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.