John Seven: Oscars flap shows 'separate but equal' not enough

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PITTSFIELD — Charlotte Rampling may have a long and distinguished acting career, but it sure didn't teach her much about care when delivering words to audiences.

If it had, surely she would have realized that when speaking about race, it's best to speak delicately and cautiously, at the very least considering the actual words that are coming out of your mouth.

But she didn't, proclaiming the Oscars boycott protesting the lack of black nominees as being "racist to whites." She also discovered that elderly stars with respectable careers do not necessarily have much cache with the younger audience, especially the younger black audience.

Being an icon of empowered sexuality, a groundbreaking presence in film in the 1960s and '70s, is pretty much meaningless now. The kids don't know much about art films anymore.

But the tiff between Rampling and the Oscar protesters points to something I've said about the Oscars for years, and which made me lose rapid interest in the institution a couple decades ago.

Yardstick or tool

For some, the Oscars are a yardstick for artistic quality in American film. Others would dispute that and claim that it is more a yardstick for commercial viability in the American film market. Or, more plainly, it is a marketing tool.

This was never more plain than in 2010, when the academy boosted the number of nominees from five to 10, which makes good business sense. In the lead-up to the Oscar ceremony, any film with a nomination for Best Picture gets renewed interest and, therefore, income. It's brilliant, actually — make the mark of distinction easier to get and, thus, spread the wealth.

The academy hasn't gotten that overtly crass with all the categories, but that one move does spell out how the Oscars help the industry. When minority actors and filmmakers are shut out from nominations, they are essentially being shut out from business, shut out from marketing. In certain cases, they might even be shut out from legitimacy, from reaching wider audiences.

When looking back, I noticed that "Selma" was nominated for Best Picture last year. At first, this might make a white person like me say, look, they nominate black people. But then I noticed that not one actor from "Selma" was nominated. And "Selma" itself was drowning in a sea of white-centric film nominations.

Taking it to next level

We are at that uncomfortable point in the history of race in our country when, much to the surprise of all us open-minded white liberals, the black community is no longer going full force against the obvious, traditional racists that have always been the problem.

They're going against us, the ones who have always been on their side, but, truth be told, have never done quite enough. And nowhere is this symbolized more than in so-called liberal Hollywood, with the voting habits of academy members as part of the evidence.

What black actors and actresses and filmmakers are saying is that even in that supposedly enlightened business, there is still a level to which they have been treated separate but equal. That's all protesting college students are saying as well. And when you are separate, racism comes in the form not just of micro-aggressions — which are at least aggressions — but as exclusion, and assumptions that darker skin is the not average by which we measure everything else, not the norm. It is the exception. The special circumstance.

I wish I could say I thought this could be solved quickly, but I think it's all part of a very lumbering culture change that we are still in the middle of. The change will eventually come, but history moves slow. In the meantime, the Oscar protesters are right and Charlotte Rampling knows that now.

Contact John Seven at mister.j.seven@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @damnjohnseven.


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