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On Cinema

Right-on cue

As usual, the Academy flagellates itself over insufficient African American Oscar contenders

Diversity season, by which I mean the Oscars season, is upon us. It kicked off at the end of October with the Governors Awards, for the various Oscar craft categories, which now have their own separate and less glitzy gala evening. Gender inequality was a principal theme of the evening, with Lina Wertmüller, the first woman to earn a best-director Oscar nomination for her 1975 film Seven Beauties, receiving an honorary Oscar, telling the audience (through her translator, the actress Isabella Rossellini) that she wanted to call it Anna, and urging the women in the room to chant, “We want Anna, a female Oscar!”

Also, Geena Davis received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for founding the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a research body. To round off the evening, Wes Studi, who played fearsome baddies in Last of the Mohicans and Dances With Wolves, became “the first Indigenous Native American to receive an Academy Award”.

This year’s contest for Best Film is likely to be dominated by films with predominantly masculine casts, such as Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, and Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes (the first papal buddy movie), although Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, with meaty roles for Scarlett Johannsen and Laura Dern, is less problematic.

These are up against Baumbach’s wife Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women, with right-on poster girl Saoirse Ronan in the lead and 50-plus actresses Laura Dern and Meryl Streep in supporting roles; and Jay Roach’s Bombshell, starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie, about the 2016 ousting from Fox News of CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, two years before #MeToo came along to delight us.

And while we’re on the subject of gender diversity, the Guardian has “uncovered” discrepancies between male and female Oscar contenders in their track records of working with female directors. Joaquin Phoenix, a frontrunner as Best Actor for his role in Joker, has only worked with a female director once, while Joker’s director Todd Phillips, a contender for Best Director, has never made a film with a female lead or co-lead. The shame of it!

It’s hard on African Americans when other ethnic groups pop up claiming attention, such as the Chinese cast of The Farewell, whose leading lady, Awkwafina, a possible contender for Best Actress, is Chinese-American. And then there is Best Director hopeful Taika Waititi, the half-Maori, half-Jewish director of Third Reich satire Jojo Rabbit. But then he has only made one film with a female lead or co-lead, according to the Guardian.

Sometimes a flawed performance meets a flawed film, even though the subject ticks all the right boxes

Last year’s winner for Best Film, Green Book, was a nostalgic look at race relations in the US with a sickly sentimental gloss, but although Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor the film was criticised for its protagonist’s “white saviour” story arc. Appeasing the diversity gods is never easy.

Where we get into our usual difficulty is with the Academy’s self-flagellation over insufficient African-American contenders in the principal acting categories. Sometimes good performances are let down by a flawed film. That would seem to be the case with Michael B. Jordan and former Best Actor Winner Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy, about a civil rights attorney who pursues appeals for death row prisoners, which is said to lack dramatic energy.

Sometimes a flawed performance meets a flawed film, even though the subject ticks all the right boxes. Cynthia Erivo is being talked about as a possible Best Actress contender for Harriet, in which she portrays Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist former slave who made a dozen or so missions to rescue 70 slaves via the so-called Underground Railroad in the 1850s. The film combines a made-for-television melodramatic feel with some clunky dialogue, a slushy score and a straw-man villain, while Erivo plays Tubman as an anti-historical superhero.

Erivo’s casting surely counts as progress. Twenty years ago a Hollywood producer seriously suggested Julia Roberts (in blackface?) to star in a Harriet Tubman biopic. Nonetheless, you won’t believe the fuss Erivo’s casting has caused in the Twittersphere, with African Americans quick to spread the hashtag #HarrietDeservesBetter.

For one thing, as a Nigerian-British actress, Erivo is a non-descendant of slavery playing an African-American icon and therefore a cultural interloper lacking the appropriate lived experience. For another, she has been accused of dissing African-American vernacular English as ghettospeak, and endorsing the “bigoted African” opinions of Nigerian-American author Luvvie Ajayi about things dear to African Americans, such as HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities).

What is more, members of the reparations-seeking American Descendants of Slavery movement have attacked her for being descended from a former slaveholding tribe in Nigeria, the Igbo!

Such are the travails of identity politics and the joys of diversity season. As Oscar Wilde said of Dickens’s depiction of the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, “You’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.”

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