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Barry Levinson on Oscar’s Racial Controversy (Exclusive)

Director Barry Levinson offers his thoughts on what’s behind the growing outcry for more diversity in Hollywood films.

Are we a racist country? Yes. But we are getting better. For certain. And while that battle for absolute equality is being played out, an odd controversy about the racial injustice in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has emerged. The Oscar nominations of 2015 are being questioned as racially prejudicial. There are those who say a black woman, who directed “Selma,” was overlooked because of racial bias, and the actor who played Martin Luther King Jr. was also overlooked because he was black. The film was nominated by the Academy, but these individuals were not. I would tend to agree with these accusations if I thought the Academy had a great record of selecting the best nominees each year, but they don’t. It is impossible to pass through a single awards season without hearing, “Huh? How could so and so not be nominated?” There is outrage yearly. And it has nothing to do with race. It is the strangeness of the voters’ taste, the process, or the simple fact that voting for the best in any area of filmmaking isn’t a science.

To understand the odd voting behavior you only have to look to the career of the director Howard Hawks, who received only one nomination in an amazing career. Just to give you an idea of his talent, his filmography includes these gems: “Little Caesar,” “Only Angels Have Wings,” “Bringing up Baby,” “His Girl Friday,” “Red River,” “The Big Sleep,” “To Have And Have Not”… and there are more. And he was not nominated for any of them. Edward G. Robinson had a long and distinguished career but was never nominated. A Hollywood insider who was in countless films, some true classics, like “Scarface” and “Double Indemnity,” to name a few, and he was never nominated. Explain that. Cary Grant was only nominated twice in a long, successful career with a number of classic films to his credit. Why was he overlooked? Why didn’t he win one Oscar? Orson Welles was only nominated as a director one time, for his first film, “Citizen Kane”; “A Touch of Evil,” a true American classic, was overlooked in every category in 1958.

Let’s look at a simple fact about the voting system. There were eight films nominated for Best Picture, but only five directors. That means four films are nominated without a director. Clint Eastwood’s film, “American Sniper,” was nominated, but not Clint himself. Why? The film will become one of the highest-grossing films of the year, and it got good reviews. Why didn’t he get nominated? The Academy loves Clint. Why was he overlooked? Any conspiracy? I don’t think so. The same questions would apply to James Marsh, the director of “Theory of Everything” It was certainly the vision of this talented director, but he was overlooked. As was Damien Chazelle, the director of “Whiplash.” Again, why? What about the director of “Selma,” Ava DuVernay? She wasn’t nominated. Why? In her case, there are those who say it is racist. I don’t think so. Four directors lost out. And she was one of them. Several years ago, Ben Affleck was not nominated as Best Director for “Argo.” Argo went on to win numerous awards, but its director was overlooked that year by the Academy. To some it may not make sense, but that’s the Academy.

Are some members racists? I don’t know the answer with any certainty, but we only have to look at last year’s Oscar winners: “12 Years a Slave” won for Best Picture, the supporting actress, Lupita Nyong’o, from that same movie won, as did the screenwriter John Ridley, who is also of color.  Those wins were voted on by the same group of voters who, this year, are accused of being racist, and too old, and too white. It is interesting that “too old” is not a discriminatory comment, but I’ll leave that for others to debate.

Race issues in America are significant and need to be addressed. The lack of diversity in Hollywood is valid, but change begins with education, not the Oscar ballots. Too many children of color drop out of school each year for various reasons that need to be addressed, and job programs or apprenticeships are not available. The future requires some positive answers. Young boys and girls of all colors deserve better. We can’t build a brighter future through neglect, or arrogant oversight. They need to be helped, taught, educated, nurtured, and inspired. Without that support, too many lost voices can’t join tomorrow’s screenwriters, or directors, or actors, or production designers, or cinematographers, or editors, or any of the talented men and woman of this industry. They need to be included in greater numbers. More voices need to be heard.

To all of those involved in the making of “Selma,” to the actors, the director, the screenwriter, and to all of the crew members of that fine film, they have gotten in the door, they are telling their stories. It’s those who haven’t attained that status, who are lost, or will be lost. That is where we need to focus our attention.

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