The Big D Controversy doesn’t belong to Dallas, which is often called the Big D. This is Academy Awards season, and I’m talking about the Big Diversity or the #OscarsSoWhite Controversy that’s been in all the media. Hollywood is less than two weeks away from rolling out the Red Carpet. It looks like several big names will skip the ceremony, but Chris Rock is still the host and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs has set her hopeful gaze on the not-too-distant future. She wants to double minority and female membership by 2020. By most accounts, and to quote the actress Emma Thompson, “Let’s face it. . .the Oscar membership is mainly old white men.”
Meanwhile Hollywood names have weighed in on the controversy, and two actresses I admire for their work–Julie Delpy and Charlotte Rampling–have been skewered for their comments which seem racist to some or politically incorrect in the extreme to others. Delpy is French, Rampling is British. I’m American–not at all famous–but I, too, am a middle-aged white Caucasian female, and here’s a look at my thought process. When Jada Pinkett Smith first raised the issue, I was busy wondering who’d get my Best Actor/Actress votes. (Until the Academy decides to invite me, I’ll go on co-hosting the small Oscar Night party I’ve had at my home for years, complete with ballots.) So many great performances–the decision is hard. Leo was great as a grossly wounded, revengeful frontiersman, and we all know about the impossibly frigid weather conditions he had to endure; yet Eddie Redmayne was totally convincing as a loving husband who realizes he’d rather be a woman. As for the ladies: Cate was perfect as always, this time as an elegant, semi-closeted lesbian falling for a much younger woman who doesn’t yet know herself. BUT, Brie Larson was equally brilliant as the young woman who’s spent seven years locked up in ROOM, ultimate victim and loving mother intent on saving her son.
Whoever wins, it’s going to be hard to object (and that extends to the other nominees). It’s not a multiple choice test with right or wrong answers. It’s subjective and probably takes into account thinking like: Cate and Eddie have both won Oscars, and very recently; maybe we should spread the wealth. While I was aware that no ‘people of color’ had been nominated, maybe there was just too much talent this year, with not enough slots for all the great performances. Will Smith in Concussion and Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation, for example. Then again, what if prejudice was showing its true colors? The kind where the “old white men” are helpless prisoners of their upbringing and/or ‘lucky gene pool’, and they’re remembering Halle Berry & Denzel Washington and Lupita Nyong’o’s Supporting Actress two years ago–all deserving nominees who won for truly great performances, and by God, we voted for them.
A part of me understands that thinking, even though I like to rattle my cage and reject the role of prisoner. For me, the turning point was when I saw Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation. The film was in and out of theatres so fast I missed it, but then Netflix got it. Based on a novel, it could easily be a true story, and I was dreading watching a subject matter so grim. In W. Africa, a young boy orphaned by Civil War is forced to become a murderous guerilla soldier, and his reward? He’s sexually abused. Idris plays the sadistic Commandant warlord, who’s both charming and duplicitous. (He later won the SAG award for Best Supporting Actor). True Confession: I have great prejudice towards Idris. Ever since tuning into his BBC series Luther, I’ve become a huge fan. As an actor, he can do no wrong. Luther, on the other hand, is a brilliant London police detective who does a lot of bad things as he attempts to right some very great wrongs. Idris owns the role in the way that Jon Hamm owns Don Draper in Mad Men. Can you imagine anyone else on this planet stepping into his shoes? As for Beasts, I thought Idris deserved a nod as much as some of the other nominees. There’s been talk that he’s in the running to become the next James Bond when Daniel Craig decides he’s done. I think he’d be fantastic. Like Craig, he’s sexy, charismatic, smart, inventive, tough and vulnerable, but in a unique Idris Elba-way, not in a Daniel Craig-way.
Did Idris weigh in on the Oscar controversy? I wanted to find out. It turns out he has his opinions, but he was busy sharing them in the House of Commons on January 19. He’d been asked to address the British Parliament on the subject of British TV. At least part of his speech is on YouTube, but he posted the full text on-line. It’s full of insight, energy, humor and grace. “I’m not here to talk about black people; I’m here to talk about diversity,” he said, and I wondered if it would also apply to the U.S. “In the modern world, it’s more than just skin colour–it’s gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background–and most important of all, as far as I am concerned, diversity of thought. Because if you have genuine diversity of thought among people making TV and film, then you won’t accidentally shut out any of the groups I mentioned.”
So maybe that’s what’s happened with the Academy Awards these last two years. “The old white men” accidentally shut out people of color.
For those of you who don’t know Elba’s background: he grew up poor in England, the son of immigrants, and found work on TV–but they were all the same parts: gang members or a ‘best friend’. He had to go to America to reinvent himself so he could return to England and play a detective like Luther. What does this say about the U.S.? Our entertainment industry as a whole is more diverse, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Idris said, “The Britain I come from is the most successful, diverse, multicultural country on earth. But here’s my point: you wouldn’t know it if you turned on the TV. Too many of our creative decision-makers share the same background.” Substitute a few nouns, and he could be describing the U.S. It’s food for thought, anyway.
Actually, I have one small idea to help shape our world for the better. It’s one that could promote diversity of thought and limitless possibility. But this blog is far too long already, so please look for it next week. And I’ll have more things to say about Idris Elba. Chances are that he and I will never meet, but I’m proud to share the planet with him. More importantly, I’d like to think he’s proud to share the planet with me.