As I’ve noted elsewhere, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign in that it helps expose a very real problem with the Academy Awards: the remarkably limited nature of what is considered “Oscar-worthy.” The Eddie Redmayne Problem, as I termed it, is real and it is insidious:
Redmayne followed up that period picture [The Theory of Everything, for which he won an Oscar] about a man with a physical disability with a period picture about a transgender activist coming to grips with her identity. Naturally, it was a role that became an instant front-runner for best actor consideration as soon as the first photos dropped. Obviously, he garnered a nomination. And if it weren’t for the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio ate raw liver in the freezing cold during the filming of “The Revenant,” Redmayne would probably be the odds-on favorite to take home another trophy.
In other words, the narrowness of what constitutes an Oscar-worthy film is a huge part of the problem. It’s no wonder the brilliant Samuel L. Jackson didn’t get a nomination for any of his great turns this year: lisping billionaire environmental nutjob, pimp-suited Greek chorus and Confederate-raping bounty hunter don’t scream “Oscar bait.” You shouldn’t be able to guess who will be nominated for a supposedly merit-based award without having seen a second of that person’s performance.
That being said, there’s something rather insidious and lame about suggesting that art must meet some sort of quota system in order to be considered good, that a racial checklist must be ticked in order to avoid censure. Brothers Ethan and Joel Coen laid bare the absurdity of this thinking in an interview with the Daily Beast:
I asked the Coens to respond to criticisms that there aren’t more minority characters in the film. In other words, why is #HailCaesarSoWhite?
“Why would there be?” countered Joel Coen. “I don’t understand the question. No—I understand that you’re asking the question, I don’t understand where the question comes from.”
I kind of wish I had been in the room when Jen Yamato asked her followup:
“Not why people want more diversity—why they would single out a particular movie and say, ‘Why aren’t there black or Chinese or Martians in this movie? What’s going on?’ That’s the question I don’t understand. The person who asks that question has to come in the room and explain it to me.”
As filmmakers, is it important or not important to consciously factor in concerns like diversity, I asked.
I wonder how often filmmakers push back on this rather than blandly nodding along and saying “yes, of course, that is the most important thing.” Here’s how the Coens responded:
“Not in the least!” Ethan answered. “It’s important to tell the story you’re telling in the right way, which might involve black people or people of whatever heritage or ethnicity—or it might not.”
“It’s an absolute, absurd misunderstanding of how things get made to single out any particular story and say, ‘Why aren’t there this, that, or the other thing?’” added Joel. “It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how stories are written. So you have to start there and say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
wow v problematic
He continued: “You don’t sit down and write a story and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog,’—right? That’s not how stories get written. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand anything about how stories get written and you don’t realize that the question you’re asking is idiotic.”
Emphasis mine because, ouch. That’s an incredibly blunt—and, frankly, incredibly refreshing—answer.
Anyway, I’m curious to see how these comments are received. Something tells me that their new movie, Hail, Caesar! will be their most problematic film yet.