Thursday, January 28, 2016

Left Untouched - Oscar Boycott Blowback & Straight Outta Compton

UK actress Charlotte Rampling 
Over the course of this first month of 2016 I've already used this blog as a platform to vent about the film industry's ongoing struggle with diversity epitomized by the blowback over the Academy choosing not to nominate a single person of color for any of the 20 acting awards categories.

But with the 2016 SAG Awards coming up this Saturday, I wanted to circle back and take a quick look at some of the fallout from the Oscar nomination controversy since I blogged about it last Tuesday.

First let me say that I was quite impressed with the quality of former model-turned actress and 60's "It Girl" Charlotte Rampling's work on Showtime's series Dexter during the 2013 season, and more recently on the second season of the BBC series Broadchurch.

But given the litany of complaints from actresses about the lack of quality film roles for women "of a certain age", it struck me as more than a bit ironic that that the 69-year-old Rampling (who received a 2016 Best Actress Oscar nomination for her work in 45 Years) caused a stir during an interview last Friday morning with the French radio network Europe 1 when she announced that the protests over the Oscar nominations were "racist to whites."

Obviously Rampling is entitled to her opinion, but I felt that was a bit much.

To me, the reactionary tone of her comments made it seem as if she completely misread the widespread controversy over the Oscar nominations flap.

Hollywood executive DeVon Franklin
Most of the informed opinions and comments I've read from African-American and white Hollywood industry folks who were upset about the 2016 Oscar nomination seem more focused on the need of the Academy (and the film industry) to make inclusion and diversity in front of and behind the camera more of an industry priority.

With all due respect to Ms. Rampling, it's much more complex than some simplistic sweeping judgement that every one of the thousands of white Academy members are all "racists".

Cheryl Boone Issacs, the Academy's president,  is African-American and there are a number of African-American, Hispanic and Asian Academy members.

I think DeVon Franklin summed it up nicely in a short op-ed he wrote in the latest issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

Franklin is the African-American producer and chairman of Franklin Entertainment and a former senior VP of production at Sony's Columbia Pictures and MGM executive who produced such films as the remake of The Karate Kid, The Pursuit of Happyness and Jumping the Broom. In the THR article he wrote (in part):

"What we have seen in the Oscar nominations is only a symptom of the larger problem. It's not like the Academy and Hollywood system are two independent entities; this is an issue of Hollywood not having enough systems in place to deal with the problems that have been generational in terms of embracing all things that are different. Part of the problem is that, historically, the issue of diversity ends up falling on the shoulders of the human resource departments at the majority of studios and agencies. And unfortunately, the creative initiatives that actually produce change get left untouched. " 

But to be fair, Rampling wasn't the only high-profile actress to react a bit defensively to the Oscar nominations boycott protests and the explosion of the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. 

Penelope Ann Miller as Eve in ABC's American Crime
As Scott Feinberg reported in the January 29th issue of The Hollywood Reporter, actress Penelope Ann Miller (whose resume includes roles in films like Chaplin, Carlito's Way, The Freshman, and Awakenings) was one of the Academy members from the actors branch who took issue with being associated with what she felt were sweeping charges of racism leveled against the Academy. 

As Miller told Feinberg in the THR interview, she herself cast votes for African-American performers in the 2016 Oscar nominations, "But to imply that this is because all of us (Academy members) are racists is extremely offensive. I don't want to be lumped into a category of being a racist because I'm certainly not and because I support and benefit form the talent of black people in this business." 

As Feinberg noted, Miller had a meaty role in African-American writer John Ridley's critically acclaimed ABC series American Crime; Ridley won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 2013 for Twelve Years a Slave and is the author of seven novels.

Miller will also appear in the upcoming film about the true story of Virginia slave Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion The Birth of a Nation, which recently garnered a record $17.5 million bid for distribution rights by Fox Searchlight at the Sundance Film Festival - a clear sign that the film industry is already actively seeking out films and performances by African-American filmmakers and actors that will qualify for the 2017 Oscar race.

So clearly she's not a racist ( and I don't think anyone suggested she was) but I respect her coming out and setting the record straight.

Actress Whoopi Goldberg
Obviously the reactions from Hollywood actors/actresses and executives has been varied.

On the other side of the coin there were the high-profile decisions to boycott the Oscars altogether by director Spike Lee, actress Jada Pinkett-Smith and later, her husband Will Smith.

Talk show host, comedienne and Oscar-winning actress Whoppi Goldberg was predictably blunt about her feelings about calls for other African-American actors to boycott the Oscar Awards ceremony in February.

As Goldberg, herself  a voting member of  the Academy was quoted as saying:

"Boycotting doesn't work, and it's also a slap in the face to [host] Chris Rock. So I'm not going to boycott, but I'm going to continue to bitch."

While it is important to remember that there were no Hispanic or Asian faces on the 2016 Oscar nominations either, Whoppi is not the only African-American who disagreed with the Smith's and Lee's decision to skip the 2016 Oscars.

Luther Campbell
On Tuesday, the Miami fixture and popular former Two Live Crew frontman / rapper Luther Campbell penned an op-ed in The Miami New Times titled, "Boycott Will Smith, Not the Oscars, Until He Does More For Black Actors".

In his op-ed, Campbell, a long-time community activist who's been giving of his time and money to inner city Miami youth for years, suggested that Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith's reasons for boycotting the Oscars were more selfish as he (Will Smith) was upset about being overlooked for his role in the film 'Concussion'. 

I don't know Will Smith personally and he's notoriously guarded about his private life, but whatever specifically motivated his decision, I still think it took some cojones for him to publicly announce he was boycotting an industry event like the Oscars.

Regardless, Campbell took Smith to task for not using the millions he's made over the course of his career to do more to promote diversity in the industry.

Last year, after the Academy failed to nominate a single actor / actress for the 2015 Oscars, the African-American former attorney and writer April Reign coined the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, which blew up on social media as thousands of Twitter messages used the hashtag to voice the outrage that millions of people of all races felt.

#OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign
Her hashtag creation has exploded once again, and in the wake of the second consecutive year of the Academy nominating no performers of color, Reign offered a more practical solution to the problem, saying:

"I wonder if it makes sense to review how people become members and the requirements with respect to voting. For instance, it is not required that members actually view the movies before they vote."

Reign raises an important question that many have brought up; that some Academy members may have failed to nominate some performances simply because they didn't see them.

Or, in the case of a film like Straight Outta Compton directed by F. Gary Gray, the Academy membership (which is over 70% white with an average age of 63-years old) might simply not have felt connected enough with the story material to bother to see it - or be interested to.

As I've mentioned, as a member of the Screen Actors Guild, I make it a point to see as many of the nominated films as possible before I cast my vote for the SAG Awards.

I wanted to conclude this blog by saying that I've seen The Big Short, Spotlight and Straight Outta Compton. All of which are excellent films based on real-life experiences-stories.

Each of these films is vying for the SAG Award that recognizes an entire cast as an ensemble; a category the Oscars doesn't recognize (as if the Oscars telecast isn't long enough without adding a category where the whole cast has to come up on the stage...).

Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell & O'Shea Jackson, Jr.
The SAG ensemble award is quite prestigious and coveted by actors, and I have to say that having seen all three films, my vote is going to Straight Outta Compton.

I think it's possible a number of Academy members made the mistake of assuming that this film was simply about rap music.

It traces the career arc of the gangsta rap super group NWA and chronicles their rise from young kids living in the notorious Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles aspiring to create their own brand of hip-hop music, to their rise to global fame, and the eventual departure of stars Dr. Dre and Ice Cube onto huge solo careers.

This is one of the best films I've seen all year. It's a classic American story that traces the lives of characters that everyone can identify with; regardless of whether you like rap music or not.

The three main characters (pictured above), are played by Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre), Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E) and O'Shea Jackson, Jr. (Ice Cube), and they deliver nuanced performances that evolve and change over the course of the film.

These young actors breathe life, humanity and depth into musical icons who, for most people, have only really been known from the millions of albums they've sold since the late-80's.

Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller
Paul Giamatti's role as record producer Jerry Heller helps to anchor these character performances in ways that are profound and offer relevant commentary and insight into the American music industry.

This film is filled with universal themes that resonate with film audiences like family, friendship, forgiveness, the burning desire to "escape and make something of oneself" - and the perils and pitfalls of fame and fortune.

Some members of the Academy's writers branch, like Jeremy Larner, have said publicly that they felt this film was not worthy of a Best Picture nomination because, in his words, it's "not a great film for reasons of structure and substance."

As a writer I happen to disagree with him. A film does not have to be edited in a complex, non-linear fashion (like The Imitation Game for example) that jumps back and forth in time in order to have solid story structure.

And I'd challenge you to watch the film and say it doesn't have substance. Straight Outta Compton chronicles seismic changes in the music industry in the late 80's and 90's as hip-hop moved into the mainstream and literally altered the definition of pop music and entertainment.

Original members of NWA
In a nod to it's cultural relevance to issues that affect our society today, it also does an excellent job of showing how the outrageous conduct of the police who's presence in Compton and abusive treatment of some of it's black residents inspired NWA to write their classic controversial hit, 'Fuck Tha Police', which was vilified by politicians, conservatives, parent's groups and members of law enforcement in the 90's.

Even as it became an anthem for a young generation that learned how to protest the abuse of police power through the music of NWA.

The acting ensembles in The Big Short and Spotlight were excellent, and the actors in those films are all top notch veterans, but I have to say that the chemistry between the cast of Straight Outta Compton delivered a raw emotion that touched me on profound levels in ways the other two films did not.

Some might reasonably argue that the heavy subject matter of The Big Short (the sub-prime mortgage crisis) and Spotlight (the sex abuse scandal of the Catholic church in Boston) might have had a more widespread impact on the lives of Americans; but the subject matter of Straight Outta Compton is no less relevant to American culture - and it's impact on society just as lasting.

As film executive Devon Franklin noted, there's a lot that the American film industry has "left untouched".

Universal Pictures Donna Langley
But the decision by Universal Studios chairman Donna Langley to greenlight Straight Outta Compton, believe in the story, and make the film with the full backing of the studio paid off.

The film had grossed over $200 million worldwide back in November and was a box office and critical success and is the highest grossing Hollywood musical bio-pic in history.

No simple feat for a film with an R-rating either.

It shatters the Hollywood myth that films centered around African-American stories and characters won't appeal to white audiences, or make money at the box office.

It also helps to remind the film industry that there is reward in taking risk.

While the members of the Academy did nominate the (white) screenwriters of Straight Outta Compton, I think they may have overlooked the performances in this film; particularly Jason Mitchell's outstanding performance as Eric "Eazy-E" Wright.

But critics and audiences did not.

And when I cast my votes for the 2016 SAG Awards later tonight, I certainly won't leave Straight Outta Compton "left untouched."

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