Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Lack of Oscars diversity shows academy’s out of touch

The Academy Awards will be on at my home Sunday night, even though the event does not reflect the tastes or life experiences of much of the American moviegoing audience.

I’ll be watching the Oscars even though my favorite film of the year – “Creed” – did not receive any nominations for best picture, best director or best actor. Directed and written by Sacramento State product Ryan Coogler, “Creed” was a box office winner by breathing new life into the “Rocky” franchise conceived by Sylvester Stallone 40 years ago.

Coogler, 29, created far more than a boxing flick or a “Rocky” sequel with “Creed.” His film is about personal triumph over social isolation. It’s about humanity in the American inner city. It’s about second chances and the bonds of compassion and caring that link us all. It’s also a love story.

As Adonis Johnson, the protagonist of “Creed,” Michael B. Jordan enthralls audiences while playing the illegitimate son of a deceased boxing champion. Jordan’s character fights in the ring to redeem his troubled life, “to prove to myself that I’m not an accident.” When Jordan spoke that line, he could have been speaking for American youths whose lives are often only portrayed in tragic stories on the evening news.

Though he is young enough to be Stallone’s grandson, Coogler coaxed a superlative performance out of the venerable Hollywood action hero – a performance that earned Stallone, 69, his first Oscar nomination since “Rocky” in 1976.

That Coogler and Jordan were overlooked by Oscar was among the most egregious snubs delivered by the older, mostly white voters within the 6,200-member Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The ensuing “#OscarsSoWhite” backlash was the result of zero nominations for any actors of color, including Jordan and Tessa Thompson, Jordan’s love interest in “Creed,” who also gives a powerful performance. As a result, some African American personalities, such as director Spike Lee, will purposely skip Sunday’s ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. It also means the makeup of the academy will be shaken up in the coming years in an effort to increase diversity in its membership and better connect with people buying movie tickets.

Meanwhile, well-known names are sharing their opinions about the issue with the press in ways that can seem either provocative or tone-deaf. “I think in the end you can’t vote for an actor (just) because he’s black,” said two-time Oscar winner Michael Caine in a recent interview with the BBC.

So why watch Sunday’s Oscar ceremony at all? Because I love the movies. Because the broadcast reminds me of my late mother, who never missed the red-carpet pageantry even if she rarely saw the nominated films. Because I didn’t quit baseball after the steroid scandal and I didn’t quit the Catholic Church after the sex abuse scandal.

Change only comes when you engage the tough issues. Change never comes if you turn your back and walk away. Besides, Caine’s point is worth debating. He shouldn’t be vilified for what he said. He should be encouraged to think beyond his own perspective.

One could argue that narrow-minded perspectives are at the heart of the Oscars controversy.

A Los Angeles Times analysis found that the academy so often thanked in acceptance speeches is 91 percent white and 76 percent male. A Washington Post analysis found that half of academy voters are over the age of 60. These numbers refute the arguments of some who say that Oscar doesn’t have a racial problem.

Some argue that if Hollywood has a racial problem, doesn’t the NBA or NFL have one as well because so many star players in those leagues are African American?

It’s a specious argument. If you can push past a 350-pound lineman to sack the quarterback or if you can deliver a tomahawk dunk over a 7-foot defender, you will play in the NFL or NBA. In sports, if you can perform, you play. That’s not necessarily so in the movies.

Films are made – and selected for Oscar nominations – by the exclusive cliques of Hollywood insiders embodied by the voting membership of the academy.

“In 2011, University of Indiana telecommunications researcher Andrew Weaver conducted a study that found that white audiences prefer to watch films with white people in them, and when black people are cast in the lead roles, those movies are viewed as ‘black films’ aimed at African American audiences and not ‘for them,’ ” wrote Ann Hornaday in The Washington Post last week. “By contrast, a study undertaken the same year by BET Network found that 80 percent of the films African Americans attend do not feature predominantly black casts.”

Film director Rod Lurie, who is white, recently wrote in the Hollywood Reporter that he was horrified by the attitudes of some of his academy colleagues. “The other day I ran into several of my fellow academy members at Art’s Deli. All men, all 70 or older, all white,” he wrote. “Each but one said they didn't even bother watching F. Gary Gray’s terrific ‘Straight Outta Compton.’ The one who had seen it dismissed it with a wave of the hand. ‘Too loud for me,’ he said in full-on Larry David mode. ‘I didn’t make it all the way through.’ 

It’s not surprising then to see a film such as “Bridge of Spies,” the latest release from Steven Spielberg, as a best picture nominee. There is no doubt that Spielberg is one of the great directors of the last half-century. But “Bridge of Spies” is a safe, conventional Hollywood film. It’s a lovely period piece, expertly shot, but one that fails to do much more than entertain. It’s not surprising or revealing or exhilarating like “Jaws” or “E.T.” or “Schindler’s List,” all Spielberg classics.

As a journalist, I’m proud that “Spotlight” is nominated for best picture. The story of how the Boston Globe revealed the sex abuse of children at the hands of Boston priests is as uplifting as it is interesting. But it’s not much more than that.

“Creed” grabbed me by the lapels. It surprised me. It moved me. It did what cinema is supposed to do – hit us where we live and touch our humanity. Yet somehow, only Stallone – the white actor in a largely African American cast – got a nomination, for best supporting actor. It’s a shame and it undoubtedly is reflective of an academy out of touch with modern American life’s experiences.

That Indiana study revealed that some white audiences stay away from films starring actors of color because they don’t think they’ll relate. “Creed” isn’t a black film. It’s a human film.

Coogler took his first baby steps toward acclaim on the Sacramento State campus. A wide receiver who was too small to play in the NFL, he followed his imagination instead and has become one of the most exciting young directors working today.

“In my film classes, he was always in the front row, always effervescent,” said Roberto Pomo, a Sac State professor of film and theater who was one of several mentors Coogler had on campus. “What I found most exciting about him was his energy. He is deeply connected to the human psyche. The reason why he is so exemplary is he goes to the heart of the heart and the humanity of the character operating in a very complex society.

“He’s not didactic at all. I love Spike Lee, but when I go to a Spike Lee film I know I’m going to get hit in the head with a frying pan. With Ryan, it’s all about humanity. It’s all about the story.”

Coogler’s previous film, 2013’s “Fruitvale Station,” was about the killing of Oscar Grant by Bay Area Rapid Transit police in Oakland. Coogler, who grew up in the Bay Area, didn’t shy away from the complexities of Grant’s story. Grant was a troubled youth, and Coogler told his story warts and all. But by the tragic end, audiences were moved by his senseless killing because Coogler also showed Grant was a caring person who didn’t deserve to die.

Pomo attributes part of Coogler’s gift to the environment at Sac State and to the California State University system. “Our mission is to really look at our pluralistic society, regardless of the background of the student, and impart the best eduction possible. ... Ryan Coogler is a stellar example of that.”

Those aren’t just words. As the first in my family to graduate from college, I see my San Jose State University journalism degree as the difference between a satisfying life and one of struggle. For Coogler, a 2007 Sac State graduate, his degree has helped him to share rich, powerful stories with movie audiences at large.

Coogler won’t be at the Dolby to see if Stallone will win a gold statue, choosing instead to travel to Flint, Mich., for a benefit to help families affected by contaminated drinking water – an urban nightmare worse than any horror film Hollywood could create. As he did here in Sacramento, Coogler is following his heart and doing something meaningful.

As for the Oscars? His absence is their loss.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee