Oscar’s Diversity Panic

Steve Martin and Chris Rock on stage at the 92nd Academy Awards in Los Angeles, Calif., February 9, 2020. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
The awards ceremony shrank itself to the size of a Twitter hissy fit.

The Oscar ceremony used to command high ground in American culture. This year it proved beyond doubt that it has become a hostage to Twitter. It shrank itself to the size of one of those meaningless 36-hour virtual hissy fits that exists solely in the campus-like enclosed environment that is Twitter. In so doing, Oscar ushered himself further toward the point of total irrelevance.

Every year when the Oscar nominations come out, angry people on Twitter get a bit angrier than usual because this or that sub-group didn’t meet this or that benchmark in this or that category. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the near-century of Oscar tradition it represents is now, in cultural terms, a wholly owned subsidiary of Twitter Inc. (né 2006). Twitter got Kevin Hart fired as Oscar host a couple of years ago, and when other comics’ names were suggested as replacements, Twitter pointed out that all of them had (like Hart) made rude jokes at the expense of this or that protected class. So the Oscar ceremony went without a host last year, and this.

This year Twitter ruled that the Oscars had sinned in two ways: inadequate representation of blacks (one out of 20 acting nominees) and no women nominated for Best Director. In response, the producers of the ceremony ordered up an evening of cringing and self-flagellation, begging America’s forgiveness for its own members’ sinful secret-ballot choices.

To sing “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” associated with the extremely white man Fred Rogers, the Oscars rolled out Janelle Monáe, who paused in mid-song to say, “We celebrate all the women who directed phenomenal films,” as the broadcast cut accusingly to Little Women director Greta Gerwig, who didn’t get nominated because Little Women is not a phenomenal film. (She was nominated for two Oscars just two years ago by the same group of people for the far better Lady Bird, which tends to undermine any suggestion that the Academy is insufficiently respectful to her). Monáe added, “I’m proud to be standing here as a black, queer artist,” and shared the number with Billy Porter, another gay black performer, who was on hand to do a song by the very white Elton John.

The Academy torches its mystique and glamour when it comes across, as it did last night, as more like a haunted associate professor in Dockers who is desperate to stave off student ire by assuring the glowering undergraduates that he thinks everything they think, only more so. The Oscars’ theme was Please don’t think we’re racist, please don’t think we’re racist, interrupted by moments of Please don’t think we’re sexist, please don’t think we’re sexist.

Steve Martin sarcastically noted that, the first year the Oscars were given out, there were no black acting nominees, and this year there was only one—“Amazing growth,” he said. So what? One in 20 is 5 percent. Last year there were two (10 percent). The year before, four (20 percent). So, over the past three years, the percentage of black nominees (11.7 percent) is almost exactly the black proportion of the population is (12.6 percent). Three years ago there were six black acting nominees, or 30 percent, meaning blacks are overrepresented among acting Oscar nominees over the past four years. Over those past several years, by the way, the Academy has been rushing to offer membership to black film professionals, and as a result, the voting membership has a much larger proportion of voters of color than it did five years ago. If a much more diverse membership didn’t award lots of acting nominations to black performers this year, maybe there . . . just weren’t a lot of great black performances this year.

Yet the Academy can’t even consider the possibility that its members put merit above identity politics. “I would never consider diversity in matters of art,” one prominent voting member, Stephen King, said on Twitter. “Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.” King must have thought that a long history of being an outspoken liberal would save him from the Twitter mob, or that saying something obviously true would not cause undue consternation. But instead, many celebrities took after him, led by Selma director Ava DuVernay, who called him “backward” and “ignorant” in a tweet of her own. King backtracked, nonsensically, with a cringe-tweet saying, “The most important thing we can do as artists and creative people is make sure everyone has the same fair shot, regardless of sex, color, or orientation. Right now such people are badly under-represented, and not only in the arts.” Who does “such people” refer to? Never mind, the Academy threw itself into representation that was very regardful of sex, color or, orientation, filling up Oscar night by handing the mike to obscure performers such as Anthony Ramos, Utkarsh Ambudkar, and Zazie Beetz.

Twitter was the uncredited producer of the show. How else to explain the prominent presence of the third-tier actress Kelly Marie Tran, who is almost completely unknown outside Twitter? In 2017, Twitter debated about how annoying she was and concluded she was very annoying indeed, in a small part in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Other users insisted she was the victim of racism/sexism, because no woman of color can possibly be annoying, ever. Chris Rock and Steve Martin singled out black members in the audience (Mahershala Ali and Cynthia Erivo, whose name Martin mispronounced, igniting a fresh round of Twitter dudgeon during the show) to set up some tired race jokes. Later Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig did a long, grueling bit in which they pretended to be angry about everything, then insisted they weren’t angry because, they said, they wanted directors to hire them.

Rock and Martin can usually be relied on to tell the truth in jokes, but instead they came off as P.O.W.s who knew exactly what was and was not permitted by their captors. Perhaps they blinked out better jokes in Morse code, but aloud they did things like wonder what was missing from the Best Director category (“Vaginas,” was Rock’s answer). When Rock said, “They decided to go hostless this year,” and Martin asked, “Why is that?” Rock replied, “Twitter.” Alas, there is no joke there.

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