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Hollywood’s Diversity Politics Reach a Major Intersection

ENGLISH Mart 31, 2016
Picking up steam, the Oscars diversity controversy has hit the campaign trail. Speaking out from Iowa, Hillary Clinton urged the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to make overdue changes that will reflect the diversity of human experience.
Back in Hollywood, actress Jada Pinkett Smith – whose husband Will Smith’s performance in “Concussion” was overlooked by AMPAS voters – says she will boycott this year’s #OscarsTooWhite ceremony. She will be joined by director Spike Lee, whose “Chi-Raq,” a compelling modern retelling of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” has women of color withholding sex to motivate their gangster men to cease fire in the streets of Chicago. Like Will Smith, Lee and his film failed to win any nods from members of the Academy. In the classic and updated narrative, Lysistrata’s boycott is effective. Perhaps Pinkett Smith and Lee’s will be, too.
In both Clinton and Pinkett Smith’s declarations, the term diversity is used as a catchall phrase for the ethnic and racial differences focused on by each of them, respectively.
Neither they, nor Spike Lee, specifically mentioned the demand for gender parity that was so eloquently stated by Patricia Arquette in her 2015 Best Actress Oscar acceptance speech, which released an ongoing flood of comments by other top Hollywood actresses. Meryl Streep pointed out the underrepresentation of women among film critics, whose female perspectives have an impact on the box office and, consequently, on the way in which women are represented on screen. Jennifer Lawrence’s call for equal pay for actresses received widespread media coverage, but Lawrence, who’s up for this year’s Best Actress Oscar for “Joy,” has been quiet during the current ongoing diversity issue.
The complaints about the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscars nominations, targeted primarily at the acting categories, attribute the problem to the Academy’s predominantly “old white men” constituency, shifting the main media focus from feminist #HollywoodBoysClub concerns to the equally important but more general #OscarsTooWhite issue. Many of us, however, would like to focus on this as a moment of intersection.
Cheryl Boone Isaac, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who happens to be a woman of color, responded to #OscarsTooWhite criticism by changing academy rules for membership and voting privileges that should/might ameliorate the diversity issue in time for next year’s Oscars cycle. But, women’s parity goals are not specified in Boone Isaac’s diversity solution. Too bad. And some have complained that the response is ageist.
Let’s not let the feminist demands be eclipsed or dropped. Remember, women are not a minority group. We are the majority population, and although we need to reflect upon our own diversity issues, we must stand together to demand equal opportunity for women in film; on screen and behind the lens.
This Week’s Films
Meanwhile, let’s take a look at femme-helmed and femme-centric movies in theaters this week.
“Jane Got a Gun” is a high-plains Western starring Natalie Portman as a woman who is determined to save her husband and her family from an outlaw gang who are determined to kill them. She enlists her ex-lover (Joel Edgerton) —whom she’d believed to have been killed in the Civil War—to help her. It’s a complex, highly dramatic and suspenseful story that’s beautifully shot by accomplished Australian (not yet Oscar-nominated) cinematographer Mandy Walker.
“Kung Fu Panda 3” is the latest in the popular animation franchise that tracks the young panda (voiced by Jack Black) as he seeks enlightenment through the art of self-defense. Again joined by Tiger (voiced by Angelina Jolie), the young kung fu fighter follows his path by teaching others how to fend off evil. The story is charming, the message admirable. And the film is co-directed by Jennifer Yuh, who did a great job of solo-helming “Kung Fu Panda 2,” which was an enormous femme-helmed box office hit. This entertaining family film will bring out your inner kid.
“Fifty Shades of Black” is a spoof on “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Sam Taylor-Johnson’s high-grossing movie adaptation of E.L. James’ cult-followed eponymous novel about sexual domination of a young woman by an older man. Here, the characters are all African American, and the gags are sitcom situational and full of slang. “Black’s” satire cuts through much of the relentlessly serious tone of “Grey” and, in doing so, scores points. But I find it difficult to see any social relevance in either film. I mean, what’s the point?
“The Boy” stars Lauren Cohan as a nanny who’s hired to take care of an English couple’s son, who turns out to be a life size doll. The film sounds like it might be an odd twist on “Lars and the Real Girl,” but it isn’t that at all. No quirky sweetness to it. This is the week’s femme-centric horror offering, with plot twists that lead the nanny and you to wonder whether the boy doll is alive. No huge screams, but it sure plays interesting games with your head.
“Portrait of a Serial Monogamist,” directed by Christina Zeidler and John Mitchell, is an engaging dramedy romance that’s set in Toronto’s queer community. The character-driven plot plumbs the commitment problems that cause Elise (Diane Flacks) to break up with her longtime girlfriend to pursue the affections of another woman, much to the chagrin of her mother and friends. Beautifully performed, the film is a seriously funny examination of specific yet universal relationship problems.
Stay tuned for next week’s reviews of newly released movies and updates on the diversity dispute.
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