Oscar voter tries defending Academy’s respect for diversity, fails

Welcome to chapter 4,535 of #OscarsSoWhite, courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter: An Oscar voter named Rutanya Alda, a member of the Academy's actors branch, wrote a letter in defense of AMPAS' current voting practices. In it, she defends the Academy's historical appreciation of nonwhite performers with a variety of empty stats and uselessly vague anecdotes. Read the whole thing, but here we'll be responding to the grimmest portions of her plea.

We begin with a shockingly assertive, wildly unnecessary claim:

“Actors are the least racist people I have ever known in my life.”

Is this an actual talking point? Alda somehow ranked the racism within every profession in her social orbit, and — without citing any sources — came to the conclusion that the sprawlingly broad world of actors is unified in its lack of racism. That strikes me as a reach! I learned from the news once that Mel Gibson is a very racist person, so we can discount her theory of 100% un-racism in the acting profession right there. She's offering up unfounded judgment based on the ridiculous idea that her pleasant, friendly acquaintances can't also be racist — not to mention the more ridiculous idea that Academy detractors should care about how pleasant and friendly her acquaintances are. 

“Yet, because of these few disgruntled voices, we are made out as racists in some kind of conspiracy to not nominate people of color. If this were not so insane, it would be comical.”

This is a handy distillation of what is so frustrating about her response: She's only concerned about the “attack” on voters and never reconsiders the value of diversity in the Academy itself. Her response is all ego, as if what's really on the line is the dignified regality of her pals. “We're not bad people” is not an effective response to “Wouldn't it make sense to break up this nearly all-white establishment, which purports to celebrate the best in cinema, with voters likelier to appreciate the breadth of what cinema has to offer?” No one cares if you're good or bad people; they just want more types of people (good or bad!) to be counted. 

“A simple glance back at previous years' nominees and winners proves this to be true.”

Well, a simple glance at past nonwhite winners indicates a few things: Voters overwhelmingly prefer African-American actors in movies where they play slaves, maids, or other subservient types. They're almost always playing characters who help to better and/or comfort white characters (Octavia Spencer in The Help, Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, Louis Gossett Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman — just for starters), and it's very rare that a nonwhite actor gets a nomination for a movie that doesn't feature white actors. Additionally, it's hard to ignore the fact that only two black actresses in history have earned more than a single Oscar nomination. (Viola Davis and Goldberg have two.) And if you want to talk about queer characters, only Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote and Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona have won Oscars for playing queer characters who don't die onscreen. Makes you think the Academy doesn't find queerness interesting or valid unless it's used as a vehicle to martyrdom. 

“Our job is not to look at the color of peoples' skin, but to use our years of experience to evaluate everything before offering up our best opinion of who should be rewarded for excellence. Most of the actors and films I nominate don't make the cut. I respect that. I don't go the the press about it.”

People are complaining about systematic flaws in the Academy and your response is, “I think complaining is bad”? Doesn't sound like you're open to disagreement in the first place, and that's a real problem since you're attempting to dismantle the credibility of every conscientious objector. And by the way: What could be more democratic than considering opposing viewpoints? Confining a vote to exactly your preferred audience is not democratic at all. 

“A few years ago, I had a situation arise which completely exemplifies our recent troubles. An Asian actress friend of mine wished to join the Academy. She had theater and TV credits, but little in the way of film credits. I cautioned her that she may not be accepted because of this, but her response was only that she was a minority and therefore would get in. Needless to say, she did not because she lacked the essential credentials. This friend of mine then turned around and blamed the Academy for not accepting her because of her race, the very thing she was convinced would get her in in the first place. Now with your new policies and the climate they create, my friend will apply again and this time most likely she will be accepted. Her eligibility has not changed – she did not have the film credentials then, nor does she now. But now, perhaps, that may just be enough.”

You know what's racist? Saying, “I'm not racist and I'll prove it by sharing a story about a nefarious Asian woman.” Alda again uses a random anecdote to justify her feelings about — I guess? — all nonwhite people who want to join the Academy. No wonder she's such a staunch Academy member: The only minority in her story is a two-dimensional villain figure. Figures.

“So to you, Academy leaders: I feel you have caved in to a few loud voices, instead of bringing your thoughts to the membership to get their input. That is what democracy is, not allowing a few voices to speak for all of us.

It's also racist to call dissenting, significantly nonwhite voices “loud” and then declare how annoying it is that your white voice isn't louder. All the Academy has done in its long, famous history is get your input. Now it's time for critics of that input to have their turn.