The Academy Awards will begin in a few hours, which means that one of the two major political races of 2016 will be over by midnight. It says something about our current culture of outrage that a show that Billy Crystal recently summarized as "watching millionaires present each other with golden statues" has competed with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders for center stage in our national debate about race and inequality. In recent weeks, I've grown increasingly annoyed by the #OscarSoWhite debate, which strikes me as a protest, however well-intentioned, against a wrong and insignificant target. But, at very least, I have come to understand it better as the show date approaches.
Campaigns need an audience, and the Oscars are Hollywood's biggest public-relations event of the year. One could point to any number of more appropriate targets in the fight for greater Hollywood diversity, but a social movement centered on the Oscars will attract a great deal more attention than a picket outside a casting director's office or executive's boardroom. The Academy Awards, for better or worse, are where the action is -- the equivalent of Black Lives Matter activists interrupting a presidential candidate's speech or Occupy protesters camping outside City Hall.
The problem for #OscarSoWhite, like those other movements, is that it's built primarily on emotions, and emotions don't always translate to a clear villain or solution. During the height of the Occupy movement, I spoke to any number of people who had the same question: When will the protesters know that they've won and can pack up their tents and go home? Likewise, at what point will the Oscars become sufficiently non-white? If one black actor is nominated in 2017, will the protests subside? Will it take two black actors? Three? A number proportional to the U.S. black population? For that matter, should there be at least one nominee of Asian, Latino and Arab descent? In the wake of #OscarSoWhite, the Academy has taken admirable steps to increase diversity in its ranks. But will that achieve the desired outcome? A nonwhite Academy voter, after all, can be intensely proud of his heritage and still believe that Matt Damon gave the year's best performance.
I am not being sarcastic or dismissive here. I would love to see an array of faces on the big screen that better reflects the faces in the audience. One of my favorite television shows in recent years is Aziz Ansari's provocative Master of None, which has dealt frankly with the stereotypes of Indians in American entertainment and the difficulties that Asian actors face in landing quality roles. I have long detested "white savior" movies such as The Help, which allow black characters to be emancipated only if a light-skinned crusader does most of the heavy lifting. And I was heartened, like many, to see that the latest Star Wars movie cast a woman and a black man as its leads.
But therein lies the trouble: For a movement to effect true change, it needs to convince the public that injustice is truly taking place, and, better yet, intentionally so. Does Hollywood treat nonwhites unfairly? Perhaps sometimes, but a Star Wars leading role is hardly apartheid. Is there an anti-minority law that we can abolish, an individual studio head that we can fire, a theater chain that we can boycott? Evidently not. And it doesn't take a devil's advocate to point out that, whatever the disappointment over the acting nominees this year, the Oscars have showered gold in the last two decades on Cuba Gooding Jr., Benicio Del Toro, Jennifer Hudson, Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, Mo'Nique, Lupita Nyong'o and Octavia Spencer -- to say nothing of nominees such as Eddie Murphy, Viola Davis, Ken Watanabe and so on. This year, black comedian Chris Rock will host the show; black filmmaker Spike Lee will receive a career achievement award; the Academy's own president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, is a black woman. Diversity triumphs!
Well, except when it doesn't. If #OscarSoWhite achieves anything of substance, it will be to jolt directors and studios into thinking more broadly in terms of color. Should Alicia Nash, who was born in El Salvador, have been portrayed in A Beautiful Mind by a Latina actress rather than white Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly? Yes. Could the stranded astronaut in The Martian or the imprisoned mother in Room have just as easily been of Asian or Native American descent? Of course. Does that mean that Damon and Brie Larson should have been denied the parts? Ah, now we've opened up another can of worms. But the more diverse the actors that studios have to choose from, the more likely we are to see nonwhites in roles meatier than token ones.
That would be a far more momentous development than anything likely to happen in the Oscars tonight. As Crystal put it, the Academy Awards are essentially there to give Hollywood a night of self-congratulation, and given the online reaction to the show (best dressed! worst dressed! five most awkward moments!), it's plain that they amount to a trashy good time. Some Best Picture winners (Shakespeare in Love, Crash, The King's Speech) get branded almost instantly as incompetent choices; the reviews the morning after the show are as likely to decry the host's misfired jokes as they are to analyze the worth of the winners. The Oscars are one of those rare institutions, like supermarket tabloids, that we wouldn't love nearly as much if we didn't also hate them. In a perverse way, the cacophony over race before this year's show is part of the entertainment itself; how many people, regardless of color, are champing at the bit to hear Rock tee off on it during his opening monologue?
He will, of course, and some winners and presenters will refer to race in their speeches, of course, and #OscarSoWhite will steadily lose momentum after the show itself becomes part of history. Then things, in all likelihood, will go back to business as usual. Hollywood will return to doing what it does best -- making money -- and some nonwhite actors will catch a break, and some won't, and activists will continue to decry the majority of white leads while their opponents point to Star Wars and whichever black-led film made $50 million at the box office a month ago. Women directors will continue to fight for recognition, performers like Ansari will continue to needle the status quo, and if revolution comes to Hollywood, we can thank crusaders like them rather than Academy ballots. Oscar so white? I can respond to that statement by inserting the missing verb not once but twice: Oscar is what it is.