Yes, the Oscars Are Still So White. But Let’s Not Boycott.

Yes, the Oscars Are Still So White. But Let’s Not Boycott. January 22, 2016

Will Smith from Concussion. Photo courtesy Sony Pictures

If I was king of the Oscars, the competition for best actor this year would be a two-man race between Michael Fassbender and Will Smith. If I’d been in charge of handing out awards last year, I would’ve given them all to Selma. The fact that David Oyelowo wasn’t even nominated for his superlative embodiment of Martin Luther King Jr. is, honestly, a little nuts.

But do those sorts of omissions qualify for a boycott?

Smith (who should’ve been nominated for his work in Concussion) will be staying home on Oscars night. “We’re part of this community but at this current time, we’re uncomfortable to stand there and say that this is OK,” he told ABC News, regarding the Oscar’s second-straight year of an all-white acting docket. He’s joining director Spike Lee and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, in a boycott of the Oscars. Others may follow, and there’s been pressure on Chris Rock to step down as the ceremony’s emcee.

I understand the frustration. It sounds like, in light of the pressure, the Academy will be tinkering with the Oscars to foster more diversity in its nominees, and maybe that’ll help.

But let’s be honest: Oscar’s playing field has always been about as level as a cut-rate skate park. How can you straighten something that’s inherently—and by design—crooked?

Don’t get me wrong: I love the Oscars. But there’s nothing fair about them. Any sort of authority they have is illusory. Can anyone really objectively say that, say, Spotlight is “better” than The Revenant (or that either are better, for that matter, than Inside Out)? That Brie Larson’s performance in Room was “better” than Cate Blanchett’s in Carol? How do you tally this sort of excellence? How do you quantify it? You can’t. It’s utterly, completely and unfairly subjective. There is no scoring system in play here, no touchdowns or triple lutzes to track. You can’t compare the glowering stares of Larson and Blanchett and crown a winner between the two.

Films are works of art. Creating them is an organic, imprecise, process. It is not a science. It is not a sport. And as such, the appreciation of them is also subjective. The awards given out on Oscar night are, yes, statements of artistic quality, but they’re also wildly irrational choices based on what speaks to voters, what moves them. Socio-political leanings factor into the mix. Petty annoyances and personality quirks become a factor. It’s not the Academy’s fault: I know when I consider a movie, I’m not judging it in a vacuum. What sort of day I’m having can impact how I feel about a certain movie in that moment. But I doubt the Academy’s voters are, really, that much different than I am.

We all know this, of course. We all know the Academy is, at best, a flawed judge of top-of-the-heap movie quality. Consider: Citizen Kane, widely considered the best American movie ever made, won a single Academy Award: Best original screenplay. Consider: Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar. Anyone have a hankering to rewatch 2005’s best picture winner Crash? Thought not. And yet subconsciously, we give the Academy some strange taste-making power that it doesn’t have and, frankly, might not even claim. We feel that these awards—as weird and as subjective as they are—are important enough to boycott for not being fair.

So say the Academy makes changes to the system—changes that, again, may indeed be warranted. Say they make a concerted effort to include more minorities in Oscar voting. That might help more minorities be in awards contention, but is that any guarantee that the Oscars telecast look any more fair in terms of the actual quality of the nominees? Wouldn’t those new voters still be using the very same subjective criteria in judging quality that, essentially, we all use.

And really, is this yearly carnival of Hollywood self-congratulations a worthy civil rights issue? The right to work, the right to attend a quality school, the right to walk the streets without fear of getting shot—these feel like important issues worthy of national attention and consideration. The right to stick a statuette on the fireplace mantel of one’s mansion in Brentwood … that feels less pressing to me.

The Oscars are fun to watch. I’m sure they’re really fun to get. But as any real measure of quality, they’re almost meaningless. To boycott the Oscars is to further imbue them with an authority that they don’t really have. An authority they’ve never had.

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