The Oscars Blackout Protest

Why it's morally, strategically, and aesthetically wrong.

It’s 1988 and I’m living in Poland. My student dorm is showing Gone with the Wind. These Polish university students were born sometime around 1970, a year of violently suppressed anti-communist protest. Some Poles commemorate 1970 by writing the number “7” in “1970” in the form of a Christian cross. When these students were adolescents, tanks were in their streets, crushing Solidarity and imposing martial law. It is safe to assume that every one has a close relative who has been in a concentration camp, or a deportation train to Siberia, or was merely killed in war. Their ancestors were probably serfs; serfdom ended in Russian Poland in the 1860s. They have nothing in common with the landed, wealthy American slave-owners onscreen. The students are alive with feeling. I hear gasps and sobs.

After the lights come up, I eavesdrop. Gone with the Wind is about them. The war – just like World War II! Sherman’s burning of Atlanta – just like the Nazi destruction of Warsaw! Scarlett O’Hara – just like Babcia, who is always first at the food line!

It’s 1986. Liz and I are watching The Mission. Robert Bolt wrote the screenplay; he also wrote A Man for All Seasons about the martyrdom of St. Thomas More. The Mission details heroic efforts by Jesuit priests to protect Native Americans from enslavement and genocide. It dramatizes the salvific influence of Christianity on the life of a former slave-trader played by Robert DeNiro.

When the lights come up in the Berkeley, California, theater, my friend Liz is sobbing. Liz is a far-left secular Jewish lesbian. She insists that The Mission is all about how “they” are making war against “us.” “It’s antisemites against Jews! It’s straights against gays! It’s real estate tycoons against environmentalists.“ 

I’m watching White Christmas in Oakland, California’s Paramount Theater. The Paramount, built in 1931, is an eye-popping art deco National Historical Landmark. Every inch of every surface is inscribed with some filigree designed to transport the filmgoer to another dimension. This truly is a “dream palace.” I’m three feet off the ground with joy. I ask Fran, my companion, why she is so quiet. “No one in the movie is like me,” she says. Fran is African American. Our entire conversation, on the ride back to Berkeley, is about this one fact: none of the leads in White Christmas is black; therefore, Fran can’t enjoy the movie. Fran, like me, is a graduate student at UC Berkeley.

On January 14, 2016, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their nominations for the 88th annual Academy Awards. Shortly thereafter, Al Sharpton, Michael Moore, Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith, Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, Chelsea Clinton and others protested the absence of African Americans among the nominees. Whoopi Goldberg said, “You get the people with the productions companies to hire. You make a stink all year – not just once a year, but all year!”

Karen Hilfman, in a letter to the LA Times, wrote, “I’m white and I’ll be tuning out the Oscars this year. So will everyone in my family. I’m going to urge all my white friends to pass this year too, and if anyone white in the entertainment industry is reading this, I’m asking that you stay home … the persistent lack of award nominees among blacks and other people of color is grievously impactful to them … White people have to fix it. Everyone knows that predominantly white men run the studios, and everyone of good conscience knows that’s where the problem starts – created and perpetuated by structural racism and the people who benefit from it … it is a kind of artistic tyranny.”

“Crystal,” one of my Facebook friends, posted, “The REAL problem is the lack of diversity in Hollywood – a system that prevents diversity … The dominant culture only allows for certain groups of people to star in films … Only white actors are cast in major, Oscar-winning, groundbreaking features.”

On January 23, USA Today announced that the Academy was “taking historic steps” “to increase diversity.” “The governors committed to doubling the number of women and diverse academy members by 2020.” The Academy is also determined to bring in younger members. It will launch an “ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity.” Some seats on the board of governors will be de facto reserved for minorities.

One thing is certain: any Academy Awards won by African Americans in 2017 will be accompanied by an asterisk. The suspicion will be inescapable that they won not because of merit but because of the largesse of publicly shamed white liberals.

The Oscars Blackout protest is wrong. It is factually wrong. It is morally wrong. It is spiritually wrong. It is aesthetically wrong.

In all the brouhaha, headlines, editorials, hashtags and twitter feeds devoted the lack of black nominees, no one has produced a single fact supporting the existence of a “system that prevents diversity.” There is not even the suggestion that anyone should investigate anything, or produce any facts.

Every decent person acknowledges, and renounces, the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow. Even so, there are complicated reasons why casting African Americans today presents challenges. In an historical epic, a Saving Private Ryan or a Lincoln, casting black actors is simply hard. Films with modern settings present other challenges. A black antagonist leaves you open to charges of racism. A lovable black character leaves the film open to charges of pandering play of the Magical Negro card. A black female lead with a white male would inspire attacks on the white man as colonial exploiter of the black woman’s sexuality. If a white female character gets angry – an Erin Brockovich say – that’s okay. If a black female character gets angry, the filmmaker is crucified for resorting to the Angry Black Woman stereotype. In short: there are so many buttons out there that so many grievance mongers are just hoping to see pushed that those casting a film are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. It’s perhaps because of these glitches that George Clooney, who is part of the Oscars Blackout protest, “did not prominently feature a person of color in the last four movies he directed.”

It’s racist, historical revisionism to insist that white Americans have never been open to black cultural products. A critical mass of white Americans have long embraced African Americans in a variety of fields. Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Kanye West, Beyonce Knowles, Whoopi Goldberg, Viola Davis, Michael Jackson, and LeBron James are just a handful of African Americans who have reached their pinnacle of success, appeared on teenage fans’ posters and t-shirts, made piles of money and racked up glittering arrays of awards.

Nor is it true that white Americans have embraced African American celebrities only in recent years. George Washington was one of many fans of poet Phyllis Wheatley, an emancipated African American. Eighteenth-century author and escaped slave Frederick Douglass was one of the most famous and respected Americans of his day. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin not only helped end slavery; it was the single bestselling novel of the nineteenth century and the second bestselling book of any kind, second only to the Bible. The early twentieth century saw the Harlem Renaissance and the centrality of African American musical forms to all American and then British music. Forty years ago the television miniseries Roots received 37 Emmy Award nominations and won nine. Its finale was the second most watched finale in U.S. television history. Thirty years ago The Cosby Show reigned supreme. TV Guide wrote that The Cosby Show “was TV’s biggest hit in the 1980s, and almost single-handedly revived the sitcom genre and NBC’s ratings fortunes.” Bill Cosby’s status as the beloved “America’s dad” probably protected him from the numerous rape allegations that have become public knowledge only in recent years. Show Boat, Imitation of Life, Pinky, Raisin in the Sun, To Kill a Mockingbird, Amistad, The Color Purple, Glory, The Help, Twelve Years a Slave, Dreamgirls, What’s Love Got To Do With It, Selma, and The Butler are just a few of the big-budget, star-vehicle, high-box-office, well-reviewed films in the past eighty years that have featured African American stars in a variety of roles and told African American stories. One must also mention lower-budget and independent films like She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Boyz n the Hood, and dozens of others.

Black actors win Academy Awards for the same kinds of roles that white actors win awards for: roles in blockbusters (Hattie McDaniel), roles in technically innovative films (James Baskett), roles involving suffering through great tragedies (Halle Berry), prestige bio-pics (Jamie Foxx) etc.

Pulitzer-Prize and Tony-Award-winning playwright August Wilson, and Pulitzer-Prize, American-Book-Award, and Nobel-Prize-winning Toni Morrison, the proliferation of Black Studies departments, the vaulting of an obscure state senator with no record of accomplishment to the highest office in the land: facts likes these give the lie to Crystal’s assertion that there is a “system” of “dominant” whites in the US who disempower African Americans and prevent them from creating art and from having their art purchased and enjoyed by consumers, and honored by the elite.

Movies are an art form, but Hollywood is a business. The color business cares most about is green. If a film, performer, or theme makes money, Hollywood will market it relentlessly and repeatedly. Will Smith has been a bankable star for the past thirty years so Will Smith has been featured in well-reviewed, box office successes like Independence Day, Men in Black, Pursuit of Happyness, I Am Legend, Concussion and Hitch.

Given that the facts do not support the fantasy of a “system” of “dominant” whites who do not allow blacks to make films, to appear in films, to be paid for films, or to win awards for films, one must ask: who is hating on whom here? Seeking an alleged “system” of “dominant” whites, we discover, instead, a conspiracy theory. It is a racist fantasy nurtured in the current American education system. The nightmare figure of this fantasy is the evil and all-powerful white. Whenever anything occurs that involves black people and white people, the white people are powerful, and they are racist, and they destroy. Period. No other interpretation is allowed. In fact, any other interpretation is demonized as racist.

The Oscar Blackout protest is not just wrong because there are no facts to support its premises, and plenty of facts to prove those premises wrong. It’s wrong because it is hypocritical, selective outrage.

I conduct an outrage watch on Facebook. My left-leaning friends are quick to outrage, and they burn very hot, for brief periods of time. When, in 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said that he had “binders full of women” – his garbled attempt to explain that he keeps resumes of qualified women whom he hires to top positions – my left-leaning friends metaphorically bled all over their Facebook pages from wounds inflicted in an orgy of self-mutilation. The outrage hemorrhage lasted for days.

After ISIS burned a Jordanian pilot alive, after Muslim migrants committed mass sex assaults on New Year’s Eve in European capitals, after two police officers – one Hispanic and one Asian – were shot in the back of the head, my left-leaning Facebook friends did not express outrage. If Spike Lee, Al Sharpton or George Clooney have expressed any solidarity with the above-mentioned atrocity victims, it has not made headlines. That Idris Elba, winner of several Golden Globe and Emmy nominations, was not nominated for an Academy Award this year is not keeping me awake nights. I am outraged that Steve Carell did not receive a nom for his traffic-stopping work in The Big Short but I have not begun a twitter campaign to protest. I’ve got more important things to do, and Carell will survive.

The assertion that Hollywood is part of some “system” established by the “dominant culture” to “prevent diversity” is not just hogwash because there is no “dominant system” of evil whites plotting to prevent African American achievement. It’s also hogwash – and especially ironic – because it relies on utterly absurd assumptions about Hollywood’s real history.

As scholar Neal Gabler has pointed out, Hollywood was largely the invention of a handful of Eastern European Jews, who, a century ago, escaped starvation and persecution by immigrating to the US. Secure and prestigious professional fields were less open to Jews. Show business, an insecure, low-prestige industry, was open.

Minsk-born Lazar Meir grew up poor and quit school at age 12 to go to work to support his family. He moved to Hollywood at a time when Jews were denied entrance to many of America’s best restaurants, hotels, and country clubs. Ivy League universities like Harvard, Yale and Columbia had strict Jewish quotas, denying educations to figures like Jonas Salk, who would go on to develop the polio vaccine. Meir became Louis B. Mayer, one of the wealthiest and most powerful studio heads in Hollywood history.

As much power as the Hollywood moguls amassed, they were still victimized by bigotry. A 2004 documentary, Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust is an almost unbearable viewing experience. The most powerful Jews in America could not overcome audience resistance to attending to the rise of Nazism and the oncoming Holocaust. To insist that Hollywood filmmakers have the power to sell anything they decide to sell to audiences is demonstrably not true. Hollywood moguls were themselves victims of prejudice – prejudice against Jews. Hollywood power brokers are themselves subject to manipulation – the manipulation of the box office. To accuse them of being part of an undifferentiated “white system” is historical revisionism.

Yes, too often Hollywood marketed offensive and racist images of blacks – and members of every other minority, including Jews. For a recent anti-Semitic character in a big budget, high profile American film, see Watto in Star Wars.

Hollywood’s elite, like the rest of us, were sometimes miscreants, sometimes victims, and sometimes heroic. Often, mindful of their own history of oppression, Hollywood moguls supported Civil Rights. Scholar Thomas Cripps explores this history in his Oxford University Press book Making Movies Black: The Hollywood Message Movie from World War II to the Civil Rights Era.

One example of a Jewish filmmaker who advanced civil rights is Michael Roemer. Roemer was a Berlin-born, Jewish Holocaust survivor. He used his own experience of living as a Jew in Nazi Germany when he wrote, produced, and directed Nothing but a Man, a 1964 love story told against the backdrop of Jim Crow. The Washington Post called it “one of the most sensitive films about black life ever made in this country.”

Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Theodore Bikel, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, and Elizabeth Taylor were a few of Hollywood superstars who didn’t just sympathize with Civil Rights; they went out of their way to make concrete changes. Charlton Heston, with the authority of an actor who could play Andrew Jackson, Moses and Ben Hur, participated in the 1963 March on Washington. In this YouTube video, he explains his participation and quotes and defers to Harry Belafonte and James Baldwin, who appear with him.

Other facts belie the conspiracy theory of evil whites preventing blacks from appearing in films. Technology for the creation and dissemination of art has never been so democratically distributed as it is today. Media’s many formats and many audiences have made stars of people who, a few short years ago, would have spent their lives in the same anonymous mass as the rest of us. GloZell Green’s video of her attempt to swallowed cinnamon has received forty-seven million hits. That is more than the number of people who bought tickets to see last year’s Best Picture Academy Award winning Birdman. Barack Obama held a one-on-one meeting with Green following his 2015 State of the Union address.

The Oscar Blackout protesters are peddling a neurotoxin to African Americans. “You are helpless”, they insist. “Organized and all-powerful white supremacists control every detail of life. You can do nothing to create art. Your only hope is to note every moment when white people appear to have more than you. Rage against and envy that greater amount of something. The more angry and destructive the protest, the better. Think Ferguson, think Baltimore. Shame, mock, and vilify whites. Only then can the good things of life be yours.” This message ruins lives.

Here’s the true message: “Be like Lazar Meir. Don’t look for hate, but if you suspect it, work around it. Expand till you achieve your dreams. Life is a crap shoot, but if luck is with you, you can be a star. And you won’t need to envy anyone; others will envy you.” That message empowers and liberates.  

Indeed, African Americans have long created films, even under the bad old days of Jim Crow. Pioneers include Oscar Micheaux, George Perry Johnson and his brother and Noble, and Melvin Van Peebles. Tyler Perry was a poor black kid in New Orleans who was beaten by his father so badly he attempted suicide; his wrists are still scarred. Perry wrote his own movies and starred in them. In 2011 Forbes named Perry the highest-paid man in show business.  

After Fran told me that there was an impassable barrier between her and White Christmas because it featured no black actors, I reflected. My first realization: White Christmas is art. It is not real life. I thought of my favorite scene in the movie. The four leads sit around a train’s dining table, singing about snow. If this film had been real life, we would have had to confront Bing Crosby’s alleged physical abuse of his son Gary, his wife’s alcoholism, and the fetal alcohol syndrome that damaged Crosby’s sons, two of whom committed suicide. We would have had to confront Rosemary Clooney’s abusive marriage to Jose Ferrer. Clooney had a nervous breakdown, lost her career, and gained a massive amount of weight. Vera-Ellen is thought to have been anorexic. Her intense dancing style would eventually give way to crippling arthritis. Danny Kaye was born David Kaminsky. He had to dye his hair, change his name, and fight off Sam Goldwyn’s demand that he get a nose job in order that he appear less Jewish.

None of these personal challenges is visible in the “snow” scene. What is on display is pure confection. The four leads, along with the artists behind the camera, through incredibly hard work and talent proven on a thousand stages in a thousand towns, create something divine. We benefit from willingly suspending our disbelief. We don’t just ignore Bing’s and the rest’s real life problems. We forget our own. White Christmas offers us the bliss of a momentary escape into beauty, skill, and grace, and we didn’t need to ingest any pharmaceuticals or break any laws to achieve that escape.

No, no one with Fran’s skin color was visible in the film. No one vaguely like me was visible in the film, either.

I’ve always known that women like me don’t appear in movies, except to be laughed at or to menace. I am tall and broad. I could never star opposite Bing Crosby; I’m taller than he was. The average American woman now weighs 166 pounds. Vera-Ellen, like Angelina Jolie, probably weighed closer to a hundred pounds. Big, strapping, blue collar women with Eastern European names are not leads in American films. The make-believe world of White Christmas was not a world in which I could appear any more than Fran could.

And yet it never occurred to me to protest Hollywood. I’d feel ashamed. That’s not how art works. It doesn’t work through threats, intimidation, and boycotts. Art is created by inspiration, sweat, and box office, and all my temper tantrums would not budge any of those.

Hollywood is the dream factory. I don’t expect Hollywood films to be mirror reflections of reality any more than I expect my dreams to be. I love looking at Vera-Ellen in White Christmas. Her slim form does not oppress or exclude me. Art invites me to imaginatively participate in Vera-Ellen’s body, in Tamil Nadu bronzes of multi-armed Hindu deities, in Fannie Lou Hamer singing “This little light of mine.”

Sophisticated consumers of art don’t expect Picasso’s paintings or Gothic stained glass or Egyptian murals to be photographic doubles of reality; why should Hollywood films? When I listen to jazz, I don’t rage against the fact that Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus are not women or not Polish or not white. When I eat brie I don’t revile France for producing the world’s best cheese.

There is a spiritual rot in the Oscar Blackout protest.

The 2,500 year old Book of Samuel attests to the power of storytelling. King David has sex with Bathsheba, who is married to Uriah. David sends Uriah into battle, where he is killed. The prophet Nathan tells King David a heartrending story about a rich man who steals a poor man’s sheep. David vows punishment for such a bad rich man. Nathan says to David, “You are that man!” David suddenly understands the gravity of his sin. Storytelling alone forced a powerful man to confront the truth about himself.

Around the same time that this story was told in Israel, Aesop was telling tales in Greece. An ugly, powerless slave like Aesop could never tell stories with recognizable human characters. He disguised his lessons behind animals: an envious fox, an arrogant lion, a grateful mouse.

Art invites us to transcend every boundary and to expand our humanity. To be fully human is to be able to see yourself in someone utterly other from you – even a lion or a mouse. Those Polish students saw themselves in Gone with the Wind. My friend Liz saw herself in The Mission.

The grievance industry actively resists this power of art.  In 1994 at Oakland, California’s Grand Lake Theater, African American high school students laughed during a showing of Schindler’s List. That teenagers sometimes behave in ways that shock their elders is nothing new. What is newsworthy is that opinion leaders worked to justify and exploit the teens’ laughter. African American journalist and youth mentor Kevin Weston wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the teens laughed because African Americans are “totally invisible” in American film. Weston quotes Public Enemy: “Burn Hollywood burn I smell a riot going on. First ya guilty now ya gone. I’ll check out ya movie but it will take a black one to move me.” Hollywood hates and abuses blacks, and renders them “invisible” in film. Hollywood is guilty. Hollywood must burn, as, Weston notes approvingly, LA “burned” during the LA riots. And only “black” art can “move me.” “Is Hitler really dead?” Weston asks. “Learn from the students,” he says. In other words, blacks in America are living under Hitler-like Hollywood figures, who erase them just as Hitler erased Jews. That is why the teens laughed at Schindler’s List.

There is no parallel “white system” in America that urges whites to resist the empathy they feel when watching art by or about African Americans. There are no empowered white opinion makers instructing whites not to applaud or tear up while watching Twelve Years a Slave or The Help. There are professors and journalists telling African Americans that they are suckers if they are moved by films like Schindler’s List or even White Christmas. That is what is deserving of protest.

African Americans need and deserve art. Just as I lay claim to Johnny Hartman, Frederick Douglass and Zora Neale Hurston, African Americans deserve the Parthenon, The Big Short, and Hokusai’s wood block print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. It is not a “system” of whites who deny African Americans full participation in the world’s artistic riches. It is, rather, the grievance industry typified by the Oscars Blackout protest.