Magazine | March 9, 2015, Issue

A Tragic National Pastime

“Did you vote for yourself in the last election? If so, does that mean you’re racist?” (Dr. Whom, @chapel3929)
America and its ‘race rows’

A friend of mine was saying that she had seen Selma, the movie about the civil-rights era, and loved it. She was indignant, however: because it had been shut out of Academy Award nominations (she said). And there was an obvious reason for that: good old-fashioned anti-black racism.

I said that Selma had indeed been nominated for an Academy Award: two of them, including Best Picture. She said, “No, it hasn’t.” I said, “Yes, it has.” There was another round of this. Then my friend stuck out her hand and said, “Betcha a hundred dollars.” I stuck out my hand and said, “Five hundred.” She demurred.

Then I cited a Bill Buckley line: “Never argue over anything factual. Argue over taste or opinion — but not about something that can be looked up.”

I couldn’t blame my friend for being convinced that Selma had been shut out — a million people and articles have said so, or implied so. “Snubbed” is the big word. The movie was “snubbed” by the lily-white academy, uncomfortable with black Americans and the black experience. You might think that a nomination for Best Picture was not much of a snubbing. (The other nomination is for Best Original Song.) But protesters and accusers believe that Selma should have received more nominations, particularly in the acting and directing categories.

The announcement of this year’s nominations sparked another American “race row,” as a British headline put it — another drama about race.

We were spared a race row last year, because 12 Years a Slave received nine nominations (going on to win in three categories, including Best Picture). But no such luck this year. The academy must have rediscovered its inner racism in twelve months’ time.

As it happens, the academy’s president is a black woman, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. When the Selma furor began, she put out a diplomatic statement. It included the following: “Personally, I would love to see, and look forward to seeing, a greater cultural diversity among all our nominees in all of our categories.”

Spike Lee, the famous director, participated in the furor or “row,” of course. I thought of his reaction in 1990, when his Do the Right Thing received two nominations: for Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay. (The latter nomination was for Lee personally.) He said, “We got jerked out of Best Director, Best Film . . .” In short, “we wuz robbed.” That’s how he summed it all up to an interviewer, even specifying — charmingly, I think — how “wuz” should be spelled.

He was not done feeling robbed. The next year, he made the same statement, when his film Jungle Fever failed to win the Palme d’Or in Cannes. He said that, as before, racism was to blame. In the Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel, the famous critic, wrote of Lee, “Why couldn’t he allow that ten men and women simply preferred another film?”

That jury in Cannes included Whoopi Goldberg, the American actress, comedienne, etc. Lee said, “Don’t give me the business about Whoopi Goldberg being on the jury this year. She’s not necessarily allied because she’s black.”

He said a lot more, but let’s return to this year: 2015. When Selma was “snubbed,” Lee had some words of wisdom for Ava DuVernay, the film’s director. You will pardon my asterisks: “Nobody’s talking about motherf***ing Driving Miss Daisy.” This is the movie that won the Best Picture Oscar in 1990. “That film is not being taught in film schools all across the world like Do the Right Thing is. Nobody’s discussing Driving Miss Motherf***ing Daisy. So if I saw Ava today, I’d say, ‘You know what? F*** ’em. You made a very good film, so feel good about that and start working on the next one.’”

It may be that Selma will win Best Picture this year, assuaging the prior hurt. (By the time you read this article of mine, you’ll probably know the results.) But if not? Will Spike Lee and others accept, in Siskel’s words, that voters simply preferred another film? Or will Selma’s loss be cited as proof of racism?

An academy voter cannot acquit himself of a charge of racism — not if he preferred another movie, he can’t. He may have thought Birdman or Boyhood superior to Selma, for reasons having nothing to do with race. But that will do him no good, once the charge of racism is made.

I see only two solutions to Oscar-related “race rows”: equanimity in the face of disappointment, or quotas. Yes, quotas, whether explicit or implicit. These would be insulting and outrageous, of course: “black slots” at the Oscars. The very notion is repulsive. But the other route, equanimity in the face of disappointment, can be difficult, for all sorts of people.

One of the nominees for Best Picture this year is American Sniper. I know Republicans who believe that the movie’s director, Clint Eastwood, was denied a personal nomination for directing because he is a known Republican. It may be — just as some voters may be racist. Or it could be that voters honestly thought five other directors were more deserving of nomination than Eastwood.

A bitterer pill than the Selma snub, real or imagined, was the dethroning of Jackie Robinson West, the baseball team out of Chicago. An all-black Little League squad, they won the national title last August, beating a team from Las Vegas. They lost the world championship to South Korea, but no matter: They were the “feel-good story of the summer,” as many people have said. Thousands lined up in Chicago to cheer them in a parade. The team was received in the Oval Office by President Obama.

But, in the second week of February, they were stripped of their national title. Why? They had cheated, or the adults in charge of them had: by falsifying boundaries, falsifying documents, and bringing in ringers — ineligible players who could help the team win.

The head of Little League International, Stephen D. Keener, made the announcement with a heavy heart. Indeed, he said, “This is a heartbreaking decision.” The players could be proud of their accomplishments on the diamond, he said, and they could cherish their memories — “but it is unfortunate that the actions of adults have led to this outcome.” Keener also said, “For more than 75 years, Little League has been an organization where fair play is valued over the importance of wins and losses.” He added that the “integrity” of the game should be preserved.

Little League International suspended or fired some of the guilty parties, put Jackie Robinson West on probation, and transferred the national title to the second-place team, the Las Vegans.

Immediately, Jesse Jackson, among other leaders and activists, swung into action. Did the reverend say that the cheating had disgraced both the team and the Chicago community that was so proud of it? Did he emphasize the virtue of honesty? Did he talk of the “wages of sin”? No. He claimed racism — and said, “This is persecution.” For good measure, he called on the Las Vegas team to reject the transferred championship.

I agreed entirely with Tom Bevan, the executive director of RealClearPolitics. The charge of racism was “unfounded and disgraceful,” he said. What’s more, “it’s hard to imagine a greater slander against the actual Jackie Robinson, who only asked — no, he demanded — a level playing field.”

Race rows will always be with us, I suppose. They are virtually our national pastime, along with baseball. Race rows ’r’ us. Some people thought that having our first black president would put a damper on these. It seems to have done nothing of the sort. By the way, Jesse Jackson used to be known as “the president of black America.” And now? There is no reason for such an office, presumably. But what about later?

Many Americans, I believe, feel that racism is part of our national identity. They would be slightly uncomfortable without it. I get a clear sense that some people are actually annoyed that Selma received the Best Picture nomination (along with the other one). No nominations would have been a purer storyline.

I have known many people who are fearful of racial progress — fearful that the terrible past will be forgotten, America will be redeemed, and life will move on. Therefore, racism has to lie “just beneath the surface,” liable to erupt at any moment. And victory can never be declared, for even progress is dangerous to declare: “We have so much more to do.”

In 2010, an actress who goes by one name, Mo’Nique, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Articles noted that she was the fourth black actress to win this award. I wondered when we would stop counting — at the tenth one? The 20th? The 50th? Since that time, two more black actresses have won that award. The dazzling Lupita Nyong’o is No. 6, for the scorekeepers.

The world is full of victims — real victims — of all sorts of injustices, including racism. In the face of so much victimization, it is unseemly, even disgusting, to claim it where it doesn’t exist.

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