Depending upon which side of the Atlantic you currently reside, either the movie ‘Birdman’ or Eddie Redmayne won the entire Academy Awards aka Oscars. Congratulations, you are now part of the establishment that emphasises and perpetuates inequality. Well Done!
As much as I like a good flick, and I’m glad that a movie with the word ‘American’ in it’s title didn’t dominate proceedings (sorry my US cousins, but American Pie, American Beauty, American Psycho, American Gangster, American Graffiti, American Gothic, American Gigolo … we get it, America’s great, but there are other countries on this planet. Please show them some love too), I am very worried that this year’s event wasn’t so much a celebration of film, but an indictment of how little film makers and film audiences have progressed when it comes to diversity and equality.
One of the questionable highlights of the ceremony was a tribute to the ‘Sound of Music’, arguably one of the greatest musicals of all time. That alone has showcased that there have been so few musicals since to rival one that was made over half a century ago. Julie Andrews, a woman so talented and iconic can just walk onto a stage without introduction, and rightly receive a standing ovation. Yet despite her obvious gifts and experience, she’s still unlikely to command the same pay to that of a male actor/singer/all round good egg of similar calibre.
‘Selma,’ one of the most shamefully snubbed movies of all time in my humble opinion, managed to pick up 1 Oscar for Best Song – yes a group consisting mostly of Black singers entertaining the select film making elite, but not 1 nomination for telling a true story of a man who peacefully challenged the authorities to give Black people the right to vote in their own country. Whilst it’s vital to honour such great scientists as Stephen Hawking, played by Eddie Redmayne, and Alan Turing portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, I fail to understand why it isn’t equally, if not more so, vital to acknowledge the great Martin Luther King Jr, as played by David Oyelowo. ‘Selma’ producer Oprah Winfrey said in an interview afterwards that the Oscar win was a validation, but to me it was a slap in the face, a backwards step in the journey towards equality. The message for Black film makers seems to be, “You can have an Oscar for entertaining us, but not for educating us”.
While I support in principle Patricia Arquette, who won Best Supporting actress for her role in ‘Boyhood’, when she used her acceptance speech as an opportunity to highlight the virtues of equal pay for women, I slightly question her words when she said, “we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights”. Have we? Looking at the red carpet, most have traditional Anglo-Saxon looks, wear outfits from a small, select group of designers and are under the age of 45. Are there no actors who use wheelchairs? Are there no actors who are plus sized other than the stereotypical comedic actor? Would Arquette have won or even have been nominated if the film was called ‘Girlhood’? And not every woman in America has given birth, so hopefully their rights are not going to be overlooked. Many have fought for some rights, for some groups but if the red carpet is anything to go by there is still a very, very long way to go before Arquette’s quote can become reality.
Cumberbatch shot his Oscar hopes in the foot when attempting to big up his fellow Black actors in an recent interview, by referring to them as ‘coloured’. While the press were quick to state that he immediately apologised for the comment, they completely failed to mention the important background context.
Cumberbatch is a descendant of slave owners, who were heavily financially compensated for ‘their lost of property’, when slavery was abolished in the UK in the 1830s. Some of the descendants of the slaves carry the Cumberbatch name today, and some are even blood relations. The irony is that the newly married Cumberbatch is about to become a father, and his child will likely grow up and be educated in what many people believe to be a semi-privileged family, within the oft described free, multi-cultural city of London. Yet, Cumberbatch in 2015 referred to his contemporaries and blood relations as “coloured”. How is he going to explain that to his children if they meet a Cumberbatch from across the pond?
In their attempts to condemn Cumberbatch for saying ‘coloured’, the press and film industry have in effect exposed themselves as custodians of inequality. The fact that the media continually fail to address the obvious lack of diversity in the film industry speaks far louder than that one word. Cumberbatch was right to apologise for he said but the main issue here is not the actual phrase, more the inaction that lead to Cumberbatch and others thinking it in the first place, and for that, we are all at fault. If the same effort used in all the backtracking, apologies and claims of, ‘we’re not racist’, were used instead to make the film industry more inclusive, then the film industry would be more inclusive.
Sadly the debate was killed off, because Cumberbatch immediately apologised and he lost the Oscar. The remark will be swept under the carpet, the wider issue ignored and no doubt he will be nominated again and probably eventually win an Oscar if he ‘behaves’ in the eye’s of the film industry bods. The industry will have been ‘seen’ to have taken action by not awarding Cumberbatch, everything continues as before and with that, the dream of diversity in film remains a dream – ‘Selma’ has been served yet other slap.
I admire Cumberbatch attempts to highlight the injustice of inequality, especially towards Black British Actors and gay people. Cumberbatch has done more than most actors in this respect. However, Cumberbatch also needs to be seen to act in support of diversity, equality and inclusivity – words are cheap and rarely lead to active positive solutions. If nothing else, do it for your growing family. Some of those very same Black actors he was trying to promote may very well be his own relatives!
The Oscars are meant to celebrate acting and technical talent in the film world, but that world doesn’t seem to have room for diversity, decency, equality or inclusion. The Oscars have become predictable because the same group of people are making the same films and the same type of people are voting which movies are deemed the best. As Shirley Bassey sang, “… it’s all just a little bit of history repeating”.
This year’s host Neil Patrick Harris joked, “Tonight, we celebrate Hollywood’s best and whitest, sorry … brightest”. Jokes are particularly funny when they are true, but remove the jovial context and suddenly I for one don’t feel like laughing. The Oscars exclusivity isn’t a laughing matter, it’s a highly shameful one.