There was much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth when the Academy Awards nominations were announced and none of the major nominees were people of color. On social media, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite has trended heavily, and black host Christ Rock is getting repeated calls to abandon his post because the Oscars are so demonstrably racist.
But are they?
I’m willing to bet that if you polled every single Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences member who voted on this year’s nominees, not a single one would admit that racial considerations had any bearing on their votes. What’s more, I’m sure that every one of them truly believes that. I don’t think there are many closet Klansmen lurking in the halls of Hollywood studios. So when actors and directors and other creatives in the Academy insist that they’re not racists, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
But the truth is that the answer to my question isn’t that simple.
I’m not a member of the Academy, but if I were, I almost certainly wouldn’t have voted for “Straight Outta Compton” or “Beasts of No Nation,” two films with predominantly black actors that many feel were snubbed this time around, for the simple reason that I haven’t seen them.
But why haven’t I seen them? Is it because I’m a racist?
I certainly don’t think so, but, again, it’s a tougher question than it appears on the surface. I probably see about 10 to 15 movies a year in an actual theater, and most of them are "event films" such as “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” or the latest big-ticket spectacle with superheroes and explosions. Every once in a while, my wife convinces me to see a chick flick with her, and so, as far as our film consumption goes, that’s about it. Neither “Straight Outta Compton” nor “Beasts of No Nation” fits those descriptions, so when we were considering a night out at the movies, those two films just never came up.
I can hear my accusers now. “Well, they should have come up, Bennett! The fact that you didn’t even consider seeing those movies means you’re a racist, and you don’t even know it.”
I don’t think that’s fair. While I do think it would be nice if people made a greater effort to expand their entertainment choices beyond the comfortable and familiar, it’s also true that I have a great deal of activities and people competing for my time, and increasing my entertainment consumption is not a top priority. And, like anyone else, when I do take the time to go out on the town, I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody; I’m just looking to be entertained. Which means, when left to my own devices, I’ll still probably choose the option where I get to see a lot of cool things blow up.
Now, I recognize that Academy voters are not casual moviegoers, and they have a responsibility to see what’s out there to make an informed decision. But the reality is that they, like me, probably tend to focus more on choices that correspond to their own tastes, which means they unwittingly overlook movies that might deserve greater attention. And while I don’t think they do so with any degree of racial animus, the end result often appears to be the same as if they had.
Still, I don’t think it helps anyone to point fingers and make accusations. But I do think everyone has cultural blind spots that ought to be challenged whenever possible.
“Beasts of No Nation” is on Netflix. This weekend, I’m going to check it out.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.