Diversity? Not Really at the Oscars

I guess Michelle Obama’s surprise appearance announcing Best Picture should have been diversity enough for the Oscars. But would it be asking too much to see a bit more color in the winner’s circle?

Quvenzhane’ Wallis was cute, pumping up her arms and mugging for the cameras. But the child actor from “Beasts of the Southern Wild”—the youngest nominee ever—was not going to overtake the Oscar buzz for either Jessica Chastain of “Zero Dark Thirty” or Jennifer Lawrence for “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Same when Denzel Washington’s image flashed on the screen as he was announced as a nominee for Best Actor in “Flight.” Meryl Streep didn’t even feign suspense opening up the envelope to announce the winner. It wasn’t Washington.

Wallis and Washington were token mentions on Oscar night. I didn’t expect either of them to take home a statue.

Just look at who votes for the Oscars: According to a Los Angeles Times report last year, the Academy is 94 percent White, 74 percent male, and 68 percent of them have never won.

That’s some voting pool. You not only have the great potential of both racism and sexism, but you can also expect a little sadistic schadenfreude tossed in.

Given all that, Quvenzhane’ never had a chance.

And Denzel? It’s not like he’s not won before. He won an Oscar for Best Supporting actor in 1989 for “Glory.” And, in 2001, a Best Actor award for “Training Day.”

But he was up against two-time winner Daniel Day Lewis, whom the academy didn’t mind giving a third Oscar for Best Actor, something that’s never been done before.

Still, Oscar’s disappointing diversity results are understandable. When you have films like “Django Unchained,” and the Black stars get shut out, and only the White star wins, you’ve got to figure the composition of the academy is a little bit out of touch.

The academy may have wanted to skew young and edgy by putting Seth MacFarlane as host, but that isn’t quite enough. When MacFarlane did his hand puppet joke, saying this is 2013, you can’t do “black sock,’ great. Then where are the Black faces on the screen, in the crowd, in the academy?

“We absolutely recognize that we need to do a better job,” said writer-director Phil Alden Robinson, a longtime academy governor to the Los Angeles Times in 2012. But “we start off with one hand tied behind our back … . If the industry as a whole is not doing a great job in opening up its ranks, it’s very hard for us to diversify our membership.”

And that’s the problem. The industry hasn’t changed enough to reflect society, meaning the awards don’t reflect the views of our country’s diversity, but rather those of an aging industry.

Ergo, “Argo,” for Best Picture. It’s a story right in the wheel house of a 60-ish Academy voter who can recall how Ted Koppel made his mark in network news counting the days of the crisis. As a local reporter in Dallas at the time, I had my share of “yellow ribbon” hostage stories. “Argo” was good, but I thought both “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Silver Linings Playbook” were better.

In fact, I thought the best example of modern mainstream Hollywood diversity was actually demonstrated by David O.Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” a love story of dysfunction between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. But it also featured an Asian American psychiatrist, a Latino/Caucasian inter-racial marriage, and an African-American mental patient buddy. (You can see my assessment of the film at www.aaldef.org/blog)

For mainstream moviemaking, “Silver Linings Playbook” was absolutely inspired casting.

But, alas, there’s no award for diversity at the Oscars.