THE LONG SHOT: Minority report

Posted by · 5:49 pm · October 15th, 2009

PreciousWhen the Academy Awards roll around in March, it will have been precisely two decades since the unlikely figure of Kim Basinger blasted Academy voters’ conservatism on air at the 1989 ceremony, with specific regard to their sidelining of “Do the Right Thing,” Spike Lee’s groundbreaking study of urban interracial tension.

“We’ve got five great films here, and they’re great for one reason – they tell the truth,” the star opined before presenting a clip from one of that year’s Best Picture nominees. “But there is one film missing from this list that deserves to be on it because, ironically, it might tell the biggest truth of all.”

As if in response, later that evening, the Academy handed their top prize to “Driving Miss Daisy,” as quiet and uncontroversial a portrait of the American racial divide as you could ask for. Let it never be said that the Oscars have no sense of irony.

20 years on, much has changed. (Basinger has become an Oscar-winning actress, for starters. No one saw that coming.) More to the point, the amount of black Oscar winners in acting categories has trebled. And just two years after Basinger’s outburst, the Academy named 23 year-old John Singleton their first black Best Director nominee.

Another 14 years after that, Ang Lee became the first non-white winner in the same category – in the same year that a polarizing film about, yes, urban interracial tension took the gold. Eight months ago, we saw another Oscar barrier broken, as a film with not a single white cast member swept the board. Call this all compromised progress if you will – both the latter films were made by white men, after all – but back in March 1990, it would have sounded pretty damn revolutionary.

So it’s coincidental but oddly resonant that, in the 20-year anniversary of Lee’s film and the Academy’s blunder, minorities look to feature so heavily in the awards discussion. And not merely in a racial sense, as gay and female filmmakers also seek to redress years of imbalance in Oscar voting. (Yes, women may not be a minority in America, but they certainly are one in the industry.)

Slumdog MillionaireIndeed, this could be the second year running that a film with no white principals steals the Academy’s heart, as Lee Daniels’s lavishly praised “Precious” looks a more sizable threat by the week. (Asked recently by a friend to bet blindly on a Best Picture winner, “Precious” – which I haven’t even seen yet – was the title I blurted out.)

Unlike the fanciful, universal underdog story of “Slumdog Millionaire,” however, “Precious” has far more culturally specific concerns. There was a time when a ghetto-set tale of rape, illiteracy and AIDS within the African-American community wouldn’t have even crossed the Academy’s radar; as it stands, voters will clearly have to give it serious consideration.

Of course, it won’t be the first time that a black-oriented film has entered the race as a major contender: “The Color Purple” and “Dreamgirls” were both early favorites in their respective years, only for their hopes to be dashed as they missed the cut for Best Director and Best Picture respectively.

“Precious,” however, has rather a lot more riding on it. If/when it earns a Best Picture nomination, it will be the first “black” film to do so that is actually by the hand of a black filmmaker – a crucial distinction to make when speculating how far the Academy might stray this year from the white male perspective shared by most of their voters. That Daniels also happens to be gay only heightens the disconnect – and raises the stakes yet further.

Although a very different film and a far longer shot for a Best Picture berth, Tom Ford’s “A Single Man,” so far the surprise package of the season, carries a similar potential significance for a different minority.

Matthew Goode and Colin Firth in A Single Man“Brokeback Mountain” may have (almost) represented a landmark for gay-themed cinema at the Oscars four years ago, but modestly guided as it was by a heterosexual helmer, it was a very different proposition from Ford’s film, with its gay-icon director and overtly homoerotic gaze. On the heels of “Milk,” a gay-themed film from a gay filmmaker that nonetheless played rather, well, straight, the degree to which “A Single Man” registers with the Academy beyond a surefire bid for its (straight) star could indicate how deep voters are willing to dip their toes into the pool of queer cinema.

(Of course, there’s an argument to be made that “Midnight Cowboy,” which differed from “Brokeback” in having both a gay director and actually winning Best Picture, got there before any of these films.)

Add this to the “year of the woman” narrative that many are crafting around the season, and the 2009 Oscar race should be an interesting test of where the Academy’s collective heads are at, sociologically speaking. Of course, the expansion of the Best Picture category makes it easier for the Academy to disguise potential prejudices, significantly lowering the odds that “Precious,” or any of the surfeit of female-directed contenders, would normally face to make the cut. (At this stage, I still see “A Single Man” on the outside looking in.)

All of which makes Best Director the more vital category to watch. If “Precious” gets a nod but Lee Daniels does not, or if the nomination train for Kathryn Bigelow and Lone Scherfig’s films misses only at the directors’ branch (as it did for Randa Haines, Penny Marshall and Barbra Streisand between 1986 and 1991), expect more than a few protests. Somebody start priming Kim Basinger.

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35 responses so far

  • 1 10-15-2009 at 6:46 pm

    Andrew R. said...

    Great post. I never put some of these things together. Quite a few combinations of winners could make this the year with the highest rate of minority winners.

    This one just off the top of my head but could see happening at this point.

    Picture – Precious
    Director – Lee Daniels
    Adapted Screenplay – Geoffrey Fletcher
    Actress – Gabby Sidibe
    Actor – Morgan Freeman
    Supporting Actress – Mo’Nique

    and maybe even Mary J. Blige for her song for the film.

    And if say only one or two of those didn’t win, say it was Mulligan or Firth, that would still be a winners list for the Oscar books. Its very exciting.

  • 2 10-15-2009 at 6:53 pm

    Frank Lee said...

    Bassinger’s suggestion — that the reason “Do the Right Thing” didn’t get multiple Oscar nominations was because it told too uncomfortable a truth — is not something one can prove or disprove, support or refute. It’s just a self-adoring assertion.

  • 3 10-15-2009 at 7:03 pm

    Loyal said...

    I wrote an article a few days back about The Race of Oscar

    I think its interesting that the 2000s have been evolutionary in terms of Oscar nominations and wins for Blacks, but only in front of the camera. Precious could change that as the decade comes to a close.

  • 4 10-15-2009 at 7:09 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    And probably true.

  • 5 10-15-2009 at 7:20 pm

    Michael said...

    yeah….”field of dreams” getting nominated over “do the right thing” is pretty embarrassing, even for the oscars.

    Great article Guy, I really am enjoying this The Long Shot series a lot. Good writing and a different point of view plus topics that one wouldn’t normally think about in regards to the history and future of the Academy Awards equals a fascinating read. Not that you were necessarily asserting anything with this article, but I personally would love it if this year someone besides a white male would win for best director…if they deserved to win. Be it a woman, black person, gay person, whoever, but seeing someone else up there would really be nice for a change. Of course only if they deserved it, but this year seems to be the year where the minorities you have mentioned have the opportunity to have their say and finally accept the award for best director,etc. as they should have years ago.

  • 6 10-15-2009 at 9:04 pm

    j said...

    Oh, I just ranted about race in an AD comment. 3/last 8 Best Actors are black while African-Americans are 13% of the population. This year Freeman, Mo’Nique, & Gabby seem at least guaranteed noms.

    Meanwhile, a total of zero Asian actors have been nominated as lead, no Asian actor has ever gotten 2 noms, and currently only 2 nominated Asian actors are alive. With Ang Lee, the Academy is always just a step behind the rest of the industry. For Sense & Sensibility he got noms from DGA/Globes/Baftas which only one other person did that year but the Academy decided they wanted to increase Mel Gibson’s chances because he was a movie star so snubbed Lee altogether; then he WON the Bafta, DGA, and Globe, but the Academy decided a nomination was prize enough for him; finally the Globes/Baftas chose BBM as Best Picture and the PGA/WGA/BFCA/DGA all chose it as the best. And the Academy decides BD is enough for him and chooses to reward ugh instead.

  • 7 10-15-2009 at 9:19 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Great points from everyone and it’s a subject that I think should be raised more often, especially when celebrities like George Clooney make grandstanding proclamations about the progressive superiority of AMPAS. The next time some movie star makes that claim, maybe someone can remind him that the American populace voted for a black President BEFORE the Academy membership voted for a black Best Director.

  • 8 10-15-2009 at 9:31 pm

    Silencio said...

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read all year.

  • 9 10-15-2009 at 10:20 pm

    Glenn said...

    I do love there is a faint possibility that the entire best director line up could be made up of african americans, homosexuals and women. I know it won’t be like that, but just imagine. Hey, if “Taking Woodstock” was good you could have even included Asian into the minority mix. Crazy.

  • 10 10-15-2009 at 11:16 pm

    Rob said...

    Surely a gay AND black winner for Best Director would be some sort of landmark?

  • 11 10-15-2009 at 11:44 pm

    snowballa said...

    I’m not ready to pat the Academy or any other organization for being better to minorities. Fact is, this should be as common place as anything else there is in this world. Hollywood is supposedly not black or white but all about green but yet they are so myopic in their thinking. Frustrating to say the least.

  • 12 10-15-2009 at 11:46 pm

    red_wine said...

    Interesting bit there about Basinger. Never knew she had it in her. We must have such out-bursts more often. It would add meaning and an element of surprise to he show, both of which it is currently lacking. But if these grand-standing changing in perspectives are to come with films like Slumdog, this change is both unwanted and harmful. I just hope that Precious is deserving of all the added historical weight being shoved upon it.

  • 13 10-15-2009 at 11:48 pm

    snowballa said...

    Also, look at the roles that the African-American actors have been nominated for. Roles pertaining to their race (which another article pointed out). Obviously the race of characters are inherent in their actions but it just never seems that a black actor is just playing a character, rather than playing a black character (i.e. Jennifer Hudson, a Supreme type trying to break into the white industry, Denzel playing a black cop on a mostly white force, Djimon Honsou playing an African man helping DiCaprio, Halle playing a black woman in love with a white man, etc.)

  • 14 10-16-2009 at 2:48 am

    mike said...

    i’m kinda sick of the racial whining 2 be honest, denzel, Jamie Foxx, Forrest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, ,three 6 mafia , halle berry, Morgan Freeman have won a bunch of oscars recently, if anything the academy has gone above and beyond 2 prove they are not racist. Ang Lee, Penelope Cruz, the guy from No Country 4 Old Men, i cant even remeber the last time a white amercian won an oscar 2 be honest.

    all i know is , Where The Wild Things Are better win this year.

    interesting post though. Now this movie Precious, i have not seen it but it do sound kinda cliched, the type of ish guilty tripped liberals love, but Paula Patton is in it so i’d probably see it 4 that alone.

  • 15 10-16-2009 at 3:33 am

    Glenn said...

    TBH, I’ve always felt that it’s hardly the Academy’s fault they don’t nominate more black actors or asians or latinos. It’s more the fault of the filmmakers (and the studios) who don’t actually cast them (or cast them in meaty enough roles).

  • 16 10-16-2009 at 3:39 am

    Glenn said...

    Although having said that, the “Do the Right Thing” snub was painful. Right on Kim Basinger for doing it. I wish there was a clip of it on YouTube.

  • 17 10-16-2009 at 4:35 am

    "Julianstark" said...

    Fantastic article. Probably one of the best film articles I’ve ever read

  • 18 10-16-2009 at 6:12 am

    Frank said...

    Agreed the “Do the Right Thing” snub was horrible (the biggest snub was not nominating Lee who directed the shit out of the film), but looking at the nominees that year, the original screenplay diss was ridiculous.

    Five solid films were nominated that year and if three (“Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Sex, Lies, and Videotapes,” and “When Harry met Sally”) would’ve beaten “Do the Right Thing” at least you could argue they deserved it. But of course, the least impressive (the respectable “Dead Poets Society”) won.

  • 19 10-16-2009 at 6:15 am

    marco70go said...

    I join the chorus of approval: great article, really.

    I still remember watching Basinger’s outburst, and hearing the embarassed applause she got in return for saying that..

    Although ‘Do the Right Thing’ had actually been considered a dark horse in the race for the Best Picture nominations, Spike Lee was considered a shoo-in for being nominated as Best Director; so, seeing him receive the nomination only in the best Original Screenplay category, and the movie receiving its only other nomination by singling out the supporting performance of a WHITE member of the cast (DannyAiello) really looked outrageous.

  • 20 10-16-2009 at 6:31 am

    John H. Foote said...

    Terrific article Guy — I remember well Basinger’s outburst and Denzel Washington’s sly comment that “Glory” had been one of the five best films he had seen that year” yet that film also got no Best Picture nomination — I cannot honestly see how they can ignore “Precious” as it is simply too astonishing a work to be snubbed, from the performances, through the direction, editing, writing, cinematography and music — Daniels does an incredible job with the film, hand the man an Oscar right now — Mo’Nique gives an astonishing performance dso full of hate and toxic rage I could barely look at her character throughout the film — without question the finest American film since “Schindler’s List” and “Raging Bull”…but this is no date movie, demanding, horrific, full of rage, but ultimately hope, somehow, they find hope in this life of hell this young firl leads…God I loved this film.

  • 21 10-16-2009 at 7:54 am

    Ivan said...

    So, it’s all about politics? It doesn’t matter anymore that the best movie should win, it’s more important if the director is gay or African-American? I still think SCHINDLER’S LIST wouldn’t stand a chance against THE PIANO if Jane Campion was male! So she should receive her compensatory Oscar for BRIGHT STAR and be this year’s Martin Scorsese!

  • 22 10-16-2009 at 7:59 am

    mike said...

    if its as good as John H Foote says then by all means give Precious the Oscar. I didnt know it was on that level ( Raging Bull?? Schindlers List?? ) and 2 be honest, i dont know what i am talking about i was just going off the trailer really when i was underplaying it.

  • 23 10-16-2009 at 8:37 am

    Loyal said...

    I still don’t quite understand why people continue to compare the plight of blacks in Hollywood to those of latinos and asians.

    An asian film won last year, granted it was at the hands of a Brit. But a win is a win. And Ang Lee has won BD.

    How many blacks have been nominated for BD? One. That’s insane.

  • 24 10-16-2009 at 8:40 am

    red_wine said...

    Slumdog is not an Asian film. Its a British film. The Brits will kick up an uproar if you tell me that their precious Slumdog is from any other country than theirs.

  • 25 10-16-2009 at 9:36 am

    Sam said...

    Very pretentious article. Why are some people so obsessed with surface qualities such as race, sex, and sexual orientation of the actors and/or directors? I just don’t see the point. The Academy shouldn’t award artists just because they haven’t awarded a certain segment of the population. At its purist, awards should come to artists based on the art produced, not the social background.

    But since most left-of-center individuals dwell in stereotypes anyway, its not really surprising.

  • 26 10-16-2009 at 9:41 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    “I still think SCHINDLER’S LIST wouldn’t stand a chance against THE PIANO if Jane Campion was male!”

    Not true. There’s a reason why Hollywood continues to make Holocaust movies and why they continue to win prestige and awards – it’s the power majority’s plight.

  • 27 10-16-2009 at 9:48 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    “Very pretentious article. Why are some people so obsessed with surface qualities such as race, sex, and sexual orientation of the actors and/or directors? I just don’t see the point. The Academy shouldn’t award artists just because they haven’t awarded a certain segment of the population. At its purist, awards should come to artists based on the art produced, not the social background.

    But since most left-of-center individuals dwell in stereotypes anyway, its not really surprising.”

    Hollywood was built on negative stereotypes. Women to this day suffer sexism and ageism no matter how talented they are. People of color have trouble being cast in anything of merit – and depending on what racial group you fall under it can be even impossible to get substantial work.

    Btw the Oscars have been political from their inception decade.

  • 28 10-16-2009 at 10:52 am

    movieguy1 said...

    @ “mike”:

    Can anyone posting on this site be taken seriously as a fan of cinema if they refer to Javier Bardem as “that guy from ‘No Country for Old Men?'”

  • 29 10-16-2009 at 10:57 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Sam: I’m not sure you could make a case for this article being pretentious if you tried. If you actually read the piece, you’d see that Guy isn’t calling on the Academy to award merely due to race.

    Your comment, actually, is what I’d call “pretentious.”

  • 30 10-16-2009 at 2:17 pm

    Al said...

    I hate all of you. I doubt they take into account race, I think they go by specifically films and how good they are on that merit. Now then, I agree that Do the Right Thing should have at least gotten the Best Picture Nomination, but I don’t attribute the snub to race. With Precious, if the film is really Best Picture quality, then great, if it isn’t great though, it shouldn’t be nominated purely for being a film about african americans….which is what I’m seeing from a lot of comments, bare in mind, a lot of us haven’t seen it yet. I know the folks that run this site have, they seem to enjoy it-they have a right to that opinion, they’ve actually seen the movie.

  • 31 10-16-2009 at 2:21 pm

    Patryk said...

    Insightful…a great essay. I read it 3 times.

  • 32 10-16-2009 at 5:41 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Thanks, everyone, for the kind comments and thoughtful discussion.

    I think one or two of you have misread the article slightly — with the exception of the intro regarding “Do the Right Thing” (which I think most will agree was one of the more glaring Oscar snubs of its era), my intention was to observe and interpret the Academy’s recent decisions, not to pass judgment on them.

    I’d be the last person to suggest a film’s (or actor’s) demographic minority aspects should make it more deserving of recognition — affirmative action should have no place in art, though it’s naive to suggest that voters and industry watchers never give any thought to such issues. (I certainly wasn’t one of the many folks who cried racism when “Dreamgirls” was snubbed, for example — rather, I applauded the Academy for a fair reaction to a bad film.)

    And Sam, “pretentious” is a curious choice of word, since I don’t think the article is pretending to be anything that it isn’t. I welcome constructive feedback, but I have no idea what to do with that comment.

  • 33 10-17-2009 at 3:47 am

    mike said...

    @movieguy1, sorry, his name just escaped me 4 a sec but i’m very aware who javier is and his reputation.

  • 34 10-17-2009 at 4:34 am

    Finwë said...

    Don’t watch any Margaret Cho do ya, Loyal? Asians have it worse off than any other minority in the industry. How many do you see on US TV in lead roles? Masi Oka in Heroes is the closest one (admittedly, I haven’t watched network TV in 4 years, but I highly doubt it’s any different).

  • 35 10-17-2009 at 6:41 am

    j said...

    Oh, also, of the 4 films whose Asian directors were nominated all were by foreign-born directors and 3 of 4 were foreign-language films. So those aren’t even representative of Asian America as much as they are foreign cinema, much the way that, say, Brazilian Meirelles was nominated for his foreign film, or Spanish Almodovar was nominated for his foreign film.

    So that makes it one American, or even one English-language, film directed by an Asian to have a BD nom. Similarly, one American, which is one English-language, film directed by an African American has a BD nom; soon it looks like that’ll be two…and again no Asian has been nominated for lead acting and no Asian has had 2 acting noms.