Sorry Oscars, I have other plans

By Justin Moyer

Black artists will be conspicuous by their absence on Oscar night, writes Justin Moyer.
Chris Rock will host Oscars this year. Photo / Supplied
Chris Rock will host Oscars this year. Photo / Supplied

When the red carpets unroll and the spray tans descend on the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles for the Academy Awards on Monday, as many as 20 white actors - this year's crop of acting nominees - will show up to see whether they will win an Oscar.

But after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy highlighted the academy's decision to honour exactly zero black thespians in the acting categories for two years in a row, some big names, invited and not, will be sitting the event out. And some are now making their alternative plans public.

The latest among them: Ava DuVernay - the first black woman nominated for best director, for Selma last year. DuVernay announced she would spend Oscar night in a place far less glamorous than the Dolby, and perhaps far more relevant to spotlighting racial inequality in America: Flint, Michigan, a majority-black city that has been the site of a water crisis.

"Marginalised artists have advocated for Academy change for DECADES," DuVernay wrote on Twitter last month.

"Actual campaigns. Calls voiced FROM THE STAGE. Deaf ears. Closed minds. Whether it's shame, true feelings, or being dragged kicking + screaming, just get it done. Because the alternative isn't pretty."

DuVernay, this week announced as the director of Disney's A Wrinkle in Time, said she would join #JusticeForFlint, a "free special event promoting solidarity and support for communities affected by the water crisis", according to its EventBrite page.

She'll have company: Comedian and Bill Cosby shamer Hannibal Buress will host, and Creed director Ryan Coogler - with DuVernay, a member of Blackout for Human Rights, "a collective of film-makers, artists, activists and concerned citizens devoting their resources to address the staggering number of human rights violations in the United States" - will also be there.

Ava DuVernay. Photo / AP
Ava DuVernay. Photo / AP

"With the #JUSTICEFORFLINT benefit event we will give a voice to the members of the community who were the victims of the choices of people in power who are paid to protect them, as well as provide them with a night of entertainment, unity, and emotional healing," Coogler told BuzzFeed News. "Through the live stream we will also give a chance for people around the world to participate, and to donate funds to programmes for Flint's youth." He also said the timing of the event, set for the last weekend of Black History Month, was not meant as an Oscar slight.

Coogler's alternative Oscar plans were nonetheless particularly noteworthy.Creed, the latest Rocky instalment, wasn't just a critical and commercial hit, but it was also directed by Coogler and starred Michael B. Jordan - two black men. The film's only Oscar nomination went to Sylvester Stallone, a man not only nominated for playing the same character almost 40 years ago, but one who is also white.

Earlier this month, Stallone said he offered to sit out the ceremony in solidarity, but he was encouraged by Coogler to show.

"I said, 'If you don't want me to go, I won't'," Stallone said, as the Los Angeles Times reported. "He said, 'I want you to go.' That's the kind of guy he is. He wanted me to stand up for the film."

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. Photo / AP
Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. Photo / AP

Other stars' plans were unknown. Will Smith - passed over by the academy for his performance in the National Football League scandal film Concussion - and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, the high-wattage celebrity couple at the centre of #OscarsSoWhite, did not appear to be participating in #JUSTICEFORFLINT.

"Is it time that people of colour recognise how much power, influence that we have amassed, that we no longer need to ask to be invited anywhere?" Pinkett Smith asked in a Facebook video last month.

Smith joined her in boycotting the ceremony, then later praised the academy's attempts to increase diversity: "It's much more a domestic family issue than it is a civil rights issue ... So it's a problem that we all have to solve." (And, at the American Black Film Festival Awards this week, Oscar winner Jamie Foxx joked that Smith should simply "#ActBetter" to get his own statue.)

Pinkett Smith spent time in Flint this month, meeting the mayor "to discuss long-term support to help the residents of her city", as she explained on Twitter.

Though he received an honorary Oscar last year, Spike Lee, meanwhile, will be at a Knicks game.

"I Will Not Be Attending The Oscar Ceremony This Coming February," he wrote on Instagram last month. "We cannot support it and mean no disrespect to my friends, host Chris Rock and producer Reggie Hudlin, president Isaacs and the academy. But, how is it possible for the 2nd consecutive year all 20 contenders under the actor category are white?"

Spike Lee. Photo / AP
Spike Lee. Photo / AP

Though not a household name, April Reign, the managing editor of BroadwayBlack.com credited with creating the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, announced she would be live-tweeting during the Oscars - that is, while watching the 1999 Omar Epps-Taye Diggs film The Wood. (Last year, her choice was the 1998 Eddie Murphy classic Coming to America.) In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, she offered praise - albeit limited - for the academy's efforts to increase diversity.

"I've spoken about my concern that some of the older academy members still have a vote even though they aren't active in the film industry and that appears to be addressed," she said. "The fact that they will be proactively looking for more diverse members is exciting."

But she added: "I would say: 'Thank you. Thank you for listening. Now, what's next?'"

One black man, however, will be front and centre at the Oscars - and poised to drop a bomb on the ceremony if he chooses. Host Chris Rock, not known to shy away from controversy, has reportedly changed his entire opening monologue to address #OscarsSoWhite. Beyond a tweet that called the Oscars "the White BET Awards", the comedian's strategy has yet to emerge.

"Chris is hard at work. He and his writing staff locked themselves in a room," Academy Awards producer Reginald Hudlin, who is also African-American, said last month. "As things got a little provocative and exciting, he said, 'I'm throwing out the show I wrote and writing a new show.'"

- Washington Post, Bloomberg

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