Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Hollywood Babble On & On #1212: The Diversity Conundrum

There's a word that you can't escape from, especially if you spend any time hearing about the business behind media and show business.

That word is "diversity."

According to just about everyone there's not enough of it, especially in Hollywood, and super-especially at the Academy Awards, which is offering up its first all-Caucasian acting nomination slate since 1998. This development is considered especially shocking since Selma, a film about Martin Luther King jr. and the historic March on Selma, was expected to at least repeat, if not beat, the awards performance by last year's 12 Years A Slave, which had 9 Oscar nominations and 3 wins*.

When Selma was seemingly shut out, Hollywood was immediately declared irredeemably racist, the Academy an irredeemably racist institution, and every snub, nomination, win, or loss, is evidence of that racism. 

The truth, is probably far more complex.

Academy voting and counting procedures and statistics are kept secret, and for a reason, because they don't want producers and distributors trying to game the system even more than they already do. So we don't really know exactly why Selma was mostly shut out.

It could all boil down to a mathematical where the film, and the people involved were just 1 vote short of what it took to get a nomination in each category. Or it could all boil down to Academy voters donning white hoods and burning crosses in Beverly Hills. 

We don't know. 

Here's what we do know:

1. The film appears to be perfect Oscar bait. Stories about race, racism, civil rights, and the social-political upheavals of the 1960s really appeal to Academy voters. It should have got more nominations than it did.

2. Sadly, that obvious appeal may have made the producers and the distributor think that they didn't need to burn many calories on the Oscar Campaign. Many Hollywood insiders are saying that the campaign was badly run, chiefly with screeners arriving too late to affect the voting. Screeners are essential to getting Academy members to see your movie because they NEVER pay to see movies in theatres.

3. Many didn't like the film's negative portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson. This may have affected its votes since many Academy members not only voted for, but campaigned for Johnson back in the 1960s. 

Of course what caused the near-total-shutout will remain a mystery, but as you can see it's a little more complicated than many think, or would want you to think.

So, am I saying that Hollywood's diversity problem's a myth?


Hollywood DOES have a problem with diversity. 

Is it straight up racism and sexism?

I doubt Hollywood executives and filmmakers are dripping with hatred of women and minorities. I suspect the root of Hollywood's diversity problem is that they can't achieve what I call natural diversity, and try to fake their way through it through what I call unnatural diversity.

"What is natural diversity?" you ask, furrowing your brow in a feeble attempt to understand.

Natural diversity is when the make-up people working in front of and behind the camera reflects the make-up of the population at large, and no one really gets too worked up about it.

"All right," you say, your brow still furrowed, "but what's 'unnatural diversity?'"

Unnatural diversity is basically tokenism. Empty gestures meant to make the people making the gesture feel better about themselves, and maybe get some pats on the back for their "open-mindedness."

So why can't Hollywood achieve natural diversity?

1. PRE-SOLD PROPERTIES: Right now Hollywood is obsessed with blockbusters. Big expensive movies that can make hundreds of millions at the box office, and spend the next few decades being repeatedly licensed to TV and home viewing for big profits.

But those blockbusters are mostly based on properties that were created in an age when minorities were not only a smaller part of the population, they were considered even less by filmmakers and publishers. I'm talking about decades old superheroes, super-spies, and remakes out the wazoo, designed or re-designed to appeal to kids and teens.

This leads to talk that the next version of some long-existing franchise character must be changed to be black, a woman, or a black woman. When it is done,  usually in comics, which is comparatively rare, it's usually pawned off as an "alternate universe" version of the franchise, or as a minority character temporarily filling in for the white hero. 

One case where such a racial change seemed perfectly natural was when Denzel Washington stepped in the role made famous by Edward Woodward in the movie version of The Equalizer. That's because Denzel Washington is one of the few actors in Hollywood who could pull off the character of a mature heroic bad-ass and not look ridiculous or cartoony.

Usually, race and gender swapping already existing characters cheat everyone of the chance to develop new and original female and minority characters that might be able to stand on their own two feet with audiences. Which would make them examples of unnatural diversity.

2. NARROW WORLD VIEW: The executive suites of most Hollywood studios are predominantly upper-class white and male. This isn't the product of racism, but of inbreeding.

Look at the life stories of Hollywood's top management and many of them would sound so much alike. Upper echelon suburbs, elite universities, then a job in Hollywood. That's because to get in on the ground floor of Hollywood, you need to be already heavily wired into Hollywood. That might get you the job, but if you don't have a trust fund, or wealthy parents to keep you in vittles and fashionable business attire, forget it.

That's a long way from the old days. During the Golden Age the upper management was about 100% male and about 98% Jewish. But that didn't mean that the people they hired for management jobs had to be just like them. They were mostly self-made people who were looking for smart self-starters who could make them money. One of the top men at MGM was Eddie Mannix, who ran what you would call the "plant" aspect of the studio. He made sure the stages, the equipment, the budgets and the schedules, were running. He wasn't Jewish, and he also wasn't college educated. He was a fairground bouncer that MGM's owners realized was smarter than he looked, and they recruited him for management.

Lou Wasserman, the last of the classic-style moguls, was talent spotted by mega-agency MCA when he was a high school kid in Chicago and came in to book band for his school dance and showed he was already a tough negotiator. That led to a job in the MCA mailroom, that paid crap but enough to live on, to inspire him to work his way up the ladder. He did and ended up running the whole show.

Nowadays, neither Mannix or Wasserman would be even looked at by a modern studio. They didn't go to the right schools, belonged to the right clubs and fraternities, and they sure as hell didn't have the right social and familial connections to even be considered for a spot.

Such a narrow world view can lead to believing that the next cause is better than doing anything concrete.

3. THE PURCHASE OF INDULGENCES: One of the causes of the Protestant Reformation was the practise of the the "selling of indulgences." This was a way of buying forgiveness of sins in advance by giving money to the Catholic Church.

While the Church ended the practice centuries go, the practice thrives in Hollywood in a secular form.

Basically the people in Hollywood can deny opportunities to women and minorities, violate the environment with wild abandon, and commit other politically correct heresies and blasphemies without blowback. That is as long as they vote for the correct candidates, voice support for the correct causes, donate to the correct organizations and campaigns, and make the correct  gestures, whether these gestures achieve anything concrete or not.

I'm sure many in Hollywood are looking at all the complaints about their lack of diversity and saying: "They can't be talking about me, because I bought a 'This Is What A Feminist Looks Like' t-shirt, and I told MSNBC that they were doing a great job with Al Sharpton's show, even though I've never actually seen it."

This inability to see that they're part of the problem can lead to an extreme case of...

4. BLAME IT ON THE OTHER GUY: In the old days the folks running Hollywood could get away with a lot of racist and sexist shit by putting the blame on someone else. The most common stooge was the Southern United States. Wanted a black leading man? Can't do it, blame the South. Want to discuss racism or sexism in a serious way? Can't do it, blame the South.

Nowadays the blame has shifted to the "foreign markets" and they'll say things like: "Can't have a black lead, or a woman director, the Chinese won't buy it."

But is that right about foreign markets?

Was it even right about the Old South?

That's just it, we don't really know the truth, because all we have to go on are the people who complain the loudest. The people who scream and yell, and flood an office with letters of complaint that someone they don't like is doing something they don't like on the basis of their race or gender are most likely few in number. The great silent majority probably doesn't give a flying fuck as long as they're entertained. They have lives to live and don't have time to waste harassing people on the other side of the country.

That means the outraged, vocal, and occasionally violent can usually get their way regardless of whether or not they actually represent the majority of people they claim to speak for.

All these things pile up in the collective consciousness of Hollywood, giving it a case of nuclear level cognitive dissonance. They see the complaints, but can't conceive of any real way to fix the problem, because they can't see that they're part of the problem.

That's what I think, what do you think.


*In total 12 Years A Slave won 213 awards from various bodies out of 398 nominations, including the Oscars.

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