Oscars and Racism in the U.S.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We have a winner! In 2015, Selma is the only film that approaches the majesty and gravitas of what an Oscar for Best Picture should be.

It is a superb story but, ironically, not a well-produced film. Selma is actually a ten-part HBO television series squashed into a two-hour movie. The writer and director try to tell the complicated story of a flawed hero – Martin Luther King – in the weeks before the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Along the way, they show the rivalries inside the civil rights movement; a deeply divided President Lyndon B. Johnson (played superbly by the British actor Tom Wilkinson); a racist Alabama police state; the role of the media; King’s Christian faith and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI spying on the wrong people.

These are all worthy narratives but in their inclusion it slows the film down to a series of disjointed scenes that are greater in part than the sum of the whole film.  On a historical note, I would also have liked to see more mention of my people – the Quakers – and their spiritual influence on King.

However, it is an inspiring film. The actor playing Martin Luther King – David Oyelowo – deserves an Oscar nomination. No argument.   It is racism, that he has not been nominated.

4.5 stars

**

Whiplash is Glee meets Black Swan: a Chekhov short story of a film about a sadistic music teacher and a fragile student. The movie is well made and has a glorious soundtrack but in its totality it says little beyond ‘jazz is a great art form’ and ‘throw things at your students and they will try harder.’

3.75 stars

**

Boyhood is dysfunctional Family Ties. It goes on for 2.5 hours about a young boy growing up in Texas. There are superb scenes. Ethan Hawke as the dissolute father is brilliant. Patricia Arquette is equally good as the flighty mother with a propensity for choosing the wrong man.

For the first hour it is wonderful. Then the film clunks off its rails and nosedives into adolescent angst. The whole thing became like one of those dreadful home movie nights. You know the kind where your friend shows off interminable photos of his vacation in Helsinki and you wonder if by feigning death on the couch you can bring the whole thing to a close.

2.5 stars

**

My real complaint about both films and almost the entire OSCAR best pictures this year is the under-lying racism.

I am not politically correct. But really, the critics are correct.  For example, the only scene in Boyhood – a film about twelve years in Texas – with a Hispanic or another ‘minority’  is the following:

Unilingual American: Hey, you know, you’re really smart. You should go to community college in the evenings.

Bilingual Hispanic-American (in English, his second language): Really? I never thought about that! Do you think I could do it?

Unilingual American:            Yes, of course. Now keep digging my septic pipes.

Several years later, unilingual American is in a restaurant. Bilingual Hispanic-American is now the manager. He comes up and says in best Tio Tomas style:

Bilingual Hispanic-American (in English): You changed my life. Thank you for believing in me. Dinner is on me. Gracias!

Unilingual American: Huh?

According to Boyhood, there are also only three black people in Texas. None of them actually says anything – two are behind a main character at a salad bar, and another is at a table far away from them in a restaurant.

Whiplash is, in some ways, worse. The central characters are white. They are practicing a black-originated improvisational art form – jazz. They are doing so by memorizing songs and painstakingly trying to recreate performances done forty-years before by mostly black artists.

The overall question is why is the United States still such a racist place?   It should not be. The country is full of intelligent, bright, sympathetic people but the films it produces are, at least this year, shockingly devoid of empathy about vast segments of their non-white population.

An insight into this complex issue comes from the paintings hanging on the wall of President Lyndon Johnson’s Oval Office in Selma. There are portraits of three presidents: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and those two slave-owning thugs George Washington and Andrew Jackson.

Most serious historians know what a pair of genocidal nasty boys they were. Jackson slaughtered thousands of the Seminole Indians and boasted about it. Washington’s treatment of the Indians is notorious. They were both enthusiastic slavers and personal scumbags.

Two-hundred-years later to say these things should not be controversial. However, the United States still reveres these leaders. They revere their unread constitution, like their unread bibles. For example, there is a line in Selma where King challenges Johnson by saying, something like:

“The US Constitution allows voters to vote, you are stopping it.”

Actually, the US Constitution says nothing of the kind. What Washington and those Founding Fathers (many of whom owned slaves) really cared about when they discussed its framing, was a compromise where a black slave was counted as only 3/5th of a full human-being. Oddly, there is a similar situation in this year’s Oscar-nominated American movies.

**

#oscarsin2words                                                                         Rating            Bookies Odds

Selma =             Spirit rising                                                              4.5 stars                          150/1           

The Theory of Everything =  Love Disabled                                    4 stars                          125/1

Whiplash = Glee & Shine                                                                   3.5 stars                         125/1

Grand Hotel Budapest = Glorious romp                                        3.5 stars                         60/1

Boyhood = Family Unties                                                                   2.5 stars                         13/8

The Imitation Game = Big Lie                                                           2 stars                             50/1

Birdman = Pretentious crap                                                               2 stars                             4/9

American Sniper = Vile propaganda                                                -2 stars                          66/1

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