Best picture winners: the province of the great white male?

Dear friends,

Hurrah! The 2016 Oscars are just a few days away. In honor of the occasion, let’s look back at best picture winners of years past. Here are the previous 20. Notice anything interesting?

  1. Birdman
  2. 12 Years a Slave
  3. Argo
  4. The Artist
  5. The King’s Speech
  6. The Hurt Locker
  7. Slumdog Millionaire
  8. No Country for Old Men
  9. The Departed
  10. Crash
  11. Million Dollar Baby*
  12. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  13. Chicago
  14. A Beautiful Mind
  15. Gladiator
  16. American Beauty
  17. Shakespeare in Love
  18. Titanic*
  19. The English Patient
  20. Braveheart

(Emphases mine.)

It appears that 14/20, or 70 percent, of them tell the story of “the great white male” – mostly his triumphs and tribulations in a world that simply doesn’t understand him (boo hoo). Note that I have also starred two movies that, while they may not exactly tell the story of the great white male, they prominently feature a heroic white male protagonist.

I decided to assemble this list yesterday after a conversation with a colleague. We were talking about which movies we thought might take the top prize. He was betting on The Revenant or possibly Spotlight, and I was holding out hope for Mad Max: Fury Road.** As we considered Room and Brooklyn, both excellent films, an odd feeling passed over us. We both concluded that these movies, well … they just couldn’t win, could they? It was hard to articulate, but they seemed less grandiose or monumental or something, and not just from a cinematographic perspective. Neither of them felt like a best picture winner.

I am realizing now that the discordance revolved around the fact that both are movies about women. Neither Room nor Brooklyn feel like winners because they are – for this reason – out of sync with past winners. Take a look at the list above. How many of these movies tell the story of a woman? Maybe two? And one of them (Chicago) showcases women as objects of desire, clamoring over fame, beauty, and youth.

This is very discouraging in 2016. How is it possible that movie studios are still this uninterested in female-driven plots? Sure, some popular female-centric comedies like Spy and Trainwreck came out this past year. But why is it that only movies led by white male protagonists are pegged for the ultimate prize for high art in film-making?

(Let’s not even get into the fact that best-picture-nominated movies about women are typically only about white women – that is a whole other dimension to discuss another day…)

Hopefully, the recently announced changes in the Academy’s voting membership will take take things in a different direction. Until then, thinking through these issues has been an important reminder that institutionalized patriarchy runs deep, even within me and the most progressive people that I know.

Prediction: the movie featuring the GREATEST of the great white males will win this year (this means Leo).

**Ironically, the title Mad Max: Fury Road implies that it is a male-centric movie, but it becomes a largely female-driven movie led by a strong heroine.

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Flash Fiction Experiment: Crab Cake Sandwich

It all started when my good friend Tracy Golden texted me on a Tuesday afternoon to report some bad news: her lunch that day had been abysmal.

As fellow writerly types can well understand, lunch is extremely important! A good lunch anchors the day, nourishing us physically and psychologically. A bad lunch, however, torpedoes the day, at best throwing us off our craft, and at worst sending us into a tailspin of existential crises.

Then something wonderful happened. As I expressed my sympathies, Tracy texted the following sentence:

They said it was a crab cake sandwich.

Suddenly, I was delighted. What a perfect line to open a work of fiction! The words were humorous, specific, and bursting with opportunity. They hinted coyly at a story untold.

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to do a better job of honoring my whims. And so Tracy and I, along with our supremely talented friend Courtney Young, decided to each write a flash fiction of around 500 words starting with “They said it was a crab cake sandwich.” I think you’ll agree that the results of our experiment proved interesting:

 

restaurant

Bait

By Tracy Golden 

They said it was a crab cake sandwich but the slab of gray fish meat that appeared before me did not evoke brackish Maryland waterways. It parked its lump meat lazily on a couch of sweetish yellow hamburger buns, draped with a translucent swatch of iceberg lettuce. The “spicy remoulade mayonnaise” tasted like dirt. The failure on my plate was exactly what we had tried to avoid when setting out that afternoon. And yet here it lies.

When descending from the art deco building on Park Avenue, into the bustle, George and I still had expectations. This is Manhattan. We should be near luncheonettes and restaurants that offer some modicum of satiety after you eat, some experience. Even if it was a terrible one. This is the story of non-experience.

The icy air drove us further down Park and into the nearest place serving food at a table. We wanted what every lower level Midtown employee was seeking in their day. To fold ourselves into the corner of some place and allow the change in atmosphere to lull calm back into our hands and smooth out our eyebrows. Maybe to remember the way we were before work was important to our very existence.

The table was completely wrong – too high and we were asked to help ourselves to aluminium chairs on this 10 degree February afternoon. A waitress fluttered over to offer drinks but when we ordered seltzer, she became deeply disinterested in our presence and we never saw her again. Leading up to the bait deposited on our table, they sent over everyone but the hostess of nothing to us. George was the first to state our situation although I had been in keen observance of it. His chief complaint being that we could have done better.

How many places have I been like this one for convenience or lack of judgement? What number of years has passed by since I refused to enter such an establishment? My eighteen year old self wouldn’t even get coffee at a corner deli. NO! Even the most commonplace of sips were carefully plotted and acquired from the most interesting and pertinent of shops. It had to be an experience of tactile and emotional participation.

I asked George to leave with me immediately. He looked confused. “George, we have to go, this tastes disgusting and I hate this place.”

“Troy, this shit was like, $18 bucks, and yes it is bad.” He looked down and poked the sandwich and mumbled. “It actually looks like a McDonald’s filet-o-fish…tastes like one too…”

“Then let’s just – I don’t know – dude, it’s gross.”

“Okay…okay” He picked up his coat and threw two twenties on the table. “I am starving so we need to get food. I know a place – just follow me.”

We faced the freezing air this time and marched down 32nd Street, crossing Lexington with purpose. The place was on a corner. The curtains were blue and swung across the windows. Hands reached out from behind them for their porcelain cups. Two men at the bar talked quietly over a drink. It felt like the right but I was unsure if I was capable of being in a place I wanted to be anymore. I  just followed George in – I could always eat the granola bar in my desk drawer if this didn’t work out.

new york

Sandwich

By Judy Wang

They said it was a crab cake sandwich.

I believed them and was picturing a perfectly crisp and golden patty of crab meat enveloped in buttery toast that would somehow save me from this week of misery. Maybe it was the rustic Maine cottage look of the food truck, or the earnest smiles of the young redhead behind the cash register, I don’t know. Point is, I believed them and paid $18 to eat a shitty fish stick on a bun while sitting on this ice slab of a concrete bench in November.

The last place I want to be was back in my office, where my wife was calling me non-stop about who knows what, and associates were sidling through my doorway every ten seconds because they don’t know how to spell their own damn names in the contracts or whatever. I want to be left alone. Actually, I don’t mind the cold so much. It’s kind of fun to sit out here and watch people walk by, hunched over and gripping their sides like it’s the dead of winter in War and Peace. This city can be such a farce of itself sometimes.

I can feel the red light on my Blackberry blinking viciously inside by coat pocket. Screw them all. I am too old to be on a leash. On days like this, I imagine what would’ve happened to my life if I’d agreed to run away to France with Cora, or Connie, whatever her name was, twenty years ago when she asked me to go. Maybe I could’ve been different. Maybe I would’ve turned into a painter or a sommelier. Or maybe I would’ve turned into the same pathetic mid-level corporate son-of-a-bitch that I am today, but in France. But hopefully not. Back then, I was as soft as butter. I could’ve gone in so many directions, been so many different versions of myself. The world felt warm, and I liked thinking about a lot of things that I couldn’t care less about today.

I wipe the mayonnaise off my chapped lips with my coat sleeve and toss the sandwich wrappings into the garbage. I stand up, close my eyes, and breath in through my nose and out through my mouth, the only useful thing my wife’s $150-per-hour yoga teacher taught me to do. Anyone who sees me doing this will probably think I’m a lunatic, but I no longer give a crap.

Feeling stolid, I head back toward the glass revolving doors, nodding to a few colleagues also returning from lunch, still trying to remember what her face looked like, and what it was she called herself, Cora or Connie.

car interior

 

One Tender Moment

 

By Courtney Young

 

They said it was a crab cake sandwich and the youngest one, in the passenger seat, tossed it in my direction. I barely caught it, using the tips of my fingers to grab the sandwich as my hands were bound at the wrist, denying me full mobility. I tried to maneuver the sandwich into a more comfortable holding position but the tips of my fingers gave way and it fell onto the tops of my knees. I tried to lift my legs, to roll the sandwich down onto my lap and prevent it from falling but my legs were heavy from sitting for too long. Besides, the men on either side of me confiscated the little room available in the back seat, both pushing against me as I tried to move.

The driver, the least cruel of the lot, began to sign to the man immediately to my right, moving his eyes from the rearview mirror to the road, his left hand steady on the steering wheel, his right hand moving almost gracefully in a motion beyond my comprehension. The man to my right vigorously moved both of his hands in response, aggressively bumping into me over and over again as they conversed. I couldn’t keep up with what was going on anymore. I was starving; I was in pain; and the blood that flowed from the deep gash in my scalp had poured into my right eye, making it difficult for me to see. After what seemed hours, the man to my right leaned into me so roughly I felt as if I had been punched in the side. I felt a short, piercing scream burst through my mouth, followed by a slow moan.

The sandwich fell to the feet of the man to my left; the one who hadn’t looked at me or talked to me since all this began – the man who kept checking his phone and acting like I wasn’t even there. He was cold, so cold that when I fell into him more than food or a shower or room to wiggle my limbs, I wanted a blanket.

I felt the cruel one to my right searching for something in his pocket and heard him unlocking the switchblade he used to subdue me and drag me into the car. He then sat up straight and moved the switchblade in front of my left eye so I could see it and started to swing it back and forth, left to right and then back again, as a warning. He then swiftly, roughly cut the duct tape that bound my wrists and my hands collapsed onto my lap. I couldn’t feel anything from the wrists up but I lowered myself to the cold man’s feet and swung my hands over the sandwich until I felt the blood reach my fingers. I lifted myself up, sandwich in hand, pulling back the paper, thinking about my next move.

 

***

Well, this has been fascinating. Tracy and I both happened to write from the perspective of corporate hacks, but Courtney took the crab cake sandwich in an entirely different direction! Still, I think all these stories are quite different, and their diversity reflects our individual styles and personalities in an interesting way. Stay tuned for our next experiment! And of course, anyone is welcome to join us at anytime.