Non-Precious Commodities: Hollywood's Virtue Signalling Is Anything But Virtuous

Updated: Feb 16, 2019


Brady Jandreau in The Rider

Flashback to September of last year, and the upcoming awards season was beginning to take shape. The onslaught of festival titles at Venice, Toronto and Telluride had supplied the cinesphere with dozens of new potential Oscar contenders, and the outlook was vibrant and varied. On its hands, Fox had Widows, queer black filmmaker Steve McQueen's multi-racial follow-up to his Oscar Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave. Focus had Joel Edgerton's gay conversion therapy drama Boy Erased on their hands. Bleecker Street had queer titles such as Colette and Disobedience, and female-directed Leave No Trace. Amazon had another female-directed title, You Were Never Really Here, while Sony Classics had their own queer picture The Happy Prince from Rupert Everett. And Annapurna was swimming with possible awards hits including Boots Riley's highly political Sorry to Bother You and Barry Jenkins' James Baldwin adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk - both from black filmmakers and both with majority black casts.


Flashforward to the present day, nearly six months down the line, and look where we're at. Once again, the Oscar nominations have been and gone, effectively heralding the final shot that last year's movies will get at announcing themselves as ranking among its best works, and once again the cries have been heard that said varied outlook has been dulled and diminished. Diversity may be the buzzword of the moment, but awards season often reduces the concept to a buzzword alone, rather than a viable practice. Many of the above titles failed to register with awards bodies, for one reason or another, and one such reason was that their distributors decided to push easier sells to lazier voters. Amazon pitched Beautiful Boy and Cold War over Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here. Sony Classics utterly abandoned The Happy Prince in favour of Stan & Ollie and The Wife - films your granny might like, with zero gay spanking (they even managed to get Florian Henckel on Donnersmarck's three-hour not-so-return to form Never Look Away two Oscar nods). Annapurna threw its weight behind Adam McKay's smugly anti-intellectual, whiter-than-white Republican puff-piece Vice, which ended up garnering eight Oscar mentions to Beale Street's shamefully low three. Perhaps most egregiously, Fox thought to market Widows (a highly marketable picture) in lovely, eye-catching hues like taupe and pewter, then scrap its awards campaign almost altogether and lavish all their attention onto alleged serial child molester Bryan Singer's artless, thoughtless, grossly homophobic Bohemian Rhapsody.


Time and time again this awards season, we saw acclaimed movies from accomplished female directors shafted, and brash, crude movies from hack male directors with a bit more cash behind them lauded in their place. Desiree Akhavan, Sara Colangelo, Josephine Decker, Debra Granik, Marielle Heller, Tamara Jenkins, Lucrecia Martel, Josie Rourke, Lynne Ramsay, Chloe Zhao and so many more were overlooked, often as a direct result of studios opting not to invest in campaigns in spite of the critical success their movies had enjoyed. Those who recalled that success best - the critics - were more receptive to rewarding them: Debra Granik was the Los Angeles Film Critics Association's director of the year, and the National Society of Film Critics gave their Best Film prize to Chloe Zhao's The Rider. And thus attention was called to these movies, just as it was frequently called to those made by queer and POC filmmakers, and yet these achievements were just as frequently swept to the side to make way for the same old heterosexual white men and their same old shit. This is a season in which we've watched Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book each win televised Best Picture prizes, much to the delight of the industry and of audiences. This is also the age of Trump. Backlash? What backlash?


Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

If one interprets the Trump vote and the recent rise of the far-right in the West as a backlash against such societal progress as has permitted an increase in visibility for minorities and oppressed groups these past several years (or, more accurately perhaps, has been engendered by that increase), one might also look to the ways in which that progress continues to manifest itself. It's a game of tit-for-tat, then, between the sensible left and the extreme right, and the positive changes being made may have the greatest impact, if only in that they appear to represent a contiguous step toward equality, one among many. There's the French gender equality campaign 5050x2020, whose adoption by most major international film festivals (including Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Locarno and more) will mandate 50% of cast and crew of titles featured at these festivals to be female. And there's the 4% Challenge announced by USC Annenberg's Inclusion Initiative's Dr. Stacy L. Smith at Sundance, and promoted by Tessa Thompson, encouraging film professionals to work with at least one female feature film director over the following 18 months (the titular 4% comes from the detail that only 4% of directors of the top 1,200 movies over the past 12 years have been female).


The 4% Challenge has also enjoyed notable adopters including Jordan Peele, Reese Witherspoon and Kumail Nanjiani... and Universal Pictures. That one of the six (soon to be five) major studios should sign onto this initiative might seem encouraging, but consider: in the last 18 months, Universal has released 27 movies in the U.S. Committing themselves to ensuring that at least one in approximately 27 of their movies is directed by a woman doesn't even reach 4%, and would indeed represent a decline in female representation for the studio - of those 27 in the last 18 months, two were directed by women.


Michelle Rodriguez in Widows

The outlook, then, isn't great. Track record would indicate that studios in possession of movies from diverse voices are all too willing to dump those movies en route to easy commercial and awards success. Whether or not titles such as The Happy Prince, Leave No Trace, The Rider and Widows have the same potential to strike gold with voting bodies as those such as Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book and Vice isn't necessarily the point - had any of us been told, a decade ago, that Bryan Singer, Peter Farrelly and Adam McKay would each have Oscar nominees for Best Picture in the same year, we'd likely have scoffed. It's the opportunities that these filmmakers have received, rightly or otherwise, and the solid backing they've had in marketing their work to audiences, launching it into thousands of theatres, and selling it to voters, that has ensured this success.


Studios and campaign teams can lead the way in promoting diverse fare, and its ever-increasing demand strongly suggests that such promotions would yield good results, but it continues to look like they won't. Year upon year, we witness the same dumping of the same types of movie from the same minority voices. The extent to which we've gotten used to this process cannot now breed complacency among those of us inclined to resist this. It's not our responsibility to be the gatekeepers for diversity in the industry unless we insist upon it, and I, for one, am wholly willing to insist and insist and insist until adequate change is manifested. It's the industry's responsibility, including AMPAS, whose view on proper representation is now so narrow that it doesn't even include cinematographers, editors, makeup artists, hair stylists and short filmmakers; it's entirely evident that the industry is only going to keep disappointing us in this regard. Pay to see movies made by and about women, LGBTQIA+ persons, people of colour, and any and all oppressed and minority groups. Tweet about these movies. Write about these movies. Keep them in the conversation until awards season rolls around and they receive the kind of recognition that they need, and that Bohemian Rhapsody assuredly does not need. We don't want to flash back to more hopeful times, we want to flash forward to better times, when those hopes were realized thanks to our tenacity as cinephiles of good conscience.


Image Credit: MovieStillsDB

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