Playing the “diversity” card while playing the Oscars is the media’s way of stoking racial anxiety. This folly has nothing to do with explaining how the Academy Awards or the film industry works. So soon after the Sony e-mail hacking exposed the racial insensitivity of film-industry executives, the media pretend to be “shocked” by the Oscar nominations.
The real story behind Oscar “diversity” complaints is the media’s persistent cover-up of famously liberal Hollywood’s actual racism. (Pundits speciously grouse that no black performers received acting nominations but then only cite the black actors in Selma, not other more splendidly acted films such as Get On Up, Beyond the Lights, and Belle, Black or White.)
Covering up this style of casual racism was the point of last year’s Academy Award victory by 12 Years a Slave; that decidedly unpleasant (and unpopular) film was awarded purely to make the Academy feel good about itself as a defense against Hollywood’s standard segregated practices. It was the most ostentatious show of liberal guilt since President Obama’s election in 2008.
That’s the actual explanation behind what pundits have termed this year’s Oscars’ “white-out” (as well as the Reverend Al Sharpton’s recent call for “an emergency meeting” to discuss Oscar “diversity”). When the goal is to advance political correctness, it is inconvenient to notice that p.c. behavior is often a reflection of genuine racism.
Only publicists for the movie Selma could have planned a more devious promotional gimmick. But playing the “diversity” card is not a compliment to Selma’s black female director Ava DuVernay or any of its black actors, who should all want to be measured by the content of their filmmaking, not race or gender. This griping also insults other filmmakers who, because they are Asian, Latino, or Middle Eastern, are unable to capitalize on their ethnicity. They are reduced to Least Favorite Token status.
Selma is a mediocre and disingenuous film, but it has become a tool that white liberals and the black middle class use to press their rhetorical advantage: American political guilt. This flimsy “protest” is unconcerned with how art is recognized by a venerable institution; in recent years the Academy has become a platform for racial grandstanding, having little to do with art but awarding the most egregious black stereotypes from the psychopathic behavior in Training Day, Monsters’ Ball, and The Help to the sadistic historical anachronisms and ferocious language of Django Unchained. Few of the pundits now crusading for “diversity” note this disgraceful history. They also ignore other, better films that deal with race, class, or gender politics but come in complex, not easily manipulated forms — Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, Marco Bellocchio’s Dormant Beauty, Sergio Tovar Velarde’s 4 Moons, Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Me and You, Get On Up, Beyond the Lights, and Obvious Child.
Instead, the media notice only studio-financed product. Selma idealizes the “diversity” cause because it has the biggest budget for advertising hype of any of this year’s politically themed movies.
It’s Selma’s appropriation of civil-rights-era history that makes it a vehicle for today’s race hustlers. Even the most unsophisticated filmgoer would admit that Selma doesn’t belong in the same category as Citizen Kane, Rules of the Game, Lawrence of Arabia, or Schindler’s List; it represents a bourgeois sense of entitlement — what Harlemites used to call Striver’s Row pride, what white liberals would cite as black pity. It is offensive that protesters never rise up in support of good films portraying the complex humanity of black people (Chameleon Street, The Color Purple, Fear of a Black Hat, Panther, Amistad, Mr. 3000, Beloved, Next Day Air). In recent years this arrogance speaks out only for films that plug black Americans into stereotypical slots; that appease white patronization. (Strangely, the “diversity”-card players have not spoken against the white liberal biases of Boyhood, the film President Obama has already declared 2014’s best movie.)
This is where Selma’s genuine controversy (misrepresenting political negotiations between President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. over the 1965 Voting Rights Act) uses historical and moral revisionism to play out a millennial agenda. Selma’s distributor has been hyping a campaign that enlists black entrepreneurs across the country to purchase Selma tickets for black school students. Not only is this a new form of Jim Crow segregation, it speciously indoctrinates schoolkids into movie consumerism (as if they needed such motivation) while at the same time lining the filmmakers’ pockets (as well as the coffers of Paramount, owned by Sumner Redstone’s Viacom corporation). That’s the essence of liberal do-gooder diversity in the Obama era.
The Oscars prove that political correctness is embarrassingly rampant in Hollywood. When media complain that Selma was “snubbed,” they fail to cite credible, sourecable, or even aesthetic reasons; they’re motivated by the politically correct notion that a film dealing with race automatically deserves Oscar recognition. This canard stems from the Academy’s recent history of liberal bias toward race-themed movies — a pattern that contradicts the myth that the Oscars are about excellence.
In the distant past, when a few race-themed movies like Sounder (1972), A Soldier’s Story (1984), Places in the Heart (1984), The Color Purple (1985), and Driving Miss Daisy (1989) received Best Picture nominations, it indicated their quality along with Hollywood’s humanitarian preference. But recently, particularly in the Obama era, the Academy has routinely included subpar race-themed movies among its Best Picture nominees, adding Selma to the list of Precious, The Help, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and 12 Years a Slave.
But what most Oscar pundits fail to admit is that such political correctness can have its limits even in Tinsel Town.
It’s very likely that Selma’s race hustlers (the cast recently posed wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts so as to certify linkage between the 1960s Civil Rights March and ungainly contemporary protests across the country) failed to score more Oscar nominations for one simple reason: Last year’s Oscar winner, the gruesome 12 Years A Slave, already soaked up all of Hollywood’s white liberal guilt.
After crowning that slavery-era horror flick, the film industry doesn’t have to defend its tacit racist practices for at least the next couple of years. (The Academy could ignore Chadwick Boseman’s ingenious portrayal of the innovative, still-radical pop musician James Brown and breathe a sigh of relief.) Now the “diversity” card sharks can continue to deal out guilt and boost box office. The Oscars’ politics remain hidden in plain sight.
— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize.