short-term. By 2020 the Academy says it wants to have a membership goal of 50% women and 20% non-white (and other diversity groups). I realize this piece seems to demonize old white straight men (and it does, to a certain extent) but there are also plenty who are progressive, socially aware people who are open and empathetic in ways that makes them great members. But when we’re talking about a group of nearly 7,000 people and exceptions won’t make a lot of difference without dramatic changes. My biggest immediate concern is that there will be a ‘blacklash’ and that angry Academy voters will dig their heels in and instead of seeing more diverse films and performances represented in the coming years, we’ll see even less. That would be a nightmare scenario for Cheryl Boone Isaacs, to be sure. That brings us back to The Big Short. When the new frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar, right in the middle of this conversation, is likely going to default to a straight, white male film (again) you can only imagine how that’s going to look. Right now I’d say, buy short, hold long.