Crikey! As if programmed by cyber-clockwork, Twitter responded to the announcement of this year’s Academy Award Nominees with a unified shriek. Oddly, it had nothing to with the conceivable prospect of Alexander Iñárritu bagging an Oscar for the second year running. People even seemed initially blind to the fact that Leo looks set to finally get his hands on a golden statue. Instead, the first comments made were about the nominees’ skin tones. Or lack of skin tones.
Following the dismal representation of black actors in last year’s ceremony, people were quick to reignite the charge against Hollywood’s lack of diversity. Within the time it takes to compose a Tweet, #OscarsSoWhite was trending once again. Indeed this week, director Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett Smith took last year’s antics one step further by announcing that they won’t be attending 2016’s ceremony.
Critics quickly pointed to Creed’s black lead actor Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler, as well Straight Outta Compton’s black cast, as obvious Oscar snubs. Of course, this one-dimensional focus on skin colour forgets that both films had poor awards season campaigns – yes, such things do exist – and more importantly, they simply weren’t good enough.
Samuel L Jackson, on the other hand, should feel aggrieved. His neatly constructed performance in The Hateful Eight was reminiscent of his Oscar-nominated role in Pulp Fiction. We shouldn’t, however, dismiss his exclusion with a crude reference to his skin tone. Rather, his snub should be regarded alongside those of Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino. Both wrote fantastic screenplays this year, but the Academy ignored them. Jackson’s absence was the result of a poor decision based on poor taste, not his skin tone.
Of course, the fervour of #OscarsSoWhite confirms that audiences are viewing culture through a lens blurred by an identity politics that shuns critical analysis. It was not the backlash against the list of white nominees that was most surprising, but rather its visceral intensity. We have reached a point where the default response to any cultural accolade is one obsessed by race. Too often films are judged in relation to the skin colour of actors rather than on its acting, screenplay or cinematography.
Depressingly, this phenomenon also extends into shortlists for book prizes. Similar to #OscarsSoWhite, identity-driven critics prefer to read into the racial diversity in book awards lists, rather than the books themselves.
It would be philistine to completely disregard the identity of cultural figures. An appreciation of a writer or filmmaker’s biography undoubtedly adds an extra dimension to their work. Our sensitivity to the works of Baldwin, Wright and Angelou is certainly enhanced by the knowledge that they were black. But they were great authors not because of their skin tone, but because of the quality of their writing. The same goes for Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave. Despite being directed by a black man, featuring a largely black cast, and even being about slavery, it deserved to win because it is beautifully crafted film. Not because it ticks all of the right diversity boxes.
The art of film will disintegrate if we continue to disregard it as an art form. Yes, we should encourage Hollywood to create a more level playing field. But films should be judged on the grounds of their own integrity and not on the political message they convey. If we fail to resist the attempt to transform the Academy Awards into a spectacle in diversity training, it is only a matter of time before awards will be dished out in accordance with a pre-existing quota.