The question that haunted the American motion-picture industry in the two months leading up to the Academy Awards broadcast was this: Is Hollywood racist? In December, leaked emails revealed how one of Hollywood’s longest-serving studio chiefs, Amy Pascal, and its most prestigious producer, Scott Rudin, had amused each other by cracking jokes about Barack Obama’s favorite movies all being black-themed—in a manner only slightly more elevated than a colloquy about how our first black president must love fried chicken and watermelon.
A few weeks after that, the Oscar nominations were announced—and not a single person of color was nominated in an acting, directing, or writing category. Meanwhile, the year’s most serious film on the subject of race, Selma, received what can only be described as a token nod in the Best Picture category, which, given its lack of support in other categories, effectively meant it had no chance of winning.
The case appears to be airtight—and ridiculous at the same time. It’s airtight because, well, the head of Sony wrote private racist emails and the 6,000-plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave the backs of their hands to the cultural contributions of African Americans in the year 2014.
And yet it also seems ridiculous, because only a year earlier the Best Picture Oscar had been bestowed upon 12 Years a Slave, the brilliant and punishing depiction of antebellum perfidy. In the intervening months, America was riven by the protests arising from the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner on Staten Island—and all across social media, the world of entertainment spoke as one in its rage and upset at what it perceived to be the monumental injustices done to these unarmed black men.
In any case, how on earth could it be that the epicenter of self-righteous liberal sentiment, the cultural carrier and transmitter of every fashionable idea about the need for radical change to the American body politic over the past half-century, is simply a high-end Denny’s?
Well, here’s the straight answer: It is.
The motion-picture industry is startlingly retrogressive on the subject of race, and its lip service and political support for progressive causes provide unimaginative studio executives and get-along-to-go-along producers with an all-too-comfortable cover.
It’s not just the culture’s refusal to take account of stories involving race that do not conform to the stock liberal view that’s problematic but also its dogmatic insistence on ghettoizing its subject matter. With the exception of action pictures starring Denzel Washington, Hollywood is incapable of promoting movies featuring African Americans that don’t traffic in contemporary stereotypes—movies like Tyler Perry’s comic melodramas or the blockbuster Think Like a Man, designed and marketed to appeal solely to black audiences.
Indeed, the industry’s attitude toward race is exactly the kind of patronizing head-patting that was on display during the Oscars show itself. The host, Neil Patrick Harris, made a particular point of talking to African-American celebrities in the audience (See! We love black people!), made a joke about how the awards celebrated the “best and the whitest,” and offered his post-performance opinion that the song from Selma was “fan-tastic”! The critic Wesley Morris said of Harris that he dedicated the night to turning actors like Selma’s David Oyelowo “into employees and party tricks—and now a black British person!” Morris said that Harris was using them the way other hosts have used stars like Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in years past: “You can see what Harris was after, but his touch just left a stain.”
Harris is not to blame; he was reading from a script. The script for the Oscars is the American motion-picture industry’s attempt at being lovable and anodyne and inoffensive. And its very inoffensiveness was offensive.
Meanwhile, take a look at the small screen. Over the past three years, there have been three breakout broadcast television series—the only breakouts the networks have seen in a decade. Two of them—Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder—are on ABC and are the brainchildren of the African-American writer-producer Shonda Rhimes. Scandal has been ABC’s runaway show for three years. How to Get Away with Murder premiered in the fall of 2014 to ABC’s highest ratings in a decade. The third phenomenon, Empire, is the first network television program in a quarter-century to improve on its ratings every week since its debut in January.