Oscar Outlook: Straight Outta Compton and the Academy’s Race Problem

I’ve never been much of a fan of expanding the Academy Awards Best Picture nominees from the standard five to as many as ten dependent on the voting. Those who know me are aware I am pretty stuck in my ways. However, I will concede, that the change wasn’t entirely negative.

The first year of the expanded nomination format, more than one film that would have never made the cut ended up on the Best Picture list. Avatar, which was an even bigger box office smash than Titanic but with middling reviews, made the cut because the Academy realized that this movie was doing something right if that many people went to see it. Another movie that made the list was District 9, a quirky South African sci-fi film that drew stellar reviews but wouldn’t be given consideration in the five-film format because it just “isn’t an Oscar kind of movie.” As a result, I came around on my stance, because if it gave recognition to those who aren’t normally given it because it doesn’t fit the notion of what an Oscar movie should be, I’m on board.

What is an Oscar kind of movie? Well, that definition has changed quite a bit over the years. It used to be big budget studio fare like Gone With the Wind (1939) or Ben-Hur (1959), but now that money is filtered into comic book movies and action franchises, leaving the “prestige” movies to be independent films or low-budget studio films about very serious subject matters like the right to vote or the Civil War (Academy loves themselves some period pieces), people with some sort of disability or obstacle they overcome, stories about real people (biopics), or ones that are so artistically innovative they simply can’t be ignored. Another important factor is that the right people are involved. The Jennifer Lawrences and Leonardo DiCaprios and the David O. Russells and Christopher Nolans.

So this is where Straight Outta Compton‘s problems begin. Other than being a period biopic, it doesn’t really satisfy any of the other categories. But here is the thing…it’s a really good movie. You have incredible performances from relative unknowns like Corey Hawkins giving an understated but impactful turn as Dr. Dre and Jason Mitchell taking what is basically the lead role of the film, Easy E, and turning in a fine performance that actually does include some Academy elements like playing a real life person, having scenes in which he screams in anger and scenes in which he experiences tremendous pain, like when he found out he was HIV positive. Remember Tom Hanks in Philadelphia? He was great, he deserved that Oscar, but there used to be (and arguably still is) a time where it was just a given that if you played a real person dying from AIDs, you were gonna get nominated for an Oscar. But Jason Mitchell isn’t Tom Hanks or Matthew McCounaghy or Jared Leto. So Eddie Redmayne gets nominated for the Oscar bait-y transsexual role in The Danish Girl and Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio get nominated because they do a really good job of acting by themselves. And not once did Jason Mitchell’s name get mentioned for anything.

When people say that the Academy is recognizing worthy performances and it seems difficult to believe they were excluding people based on race, they are right. But here are some Oscar politics for you:

Members of the Academy are sent scads and scads of screeners on DVDs in order to watch as many movies as they can before the nomination deadline. In addition to those screeners, studios’ marketing departments take out ads in the trade papers Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. So, I can’t tell you how an Academy member prioritizes, but when they hear all the A-list names they are supposed to hear and get screeners from movies they have seen in the trades, they are probably going to watch them first.

I can pretty much guarantee you when Universal Pictures greenlit Straight Outta Compton, they didn’t think they had an awards contender on their hands because, other than Paul Giamatti, there were no big names attached to it. The director, F. Gary Gray, is best known for his prolific work as a music video director, but he shows an adeptness for feature-length films, keeping the pacing brisk, introducing characters in memorable ways and, while the cinematography is certainly not that of The Revenant, I really liked what they did with several of the tracking shots in this movie.

In other words, this movie, which was supposed to be a niche movie intended for African-American audiences turned out to be a really well-made movie. Even so, the studio released it in the doldrums of August, a month where you would almost never release a movie with Oscar potential because it is too early and voters will forget about it come Christmas.

The movie came out and the reviews weren’t just good, they were great. You can argue part of the enjoyment of this film is nostalgia. I will admit, having talked with a friend who was relatively unfamiliar with NWA, it seems like my knowledge of their music and recognition of tiny details like playing the background track for “California Love” for Tupac or Ice Cube writing Friday in his office were lost on her and improved my viewer experience. Really though, in a year where I felt like every action film I saw needed elementary level lessons in pacing, this movie’s story was taut, but still allowed for important moments to resonate. The dialogue was believable in addition to being expository. And, this movie managed to be both entertaining and make some really important observations on how institutional racism works. I’ve seen God knows how many movies where the evil slave owner or the redneck racist get lauded by the Academy (I’m looking at you, The Help), but this movie tackled a concept that most people have trouble explaining to the uninformed and presented it in a way that everyone could comprehend.

Then something even weirder happened. Straight Outta Compton made piles and piles of money. It made over $200 million on a budget of just $28 million. That may sound like a lot, but even an “indie” studio like Lionsgate gives more money to its Oscar bait like Sicario.

Then the impossible happened. Straight Outta Compton started getting recognized in year-end awards.The National Board of Review, the Broadcast Critics Awards, the Producers Guild of America, the Screen Actor’s Guild, and the Writer’s Guild of America all recognized this film. Typically these are the kind of noms that not only guarantee a Best Picture nod, but make you a genuine contender to win the race.

Universal Pictures then found themselves in a pickle though, as the planned for their other biopics, Trumbo and Steve Jobs, to be the ones getting accolades. So the marketing and efforts had to be split. I haven’t read the trades in several years, but I would be very curious to hear from industry employees if they heard more about Trumbo and Steve Jobs or Compton.

I defy you to find a more socially-relevant motion picture released this year. In a year where we seem to have monthly conversations about police brutality and institutional racism, name another film that more deftly handled this discussion, making great points, helping people understand, and being thoroughly entertaining in the process.

But, just like NWA couldn’t bust into the music scene right away, Straight Outta Compton can’t make it into the Academy’s club, save for one Original Screenplay nod for its all-white screenwriting team. It isn’t that people are choosing to ignore Straight Outta Compton. They aren’t disregarding it because it is a movie about a rap group. They just aren’t thinking to include it. They are watching Trumbo and Steve Jobs instead because there are only so many movies a person can watch each year and those are the “types” of movies they think they’re supposed to watch.

I conclude with a story about the first African-American Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel. I encourage you to read the entire story on The Hollywood Reporter, because it indicates the kind of advocation she had to do in 1939 that is still happening in 2015. It was only when she brought in every Gone With the Wind review she could find, slammed them on David O. Selznik’s desk and demanded that the studio lobby for her to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress instead of putting all of their efforts behind fellow castmate Olivia de Haviland that they mounted a campaign that led to the first African-American to win an Oscar.

When she went to the ceremony, she wasn’t allowed to sit at the Gone With the Wind table. In fact, the hotel where the awards were being hosted didn’t allow African-Americans on the property, so McDaniel and the Academy had to seek permission for her to even attend. When she did, she did so from a table in the corner. After she received her Oscar, she went on to have a prolific career where she played a maid in 74 different films. This woman broke a barrier and then had to play Mammy 73 more times because no one in Hollywood could come up with any other character for her to play.

That  happened 77 years ago, but it is a perfect metaphor for what the people of color in Hollywood are feeling right now. Sure, you let them participate in these awards, but only because they have to advocate for themselves loudly and proudly until someone will listen. Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t have to do that. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks don’t have to do that. And every once in a while, the minorities get in the room. But when it comes to a seat at the table with everyone else, it still seems like an unattainable goal, like they are Hattie McDaniel stuck in the corner because every time they get their brief moment on stage where they say loudly and proudly that this is a start, but it isn’t nearly enough, it falls on deaf ears and they go back to an industry where nothing seems to change. Halle Berry and Viola Davis are both stuck starring in mediocre TV shows, but they still deserve some recognition because five years ago the thought of an African-American woman starring in a TV drama was unthinkable. Raj Patel was the star of Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, but he still had to audition to play the fifth lead on HBO’s The Newsroom. Octavia Spencer played second fiddle to a cast of tweens in a now-cancelled, totally unmemorable hospital show.

Like they say in the trailer for Straight Outta Compton, they aren’t trying to incite riots or promote violence. These people are simply speaking honestly about their lives and experiences and the movie industry, including the Academy, needs to start listening better.


One thought on “Oscar Outlook: Straight Outta Compton and the Academy’s Race Problem

  1. Hi, Jessica! This is a very insightful response to the Academy Awards and how they are chosen. I enjoyed reading it. Love, Aunt Rebecca


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