“The movie industry is like the Rocky Mountains, the higher you get, the whiter it gets.”
—Al Sharpton in a statement released on the afternoon after this year’s Oscar nominations.
No Oscar season would be complete without a liberal sprinkling of debate and scandal, largely regarding the inclusion or omission of nominees and the political machinations that are part and parcel of the Motion Picture Academy.
This year some of the hoopla centers around the dearth of Black-themed movies and performers of color following the landmark achievement surrounding “Twelve Years a Slave” in 2014.
This latest controversy had a prelude of sorts, with the North Korea/Sony Pictures “cyber attack” scandal in November of 2014. Besides personal information about Sony employees, data exposed included a series of emails between industry bigwigs Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin, allegedly containing racially insensitive speculation about President Barack Obama’s cinematic tastes (ironically, Pascal’s father Anthony H. Pascal, was a RAND Corporation researcher whose reports include “Black Gold and Black Capitalism, Racial Discrimination in Organized Baseball,” and “The Urban Impacts of Federal Policies,” and other economic issues regarding African American inequality).
The focal point of this year’s outrage is “Selma,” a drama depicting the 1965 sojourn for voter rights by Martin Luther King Jr. arguably the most lionized figure within the African American community. This picture, whose preliminary reactions have been overall positive, did garner nominations for Best Picture and Original Song (“Glory,” a duel by Common and John Legend). Yet and still, many say the efforts of its director, Ava DuVernay were unfairly ignored.
When the Academy Award announcements were released on Jan. 15, public figures like the Reverends Jesse L. Jackson, and Al Sharpton quickly rushed to give their personal sound bites. Sharpton went so far as to compare the inequity of this entertainment ceremony to the ongoing hysteria over police related killings in Ferguson, Mo., and other places, and called for an activist response against the Academy.
The following weekend saw the 21st annual African-American Film Marketplace and Showcase at Hollywood’s Raleigh Studios. During the opening ceremony, celebrated director Michael Schultz opened up about the “culture of fear” which permeates decisions ranging from which projects get made to the rise and fall of individual careers.
While not touching on the Oscar indignity directly, he spoke about the factors, economic and otherwise, that figure in “tinseltown” decision making. Speaking before a group of aspiring filmmakers and short-film advocates, he talked about the industry and its tendency to “put people into boxes” in the process of achieving healthy profit margins.
Even White folks get the blues
While we mull over the gross injustice of the studio system, let’s remember that parity is by no means guaranteed, even to those considered “the anointed” within the Hollywood elite. Consider the following historical slights:
“The Wizard of Oz” in 1939 earned box office acclaim and a place in cinematic history, largely upon the talents of the legendary Judy Garland. Alas, Dorothy’s rainbow didn’t extend to Oscar gold.
Any filmmaker attempting entry into the suspense/thriller genre owes a debt to Alfred Hitchcock, but during his half century in film he won only one Oscar for 1940s Best Picture, “Rebecca,” and received no accolades for his superlative directional duties during his career.
Another shoe-in among the best directors of all time, Martin Scorsese churned out masterworks for decades before getting the academy nod for his 2006 picture “The Departed.”
And let’s not forget Steven Spielberg, who has enjoyed commercial and critical success on a par with anyone in the 100-year history of Hollywood. In a career starting in 1970, he helmed such landmarks as “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “The Color Purple” before getting his first statue for “Schindler’s List” in 1993.
All of these unrequited examples of unacknowledged or belated merit involve deserving Euro-American artists of unquestioned excellence. Of course this doesn’t ease the emotions of artists of color scraping for employment and recognition who are subject to the (as Michael Schultz put it) “whims of the gate keepers.”
Shifting the burden
Actress and storyteller Erika Alexander (“Living Single,” “The Cosby Show”) recognizes that the path to success is laced with pratfalls for everyone, regardless color or gender. She has opened up about her own disappointments in an otherwise successful career in show business (see “The ‘New’ Hollywood?” from Our Weekly, October 9, 2014). None-the-less, she maintains, the road that lies before the Black performer or set worker has its own, special twists and turns.
“The culture that existed before ‘Selma’ came on the scene is still in place. It was hard for many actors, directors, and filmmakers to ‘break in.’ For people of color it is even more so,” she says.
This imbalance is well known among those aspiring to show business and the possibility (however improbable) of glory, just as the inequality in society in general is readily apparent, she goes on.
“We’re so awake that we can’t sleep at night,” Alexander observes.
Given that minorities, not just Black folks, are well aware of the “status quo” firmly in place as a road block to the pursuit of happiness in the crap shoot of “La La Land,” she suggests it’s time to shift the responsibility of moving the milestone of social change to those who traditionally wield the authority to do so.
“It is up to White people to ‘open the books’ and bear this burden,” she declares.
Ironically, the Oscar snubs are largely an embarrassment to the Hollywood hierarchy and its entrenched liberalism, and any changes or amendments that come about will be a result of the discomfort caused by this affront to their political sensibilities. Among the racially charged comments exposed in the inter-office Sony “links” were Pascal’s reference to ‘the new Black baby everyone wants’ analogy to the current popularity of television and the well-documented trend of White celebrities adopting orphans of the African Diaspora.
In the end, the box office may be the final equalizer. Most contemporary filmgoers are women. Latinos, the fast-growing segment of the population, will soon wield their considerable economic clout as well. The bottom line in Hollywood has always been about revenues, and changing demographics among the greater consumer base may well be the final engine of change.
‘Selma’ portrayal of LBJ may be reason for Oscar snub
by William Covington
Director Ava DuVernay is currently being criticized about how President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) is depicted in her movie, “Selma.”
Many individuals who viewed Selma felt that the LBJ in the movie was “not pro-active,” in controlling Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Across the Internet, you will see blogs by LBJ supporters that there’s a case that DuVernay’s portrayal is unfair to LBJ.
LBJ library staff member Trevor Hill blogged “you had to look at the big picture during that era. It’s true LBJ didn’t want to introduce a voting rights bill so soon after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because he needed votes for his economic program, and he didn’t want to alienate Southern Democrats, who might then vote against his anti-poverty legislation.
Michael Thompson, an LBJ historian from Texas University LBJ School of Public Affairs, was upset about a scene where Johnson allows the FBI director to harass King’s family with evidence of his infidelity. This is a far cry from real life, he says.
Yes, Johnson knew the contents of the FBI’s file on King, but there’s no evidence he conspired to smear him nor is there evidence that he refused to control J. Edgar, Thompson says.
Researching earlier associations between Johnson and Hoover, found documentation that the two were more than president and director; they were very close friends.
Most political scientists believe Hoover had particularly good relationships with at least two presidents he served under: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. The others— Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon—all considered sacking him, according to an article in the Washington Post written by Kenneth D. Ackerman on Nov. 9, 2011.
In 1964 just days before Hoover testified in the earliest stages of the Warren Commission hearings on the Kennedy Assassination, President Johnson waived the then-mandatory U.S. Government Service retirement age of 70, allowing Hoover to remain FBI director “for an indefinite period of time,” according to Ackerman.
In the book, “Lyndon B. Johnson: A Memoir” by George Reedy, the author describes in a meeting someone suggested the retirement of J. Edgar Hoover. LBJ said, “I’d rather have him inside the tent pissin’ out than outside the tent pissin’ in.”
When LBJ assumed the presidency, Reedy goes on to describe how Hoover’s direct link to the White House was re-established.
Johnson’s official relationship with Hoover was enhanced by personal friendship as well. “As majority leader of the Senate, Johnson already had been receiving a steady stream of reports and dossiers from Hoover which he prized as a means of controlling difficult senators,” writes author Reedy.
In an interview, historic society landmark researcher Daniel Lang explained how Johnson and Hoover were professionally, socially and physically connected long before LBJ became president and King’s involvement in the civil rights campaign.
“Lyndon Johnson and his neighbor, FBI Director Hoover lived 171 feet apart for 18 years, from 1943-1961, in what can be best described as a quiet, exclusive neighborhood in Northwest Washington D.C.,” Lang continued.
“The Johnsons lived in a brick colonial at 4921 30th Place NW, Washington, D.C. Hoover lived across the street. Hoover used to walk his dog often with Johnson, it was known that Hoover had a paranoia about individuals harming his dogs and only close associates were allowed near the animals. Hoover was also a frequent guest for Sunday brunch at the Johnson home along with other politico bachelors such as Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia (LBJ’s mentor in the Senate) and House Speaker Sam Rayburn (LBJ’s mentor in the House for many years who helped him strong arm the vice president spot from Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic convention),” added Lang.
One of the most respected journalists and liberal political commentators, Bill Moyers, was recently interviewed by the Washington Post on the characterization of Johnson in “Selma.” Moyers served as White House press secretary in the Johnson administration from 1965 to 1967. He also worked as a network TV news commentator for ten years. Moyers has been extensively involved with public broadcasting, producing documentaries and news journal programs. He also served as a college summer intern for Johnson in 1954.
“There’s one egregious and outrageous portrayal that is the worst kind of creative license because it suggests the very opposite of the truth, Moyers said in the Washington Post. “In this case, it was that the president was behind Hoover sending the “sex tape” to Coretta King.
During his interview, Moyer was asked how he felt about the film portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson.
“Some of our most scrupulous historians have denounced that one (the sex tape). And, even if you want to think of Lyndon B. Johnson as vile enough to want to do that, he was way too smart to hand Hoover the means of blackmailing him.”
However, according to Robert P. Morrow, a controversial Kennedy historian and author of 200 plus books on the Kennedy administration, a young Bill Moyers was aware of Johnson and Hoover being neighbors. An excerpt from his book “The Assasination of JKF” mentions Moyer attending a Johnson Sunday brunch in the mid 1950s. Moyers spoke about that day during his eulogy of Lady Bird Johnson in 2007. Hoover was also present at this brunch.