Academy Awards: Proud or Prejudiced

By  · Published on March 4th, 2010

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This is one of the most famous phrases derived from one of the most important documents in history. It’s a striking and powerful sentence, and it rings a universal truth to all despite its specific purpose to help dissolve the governmental relationship between two nations. It is, without question, a great phrase.

However, regardless of its truth the integrity of its own words from the perspective of those who wrote it is decidedly false – specifically “that all men are created equal.” If the authors of the Declaration of Independence had written these words today while retaining their personal sensibilities the phrase would have looked something like this:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men* are created equal…”

Followed by this disclaimer at the bottom of the document:

*”men” as defined as the plural of “man,” itself defined as an individual who meets all of the following characteristics: an Anglo-American anatomically equipped with testicles who employs any one of any current or future Christian denominational lifestyles and does not choose to perform any form of sexual intercourse with other individuals that themselves are anatomically equipped with testicles.”

As an institution the film industry prides itself on its mostly progressive and liberal history regarding human rights and equality, which they should. The feature film is still relatively new compared to most art forms, but it’s still one of the first institutions to – in some cases – look past the differences amongst our species and to take to heart the words of the Declaration of Independence as they were written without the hypocritical subtext.

In 1939 Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her part in Gone With the Wind, becoming the first African-American to win an Academy Award (as well as the first to be nominated for one) and it happened eight years prior to Jackie Robinson becoming the first African-American to even step on a Major League Baseball playing field to partake in an MLB game.

In 1931 James Whale directed Frankenstein and began a career as one of the most influential and important directors in the history of genre filmmaking with other follow-up masterpieces such as The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein. James Whale was also completely open about his homosexuality during the time he made those films.

The film industry’s history contains stories of success, both artistically and financially, for a good deal of human beings our founding fathers would have considered less than men. It has its dark stories to be sure, but it’s hard to fully dismiss some truly bright moments in the industry’s history – most notably the moments that mark a level of equality years or decades before that particular class of individual’s movement for equality on the National scale.

So, being fully capable of displaying acceptance and equal rights without segregation where it really counts why can’t the film industry show the same level of respect towards the different forms of filmmaking in their own profession?

“Best Picture – Best Motion Picture of the Year”

It’s not exactly the Declaration of Independence, but like the Declaration of Independence it contains a perceived level of equality; that all motion pictures are motion pictures. However, the below is how most voters in the AMPAS appear to read it:

“Best Picture – Best Motion Picture* of the Year”

*Motion Picture – as defined as a film containing each of the following characteristics: Must contain real people performing staged acts who speak English for the majority of the running time unless said real people are American, or were paid by an American.

For every type of film that does not meet each of the above requirements they have created a specific inferior sub-category for that type of film. If it does not feature actual human beings then it qualifies to be the Best Animated Feature Film, but many voters see it as mostly inferior to a “Motion Picture,” probably because they can make the ‘actors’ do pretty much whatever they want. It’s too easy to make a good animated movie, obviously.

For every film that does not contain predominately staged acts or performances it is deemed to qualify as the Best Documentary Feature Film, but many voters are actors and they don’t like films that consider them unnecessary for their project and therefore don’t qualify as a “Motion Picture.” Besides, how difficult can it be to turn real life into a compelling story?

For every film that features mainly foreign figures either in front of the camera or behind it it’s relegated to the Best Foreign Language Feature Film category and since nobody is better than America at anything ever then there’s no way a film featuring or made by people who aren’t speaking English can be better than the likes of Crash, right?

These sub-categories exist, but in the spirit of equal opportunity none of the above ‘types’ of films are ineligible from receiving a nomination in the major Best Picture category. Although, in the history of the Academy Awards there have only been two animated films to ever break the animated film barrier and be considered amongst the Best Pictures of the Year. The first did not win the statuette and Up probably will not, not to mention the fact there’s a good chance Up would not have even made the cut of Best Picture nominees if the category wasn’t expanded to ten films. There have been seven foreign-film contenders to reach the final nominees for Best Picture, again none have won. I won’t make you laugh with the number of documentaries that have been nominated for Best Picture, I’ll just say that Norbit received more nominations than there have been documentaries considered for Best Picture of the Year.

I assume the reason behind the lack of support for films that utilize non-traditional filmmaking techniques (or feature foreigners) to get even nominated for Best Picture is either because people really don’t feel that they deserve to be, or because the existence of the sub-categories allows them a way to show support without sacrificing a slot on their Best Picture ballot, thus allowing them to show more support and give more exposure to more films.

The latter reason brings up an interesting dilemma to a voter depending on how they view their purpose as a voter. If they feel their duty is to nominate the best film regardless of its genre or technical pedigree then they probably have no reservation considering Wall-E, or Gimme Shelter, or 8 ½ the year’s best film. However, if they’re aware of the power of the voting body to help spread the word about as many of the year’s great films as possible then perhaps they’d willingly sacrifice nominating a film for Best Picture if they can award it heartily elsewhere and make more room to include more films they want the public to be aware of.

I have to say that’s a rather noble reason and I really can’t fault someone for wanting to do everything they could to generate as much interest in as many films as possible. But, is it worth the consistent handing out of back-handed complimentary awards to films that deserve the big spotlight over the inferior film one voted in its place?

On one hand I can see the desire to give needed exposure to multiple foreign, animated, and documentary features by giving them their own category, but by doing so the AMPAS essentially exposes itself as passively oppressive. They don’t think a documentary has any shot at being considered equal amongst its peers so they want to make sure it gets some kind of recognition, whether it be patronizing or not.

Give them their due shot at the big time. Let’s turn the Academy Awards ceremony into a Best in Show. Two weeks prior to the telecast have a pre-awards competition. Pit your documentaries against documentaries, animated films against animated films, live-action English speaking films against live-action English speaking films, etc. and when you’ve got the best of all your groups hold another voting amongst the AMPAS members, and announce the one and only true Best Picture (no asterisk) of the Year at the major ceremony amongst the other categories two weeks later. Not only does this allow you to still advertise multiple foreign, animated, and documentary feature titles as you do now you also fulfill the rights of the non-traditional forms of film their legitimate shot at glory. Not to mention, the major telecast would be significantly shorter not having to wade through three sub-categories of Best Picture.

It’s high-time the AMPAS start to develop a level of equality towards the different representatives of its own art form. Baseball has already acknowledged that the best players are no longer born here in the U.S. of A., States in the Union are starting to allow homosexuals the right to marry, and our country is now led by a man of color. We’ve come a long way in the past century and the film industry embraced understanding and acceptance of one another as we are as people, as men, well before the rest of the country was ready to. Isn’t it about time it direct that progressive enthusiasm toward itself and respected the difficulty of capturing lightning in a bottle for documentary films, accepted that other countries may in fact be better than us at making a great movie, and understood the meticulous and time-consuming process to tell an animated story? If they can’t see past their own prejudice by now then for all of the superior foreign, documentary, and animation filmmakers I think I can speak for the majority when I say “shame on you.”

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