The 2012 Best Picture Oscar Lineup in Terms of Race, Class, Gender and (Subjectively Speaking) Quality

by Peter Knegt
February 21, 2012 1:24 PM
29 Comments
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descendants

As a result of the hoopla that resulted from the LA Times' investigative report on Oscar voters are how insanely white and old and male they are (which though appalling is hardly surprising), I got to thinking about this year's best picture lineup. Yes, we all know how bad most of the movies are, but there perhaps hasn't been as much talk as there should be about another appalling aspect of Oscar, perhaps this year more than ever:

In terms of race, class and gender, the 2012 best picture lineup is astounding white, male and upper-class in a way it hasn't been in awhile.  Take out "The Help," and all we've got left for 2012's Oscars are films about a singular, white male and often filthy rich characters on some sort of journey of privileged self-discovery.

Is this the fault of the new system -- in which #1 votes make or break your presence on the best picture lineup, thus exposing the very old, white male voters preference for films featuring their cinematic counterparts? Possibly. Or is it just a typically bad year for representation ? Well, not really. There were loads of great films made by and about people that aren't rich old white dudes.

Whatever the reason, it's not some drastically new phenomenon. Many other years have featured similar makeups, it just seems like this year is collectively just a little bit worse. This is especially since there's 9 films in there. Both of the years that there were 10 films nominated saw a drastically more inclusive and diverse lineup of films.

As noted, there's also the issue that almost all the movies nominated suck. Personally I would only recommend 3 or 4 of the 9 films, and the critical consensus is definitely not too far off from that. 

Here's my brief take on each of them, as well as a look at how white, rich and male they -- and the people behind them -- are. Will do the same for last year tomorrow, which should make clear what a step backwards this year's Oscars are indeed.

The Artist:
Directed by: White male
Written by: White male
Lead character: White male
Class of lead character: Upper
Purpose of most prominent secondary female character: Love interest
Is it at least any good? It's a technical and artistic achievement to be sure, with some ridiculously charming performances. But it's definitely too slight (and frankly, boring) to be a the best picture winner it's about to become.
Reductive letter grade: B+

The Descendants:
Directed by: White male
Written by: White males
Lead character: White male
Class of lead character: Upper
Purpose of most prominent secondary female character: Daughter
Is it at least any good? I find it difficult to understand why so many folks would say yes. Most certainly Alexander Payne's worst film, this ode to rich-people-problems lacks the sincerity or humor that drew me to most of his other films. Most overrated film of 2011.
Reductive letter grade: C+

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close:
Directed by: White male
Written by: White male
Lead character: White male
Class of lead character: Upper middle
Purpose of most prominent secondary female character: Mother
Is it at least any good? No. How it got so many #1 votes and got nominated in the first place is a mystery since it seems like nobody would disagree. Sure, it has a few nice moments but in general it's an overlong, manipulative schmaltzfest with a very irritating lead performance.
Reductive letter grade: C

The Help:
Directed by: White male
Written by: White male
Lead character: Arguably actually a white female (Emma Stone), though its enough of an ensemble not to go there. Let's go with mix of black and white females (which is as good as its gonna get here).
Class of lead character(s): Mix of middle class women and the working class women who work as their maids.
Is it at least any good? In a decent TV movie sort of way, maybe. Historical inaccuracies and representational issues aside (and that's a big 'aside'), it's definitely an entertaining, cookie-cutter movie saved in large part by one of the best ensemble performances of the year.
Reductive letter grade: B

Hugo:
Directed by: White male
Written by: White male
Lead character: White male
Class of lead character: Lower
Purpose of most prominent secondary female character: Best pal
Is it at least any good? While certainly admirable in its aesthetics and ambition to champion film restoration -- I also found it mostly tedious  and boring (save the final act). Many would disagree with me, but "Hugo" is a snore.
Reductive letter grade: B

Midnight in Paris:
Directed by: White male
Written by: White male
Lead character: White male
Class of lead character: Upper
Purpose of most prominent secondary female character: Shrill girlfriend
Is it at least any good?  As a general fan of Woody Allen, I'd take "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" or "Match Point" over this anyday. Enjoyable in moments, it collectively felt underpolished and slight. If it hadn't made so much fucking money, I doubt it would even be here.
Reductive letter grade: B-

Moneyball:
Directed by: White male
Written by: White males
Lead character: White male
Class of lead character: Upper middle
Purpose of most prominent secondary female character: Daughter
Is it at least any good? Yes. Exceeding typical sports-themed movies in intelligence, humor and heart, "Moneyball" is incredibly clever and affecting. Taking on the notion of change in a quietly profound way, its one of two worthy movies on this list -- both of which happen to star Brad Pitt.
Reductive letter grade: A-

The Tree of Life:
Directed by: White male
Written by: White male
Lead character: White male
Class of lead character: Middle
Purpose of most prominent secondary female character: Mother
Is it at least any good? Absolutely. Though divisive to be sure, even its critics are likely to admire the film's cinematic ambition. For me personally, I found it awe-inspiring in every possible way and reducing my thoughts to a paragraph is essentially impossible. Though I think it does boil down to how much you can feel what's going on, and that's clearly very subjective. It certainly helps if you were the eldest son in a middle class family with a overbearing father. But even if you weren't, surely the lyrical beauty of Malick's filmmaking got to many of you...
Reductive letter grade: A

War Horse:
Directed by: White male
Written by: White male
Lead character: White male
Class of lead character: Lower
Purpose of most prominent secondary female character: Mother
Is it at least any good? Nein. See here (I'm getting lazy).
Reductive letter grade: C

Check out a rundown of 2011's lineup here.

So now let's compare (and for the hell of it, I'll add in 2010's #s without doing the full analysis treatment)....

Directed by:
2010 (8 white males, 1 black male, 2 white females)
2011 (9 white males, 2 white females)
2012 (9 white males)

Written by:
2010 (13 white males,  1 black male, 1 white female)
2011 (15 white males, 3 white females)
2012 (16 white males)

Lead characters:
2010 (7 white males, 2 white females, 1 black female)
2011 (7 white males, 5 white females)
2012 (8 white males, 1 white female*, 1 black female*)

Classes of lead characters:
2010 (2 upper middle, 6 middle, 1 lower middle, 1 lower)
2011 (2 upper, 1 upper middle, 2 middle, 2 lower middle, 1 lower) 
2012 (4 upper, 1 upper middle, 2 middle, 3 lower**)

Are they at least any good?:
2010 (5 yes, 3 mixed, 2 no)
2011 (6 yes, 4 mixed)
2012 (3 yes, 2 mixed, 4 no)

*-Suggests the arguable idea that Emma Stone and Viola Davis were co-leads of "The Help"
**-Suggests the arguable idea that the kid from "Hugo" is lower even though it seems in the end he's destined to return the the middle class he originally came from.

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29 Comments

  • William2 | December 1, 2012 6:52 AMReply

    You forgot manned flight, the lightbulb, the Parthenon, the telephone and the PC. It is not a crime to be white. Respect to all.

  • KatchProFILMS | March 21, 2012 5:56 PMReply

    Chris Rock should host.

  • Alma Eno | February 22, 2012 3:24 PMReply

    I think this is a really interesting and insightful piece. I am a black actress trying make it in the industry and there is far less work for non white actors and women. I think one of the ways that we can change this is if more ethnic people and women write more and produce more projects.

  • Thomas Earlham | February 22, 2012 3:09 PMReply

    It seems disingenuous to call out the academy on this issue and not the critics who stumbled over each other to give their awards to most of these films only a few months ago, in their effort to either predict or influence the Oscars, depending on how you interpret their motivations.

  • j. lee | February 22, 2012 3:00 PMReply

    With Hollywood clamoring/insisting/demanding to enter the markets in China saying they want equal chances (make money), Chinese (along with other non-White films) have an arduous task to even part of the conversation - like Wayne Wang-directed "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" that was produced by Mrs. Rupert Murdoch (Fox) and Mrs. Harry Sloan (MGM).

  • j. lee | February 22, 2012 2:59 PMReply

    With Comcast having acquired "minority-owned" stations (Black and Hispanic), no Asian or Asian Pacific American stations were listed and their "Asian Channel" is lame - along with being of little consequence or merit.

    With Hollywood clamoring/insisting/demanding to enter the markets in China saying they want equal chances (make money), Chinese (along with other non-White films) have an arduous task to even part of the conversation - like Wayne Wang-directed "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" that was produced by Mrs. Rupert Murdoch (Fox) and Mrs. Harry Sloan (MGM).

  • J. Lee | February 22, 2012 2:58 PMReply

    Though I disagree on your respective grade on certain films (Midnight in Paris, The Artist), your racial analysis/breakdown describes a long-existing "ceiling" in Hollywood that will only change when the "Power Brokers" (executives) are replaced - as mentioned in this article on the "Yellow Ceiling"
    h t t p : / / usasians-articles.tripod.com/yellow-ceiling.html

  • j. lee | February 22, 2012 2:56 PMReply

    Being of Asian descent (NO mention of the Jeremy Lin Effect will be issued beyond these words!!), it has been a LONG time since people with the talent like the late Anna May Wong, Bruce Lee, James Wong Howe, Sessue Hayakawa, etc. been part of the conversation in Hollywood.

  • j. lee | February 22, 2012 2:54 PMReply

    Thank you for your insightful article that is "On Point."

  • Thomas Earlham | February 22, 2012 1:58 PMReply

    I'm trying to post a legitimate comment here, but I'm getting an error message that says "Sorry, the page at blogs.indiewire.com say this comment appears to be spam." What the hell? What do I need to do to de-spam my message to the satisfaction of the robot?

  • Sam Mantell | February 22, 2012 1:41 PMReply

    Okay, so what films this year were worthy of the Best Picture nom AND your blessing?

  • Peter Knegt | February 22, 2012 2:07 PM

    In a fantasy world my best picture lineup would be: A Separation, Bridesmaids, Drive, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Melancholia, Moneyball, Shame, The Tree of Life, We Need To Talk About Kevin and Weekend.

  • Rania | February 22, 2012 12:51 PMReply

    Interesting to note-- THE DESCENDANTS is based on a book by (female) Kaui Hart Hemmings.

  • Nancy Lisa Jones-Robinson | February 22, 2012 3:18 AMReply

    Great! Now can you tell us of the top 10 executives at indie wire what % is white male. Does leadership include at least one token female lead? Can we call out the executive team as upper middle class? Is leadership any good? What letter grade based on race, class and gender can we give the leadership at indie wire?

  • Peter Knegt | February 22, 2012 10:30 AM

    You're bonkers, Nancy Lisa.

  • JJ | February 22, 2012 6:09 AM

    What a ridiculous comparison to make in the first place Nancy Lisa. I'm sorry for whatever personal beef provoked it.

  • Bea | February 22, 2012 3:48 AM

    Are you honestly trying to pass off Indiewire's FEMALE EDITOR as a "token female lead"? This article is not about percentages, it is about the dominant figures in front and behind the camera.

  • Gabe Toro | February 21, 2012 5:35 PMReply

    Brilliant piece, something I'll definitely be spreading around.

    However, in "Moneyball," Pitt's Billy Beane is the general manager of a major league baseball team. I would not consider him anywhere close to "middle class."

  • Peter Knegt | February 21, 2012 5:48 PM

    I called him "upper middle," which seemed fair at the time... Though you're probably right in hindsight.

  • Jan Lisa Huttner | February 21, 2012 4:14 PMReply

    Kudos Peter Knegt! Altho I disagree with the analysis at some points, your basic conclusions are timely & right on point! There has definitely been a step backwards this year & it's time everyone noticed! Pushback Point One: What is the economic status of the employers in THE HELP? Pushback Point Two: Who is the main character in THE HELP? (For answers to these two questions, see my blog: www.TheHotPinkPen.com)

    Minor quibble: The lead character in HUGO may have fallen temporarily, but judging from scenes with his father he started Upper Middle & is likely to return there in the end. But more important, I totally agree with you on this part: "While certainly admirable in its aesthetics and ambition to champion film restoration -- I also found it mostly tedious and boring (save the final act). Many would disagree with me, but HUGO is a snore."

    Reductive letter grade: A- Right on, Peter :-)

  • Jan Lisa Huttner | February 21, 2012 6:21 PM

    To be clear, "reductive letter grade: A-" = kudos to YOU, Peter! Surely not for HUGO ;-)

  • matt | February 21, 2012 3:47 PMReply

    Is anyone on the list openly gay?

  • ... | February 22, 2012 2:31 AM

    Thomas Horn (boy from EL&IC) is charming and questionable...

  • Peter Knegt | February 21, 2012 4:00 PM

    I was gonna go there but it was just too hard with some of the writers. There's Daldry, of course. But there are no openly gay characters in any of the nominated films (save one of the people that the kid from EL&IC meets on his journey for like 2 seconds). Last year, there were scores of lesbians and bisexual women thanks to "Kids" and "Swan." And even an openly gay female director.

  • Rocky | February 21, 2012 2:53 PMReply

    I am so glad you wrote this article. I had a lot of problems with he Descendants: Mostly that non of the actors even attempted a Hawaiian accent, it is one of the most culturally diverse places in the world and that is not reflected in the film. Plus it was just a sloppy movie-the voice over at the beginning was unnecessary, I could go on and on but instead will say something nice about two great films coming to theaters by directors of color, "Boy" by Taika Waititi and "On the Ice" by Andrew McLean

  • brace | February 21, 2012 2:10 PMReply

    My comment is not about race,gender or class but I just wanted to say that: I agree on Hugo,The Artist,Extremely Loud and The Descendants but disagree on Midnight in Paris and The Tree Of Life.

  • nope | February 21, 2012 1:46 PMReply

    It should be noted that some of those "white male[s]" are jews; this was either a mistake or you're trying to lump jews in with white people. Also more than half the time the director and writer were the same person. I do think there needs to be more diversity in H-wood but i think this assessment was an unfair one.

  • nope | February 21, 2012 4:43 PM

    I dont think you can speak for the populous at large, and I think that when some one wants to be anti-semitic jewish people dont "count as white". Also "being jewish" informs a cultural identity that is in fact very seperate from "white" which implies "white anglo-saxon protestant". I cant speak for him but it seems as though "being jewish" has a lot to do with "being" woody allen. so i dont know man....

  • random | February 21, 2012 2:17 PM

    As far as constructions of race in this country are concerned, European-descended people, whether Jewish or not are seen as "White" by the populous, at-large.

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