#OscarMustFall: on refusing to give power to unjust definitions of “merit”

by Dale Hudson

Rhodes Must Fall protest, September 2019. Pambazuka News: Voices for Freedom and Justice.

In March 2015, students across South Africa continued work begun by a generation that sacrificed secondary-school education to fight Apartheid. The Rhodes Must Fall movement galvanized efforts to decolonize curricula. That summer, students across the United States joined the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, raising questions that White and other not-Black people might not see Black victims of police violence because Black perspectives have been erased from education. They also lack knowledge about Black contributions to ending slavery and winning civil rights. U.S. presidents Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson signed anti-slavery and anti-racism legislation. They did not initiate it, yet they are included in school and university curricula whereas Black contributions to arts and sciences are not.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

With social media, student protests become memes, asking administrators and faculty a central question:

“Why is your history part of the core curriculum and mine an elective?”

They cite Simone de Beauvoir, Angela Davis, and Paulo Freire, refusing to accept what Jonathan Harris’s painting Critical Race Theory (2021) makes literal: a whitewashing of Black history. A White man rolls white paint over images of activists Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr..[2] Some university administrators struggle to understand connections between “our [university] curricula” and “their [police] violence.” Racism is always elsewhere. Many students and faculty, however, experience and witness palpable, tangible, and undeniable connections between curriculum and violence, often on a daily basis.

This article questions why film educators—alongside critics, distributors, exhibitors, and makers—often describe films and filmmakers as being nominated or winning an Oscar without examining how the awards define merit. The Oscars are one example of White-Western-serving film institutions, including BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) and festivals, including Berlin, Cannes, IDFA (International Documentary Festival Amsterdam), Sundance, and Venice. They must “fall” in the sense that Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni argues Rhodes must fall in

“a dual process of both deprovincializing Africa, and in turn provincializing Europe.”[3]

Film educators need to provincialize White-Western-serving institutions and de-provincialize a large number of not-White and not-Western ones that define merit in different terms.[4] The Oscars and other major media institutions largely define “merit” in ways that disempower and even delegitimize perspectives that call into question their power. Education needs to prepare students for a world that is not only more interdependent, but also more divisive with the rise of nationalism and more dangerous with the climate crisis, income inequality, and pandemics. Since university “diversity and inclusion” schemes can be counterproductive, film educators—graduate teaching assistants, instructors, lecturers, professors—can compensate in courses and curricula.

Institutional responses can add to the problem

White privilege and the curriculum’s hierarchies of core and elective course. Image shared on social media.

Decolonizing film has a long history.[5] Ella Shohat and Robert Stam proposed polycentrism as a mode to organize the field, which takes on a new urgency after the Cold War’s three options (capitalism, socialism, non-alignment) have been reduced to one: neoliberalism.[6] When U.S. film education emphasizes technical achievement, star system, and popular genres, while ignoring labor conditions and trade agreements, it allows a commercial industry to set the terms. Despite increased screen presence of not-White characters in Hollywood films and of not-Western films in introductory textbooks, unacknowledged bias continues to structure film education, which cannot be corrected with administrator-run syllabi workshops that revamp old curricula. Adding 1980s Hong Kong and 1990s Bollywood cinema, for example, only make the ongoing exclusion of Chinese and South Asian film history more conspicuous. The film studies curriculum still avoids confronting media judgments that disqualify films and filmmakers from a prominent place in classroom introductions to the field.

In contrast, Usha Iyer proposes “radical praxis from multiple locations” that rejects “a one-time or a one-size-fits-all fix” for “a proliferation of demands, manifestoes, and countermanifestos that become impossible to ignore,” particularly in universities where we need

“an undercommons of killjoys, a coalition of complainers that chip away, course after course, at occupying academic structures.”[7]

Locations need to resist being reduced to quantitative data on administrative spreadsheets. Reframing film history as arthouse, Bollywood, Hallyuwood, Hollywood, and Nollywoood films, for example, still excludes the vast majority of perspectives. It still focuses only on feature-length narrative films for commercial markets, underscoring how representational diversity and inclusion appear to solve problems but thwart decolonizing knowledge, especially when faculty are unaware of structural biases within each of these industries.

When such issues are not addressed in education, they disseminate into the world, shaping film criticism, distribution, and exhibition. General audiences use the Oscars as shorthand for merit. Oscar-awarded or nominated films often appear on the covers of introductory textbooks that are unmarked introductions to White-Western filmmaking. Educators can reframe teaching to emphasize that Oscars are not the universal or global definition of merit, but a particular and local one. Rather than an unequivocal accolade, an Oscar can suggest pandering to a White-Western industry or betraying a not-White and/or not-Western community. Such an idea might be offensive to Hollywood élites, but it is one that students need to consider.

Academy apologists define the Oscars as industry awards with no obligation towards social injustice. For them, Hollywood is “just entertainment” or “just showbiz”—and everyone “loves” Hollywood films. The apologists ignore unfair advantages and unearned privilege. Hollywood thrives on the illusion of competition, and the Oscars are designed to convince audiences that Hollywood films are objectively better than most films from elsewhere. The awards even include the category of foreign-language/international film, which signals merit for films that don’t merit inclusion in the awards’ unmarked categories.

Diversity programs can whitewash the status quo

Hattie McDaniel as Mammy gives Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) the side-eye in Gone with the Wind (USA, 1939; dir. Victor Fleming).

Academy president Cheryl Boone Issacs claimed to expand membership and implement quotas “aggressively,” yet Oscar’s new “diversity” criteria on “representation and inclusion” is inadequate.[8] If the Academy had been serious, it would have acted when legal immigration expanded in 1965 or when Affirmative Action became law in 1973.[9] Rehabilitating the Oscars now mainly serves to whitewash the impressions nominated films might make. Looking carefully at the Oscar's official changes, Maggie Hennefeld finds “notoriously racist films” can “easily satisfy the new ‘Standard A: On-Screen Representation, Themes and Narratives’”; it

“merely requires that a film’s actors or subject matter promote the visibility of an underrepresented group, as if ‘visibility’ were inherently positive.”[10]

“Visibility” just means representational inclusion that can be tokenistic and even reinforce negative stereotypes. Hennefeld concludes:

“Simply put, these diversity indulgences are largely a publicity stunt. They’ll be used to exonerate future nominees from accusations of discrimination while providing cover for the Academy itself.”[11]

Change like this has nonetheless been decried. Kirstie Alley called it a “dictatorial” tactic to curb “freedom of UNBRIDLED artistry.”[12] Michael Caine suggested not-White actors need to “be patient” and wait their turn. By universalizing his White experience, he imagined racism no longer exists. As he put it,

“Of course, it will come. It took me years to get an Oscar, years.”[13]

In the same vein, Charlotte Rampling believed boycotting the Oscars for its racism is “racist against whites.”[14] Catherine Deneuve said Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement to end sexual harassment—or vigorous and confident “flirting,” as she characterized it—went too far.[15] Such media figures as Alley, Cain, Rampling, and Deneuve have no issues with a system that benefits Whiteness.

Furthermore, focusing on what the Oscars exclude detracts from what they include—what is meant by “best.” Black actors win when they portray racists stereotypes. As Mammy in Gone with the Wind (USA, 1939; dir. Victor Fleming), Hattie McDaniel was the first to win one in 1940. Her win broke no barriers for others. She was an outlier. Eugene Franklin Wong describes racial segregation and stratification that determine who appears together on screen and who can work together on set.[16] Nancy Wang Yuen describes it as “reel inequity.”[17] As Latonja Snickler expains,

“In allowing the film industry and Hollywood to disregard Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964], society has allowed these industries to perpetuate a system that favors one race over others.”[18]

The point is that segregation and inequality are not solved by representational diversity and inclusion. Hollywood inserts not-White actors in non-stereotyped supporting roles—judges, police officers, and teachers—that serve a White-dominated system in what Sharon Willis calls “guest figures.”[19] Hollywood films appear diverse and inclusive while social structures of Whiteness remain.

Over Oscar’s 93 years, only 14 Black women and 24 Black men have been nominated for leading actor awards. Only six have been nominated as directors. Oscar myths dictate that exceptional not-White and not-Western people will “rise” to its merit. However, as #OscarsSoWhite founder April Reign describes the awards, they are less meritocracy than popularity contest. Academy members are not required to screen films before voting and award films and filmmakers that reflect their particular ideas about filmmaking and the world. By 2014 with over 86 years and 344 awards for acting, Oscar awarded only 24 (or 7%) to not-White actors; moreover,

“Arabs or Muslims are often portrayed as terrorists, African Americans as criminals such as drug dealers, Latinos as criminals such as gang members, and Whites as victims or heroes.”[20]

Such statistics are expected. Until recently, Academy voting members were 94% White and 76% male with an average age of 63, that is,

“older and more dude-heavy than just about any place in America [sic] and Whiter than all but seven states.”[21]

Membership reflects social power asymmetries, but even representational diversity and inclusion among membership is not a guaranteed solution. Some not-White and/or not-Western people are racist, and some women are sexist. Identities and politics align in complex ways. Affirmative Action disproportionately benefits White women because it flattens social difference to allows the most powerful to exploit systems. Olúfémi Táíwò describes such institutional appropriations and exploitations of “identity politics” as a

“tactic of performing symbolic identity politics to pacify protestors without enacting material reform” or “elite capture.”[22]

Institutions use diversity and inclusion most effectively to whitewash their own histories.[23] Educational institutions employ representational categories without challenging disciplinary structures, which can be an counterproductive as hiring neoliberal economists from the former Third World rather than hiring Third Worldist economists. They maintain a status quo.

Feigned ignorance is still racism

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington, experiencing the Sunken Place of liberal White folks in Get Out! (USA, 2017; dir. Jordan Peele).

When asked about Hollywood's “most insidious and insulting type of racism,” Wendall Pierce mentioned,

“the feigned ignorance’ of white industry members regarding finding talented directors, actors, and writers of color.”[24]

Comparably, Rosie Perez considers her “biggest struggle [in Hollywood] has been navigating through other people’s shortcomings,” especially “other people’s bigotry, racism—and specifically the ones that don’t understand that they are bigots or racists.”[25] Hollywood Reporter offers candid insights into what Academy voters think but won’t say publicly. About Get Out! (USA, 2017; dir. Jordan Peele), one confessed:

“what bothered me afterwards was that instead of focusing on the fact that this was an entertaining little horror movie that made quite a bit of money, they started trying to suggest it had deeper meaning than it does, and, as far as I’m concerned, they played the race card, and that really turned me off.”[26]

Sexualized racism is a theme that the film actually addresses. Thus, the member’s insecurity over Peele’s film both making “quite a bit of money” and containing “deeper meaning” would be amusing, were it not so racist.

The same member felt uncomfortable that Daniel Kaluuya who, he said,

“is not from the United States, was giving us a lecture on racism in America [sic] and how black lives matter, and I thought, ‘What does this have to do with Get Out? They’re trying to make me think that if I don’t vote for this movie, I’m a racist.’ I was really offended.”

Academy members do like some foreigners. They admired Winston Churchill, subject of a biopic that year. He is a hero in Britain and villain in India, where his extraction of food contributed to a famine killing millions.[27] Critics, educators, and scholars need to ask themselves whether they feign ignorance that such comments do not reflect, in part, how Oscar merit is determined.

Such scrutiny is not new. People magazine declared a “Hollywood blackout” in 1996. Esther Breger explains:

“The 68th Academy Awards, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg and produced by Quincy Jones, were two weeks away, and the magazine used its audience of nearly 4 million subscribers to announce a shocking discovery. Of the 166 Oscar nominees that year, only one was black.”[28]

The Black nominee was Dianne Houston for Tuesday Morning Ride (USA, 1995). At that time, Jesse Jackson organized a protest outside ABC affiliates, broadcasting the ceremony in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington. He was stigmatized as a troublemaker.

Jacqueline Keeler defines Whites-only nominations for acting in 2016, repeating 2015, as a “symptom of Hollywood’s racism.”[29] She finds “no Oscar nominations for Native American actors or filmmakers or writers” in the award’s 86 years.[30] Oscars recognize Indigenous people when they appear in films by Whites, such as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant (USA/Hong Kong/Taiwan, 2015). Because he is Mexican, Iñárritu’s nomination makes the Oscars appear inclusive. The Oscars adore the “three amigos”—Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuarón—who, Deborah Shaw notes, make films outside México yet “take on the role of advocates and ambassadors for the national film industry.”[31] They win Best Director constantly, helping Oscar deflect criticisms. As Jorge Cotte noted about Roma (México/USA, 2018),

“If Cuarón were a white American or European, a depiction of an indigenous woman that shored up so many parts of his family’s life would have been even more vulnerable to critical eyes.”[32]

Feigned ignorance extends to not noticing that Oscars rewards Whites and Westerners for appropriating not-White and not-Western stories, such as Gandhi (UK/India/USA, 1982; dir. Richard Attenborough) and Slumdog Millionaire (UK/USA, 2008; dir. Danny Boyle). The films refocus attention back on White filmmakers. Yasmina Price argues White filmmakers make neocolonial films about Africa when trying to critique neocolonialism.[33] Occasional awards go to not-White and not-Western filmmakers for films about White-Western people, notably Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (USA/Canada, 2002) and Zhoé Zhao’s Nomadland (USA, 2020).[34] Feigned ignorance extends to the kinds of not-Western stories that Oscars notices. With its precocious young girl, The Present (UK/Palestine, 2020; dir. Farah Nabulsi) did, much as Wadjda (Germany/Saudi Arabia, 2012; dir. Haifaa Al Mansour) had. Only Arab girls, who appear to act like White girls by defying what White women consider Arab and/or Muslim patriarchy, win Oscar nominations.

Waad Mohammed as Wadjda, performing “relatable” girlhood by riding a bicycle in an abaya in Wadjda (Germany/Saudi Arabia, 2012; dir. Haifaa Al Mansour). Maryam Kanj as Yasmin, performing “relatable” girlhood by ignoring IDF checkpoint in The Present (UK/Palestine, 2020; dir. Farah Nabulsi).