The 89th Academy Awards will take place this Sunday. The Oscars are a celebration where good looking, millionaire celebrities finally have a platform to reach a large audience – which they will undoubtedly use to call the president a racist.
Instead of a fashion pre-show where the host asks, “Who are you wearing?!,” Rachel Maddow should cover the red carpet and shout out, “What Trump insult are you using?!”
Calvin Klein and Oscar de la Renta would be replaced with responses like “Trump’s a bigot!” and “We’re living under a fascist regime!”
The Oscars, an awards show where Hollywood gives itself gold statues for creating movies about how great Hollywood is, will get even more self-congratulatory this year since the movie industry will also be able to celebrate its diversity. Films like Fences, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight resulted in 6 of the 20 acting nominations going to black actors, and 1 of the 5 director slots going to a black director. Doing the quick math, that means that despite being just 12.5% of the population, African Americans will make up 30% of the awards nominees and 20% of the directing nominees (I’m using the term African American here, though I’m sure half the nominees are sneaky British actors pretending to be American).
This means that on a rate basis, this years Oscars are far more black than last years were white. And it goes without saying that #OscarsSoBlack will not be trending among Hollywood liberals who are desperate for white actors to get a fair shake. Such a campaign would be a bigger flop than a Chinese movie starring bloated, pony-tailed Matt Damon.
But an #OscarsSoBlack campaign is not warranted. With only 20 acting nominations per year, there are bound to be huge swings in the racial breakdown each year. Any one year is not statistically significant. You have to look at the awards over a longer period of time. And as the Economist pointed out last year, black actors get Academy Award nominations a little less than we’d expect, but they win Oscars a little more than we’d expect.
Given this year’s results, you would think the media would call out #OscarsSoWhite for foolishly rushing to judgment last year. But instead they are crediting the hashtag with fixing Hollywood’s racial biases – even though the campaign was just hysteria over statistical variance. It’s the equivalent of rolling two 4s in a row, starting a twitter campaign against 4s, and then claiming credit when the next roll of the dice comes up a 6.
Yet serious media outlets are still interviewing the creators of the hashtag as if it solved some great crisis:
A huge reason—perhaps the primary reason—we’ve gone from such paltry representation at the Oscars for two years in a row, to a greater leap forward this year, is April Reign, the activist who first started the influential #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and reignited a movement towards inclusion in Hollywood.
Crediting April Reign with the number of nominations this year is insane. The real reason there are more nominations is because in 2016 there were more “Oscar-worthy” film choices with black casts. Last year the biggest snubs activists could come up with were Straight Outta Compton and Creed. These were fun movies, but they’re not prestige “films.” Movies make people happy and make studios money, but films make people feel self-important and win awards.
It’s a subtle distinction. Straight Outta Compton was the story of the creation of the rap group NWA. It was certainly entertaining, but giving it an Oscar would be like awarding a Michelin Star to Chicken McNuggets. More people may prefer Chicken McNuggets, but the Michelin Star is going to some restaurant that sticks foie gras and pine nuts into a pickled sea urchin.
Similarly, Creed was the 7th sequel of the Rocky franchise. Generally if a movie is the 4th sequel since the 3rd sequel, and the 3rd sequel featured Mr T in a prominent role, that movie is not going to resonate with Oscar voters. The 8th Rocky movie could feature Meryl Streep playing a female boxer in a Vietnamese POW camp and it still wouldn’t get a nomination.
Contrast that with this year’s movies. Hidden Figures is a historical drama about minorities using math to save the space program. Congratulations, it automatically gets a nomination. Fences is a film based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play, which means that it is super serious and depressing, and in other words, totally Oscar-worthy.
And this is the plot description for Moonlight:
The tender, heartbreaking story of a young man’s struggle to find himself, told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love, while grappling with his own sexuality.
It couldn’t be more Oscar-bait if it was literally gay cowboys eating pudding. Moonlight is the type of movie few people actually watch, but once they do, they feel the need to smugly tell everyone about it. Oscars don’t go to the best movies, they go to the movies that allow the viewer to feel the best about themselves once they’re done with the chore of watching them. People will still vote for Moonlight, even if they just kept re-watching John Wick: Chapter 2 instead of actually sitting through all of Moonlight.
So while there is a large number of “for your consideration” films featuring black casts this year, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign had nothing to do with the increase. It takes years to make a movie (unless it’s one of those Divergent movies – in which case they crank them out every eleven days). Moonlight received financing in 2013 and was filmed in 2015. The film rights to Hidden Figures were purchased in 2015. Denzel Washington starred in the play Fences in 2010 and later announced his desire to direct and star in a film version.
That’s why it is important to remember that the Oscars are not an accurate statistical representation of American society, they are acting awards given to literally 4 people. The #OscarsSoWhite campaign could easily be replaced with #OscarsSoEmmaStone. That doesn’t mean that the internet needs to campaign to right the wrong against people not named Emma Stone, it just means Hollywood awards are a silly thing to worry about.