Mon | Dec 5, 2016

Glass ceilings that just won't break: Miss Universe and The Oscars

Published:Sunday | February 1, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Renee Robinson
Ricardo Makyn/Staff Photographer Miss Universe Jamaica Kaci Fennell shortly after returning home last Tuesday.
Contributed 'Selma' director Ava DuVernay has been given the cold shoulder.
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Some are saying it's because of Kaci Fennell's short hair, some because of her complexion, some because of her nationality. Some are saying her responses could have been stronger.

The truth is, we have no way of knowing how the negotiations were tabled in the Miss Universe committee chambers. The only thing that we can know for a fact is that despite being the obvious choice of the live and online audience, of the media, and of seemingly half the contestants who surrounded her off-camera instead of congratulating the officially crowned queen, our Miss Universe was not a top choice for the institution of the gatekeeper.

Psychologists speak of invalidation as an emotionally disruptive tactic that can be either self-inflicted or inflicted by others - resulting in low self-esteem, feelings of inferiority, or shame. In interpersonal relationships, invalidation can look like a simple deflection ("How can you believe something stupid like that?") or a full out emotional abuse ("I wouldn't have to scream at you if you didn't make me so angry!")

When it is the institution (any establishment of authority, decision making, or power) that inflicts invalidation on others, however, it can appear very similar to what may have occurred in Doral. The invalidation represents how the opinion of one or a few trumps (no pun intended) the opinion of many - resulting in the devaluation of the public voice.

Luckily for Miss Fennell, in this age of digital democracy, she won't need to shield herself from the sudden misfortune or even speak up in her own defence. The public and the media continue to decry the invalidation: the opportunities that will flow to her now is all that will be needed for society to reclaim its voice and re-establish its power to affect change.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in all cases of institutional invalidation.

Ava DuVernay (who I happened to have the pleasure to work with one year at TIFF) is the director of the film Selma, which is currently nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Despite its strong box-office returns (US$40 million as at January 27, of which US$5m was earned in one day on Martin Luther King Day) and demonstrated directorial artistry - Ms Duvernay has been 'uninvited' by the Academy for a Best Director nomination, ensuring that the category enjoys its usual all-white, all-male supper club.

The film industry trades and business publications have certainly weighed in on this:

"The first feature on Martin Luther King Jr is a long-overdue achievement, but that film being Selma and from this already barrier-breaking director is nothing short of stunning. That Selma got Best Picture and Original Song noms and DuVernay did not get a Best Director is as stunning."

- Deadline.

"David Oyelowo's performance as Dr Martin Luther King in Selma was overlooked this morning in the Best Actor category, marking the first time since 1999 that no people of colour were nominated in any acting categories."

- Entertainment Weekly

"While the film has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, to the shock of many, DuVernay was not nominated. She would have made history as the first African-American woman nominated for best director."

- Democracy Now at Sundance

While we may not have the data to examine the structure of the pageant institutions, information about the Academy is fortunately transparent to film industry professionals.

A 2012 survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times found that overall, academy members are 94 per cent white and 77 per cent male, and that their median age is 62. Every Academy voter can vote in the Best Picture category, but individual categories like Best Actor and Best Director are voted on by their peers.

Some branches are additionally less diverse than others. Women make up 19 per cent of the screenwriting branch and 18 per cent of its producers branch, but only nine per cent of its directors branch. Therefore, 91 per cent of the individuals who can actually vote for Best Director are white males.

Additionally, in 2010, the Academy reverted to rules that it used between 1931 and 1943 - allowing up to 10 Best Picture nominations, but only five Best Director nominations. Nevertheless, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, herself the first black woman at the helm, represents that the Academy doesn't have a diversity problem "at all".

DÈj‡ vu

What this means for Ms DuVernay is that she joins the ranks of numerous other female directors whose films have been acclaimed but who they themselves have been invalidated for their directorial accomplishments. These include: Randa Haines for Children of a Lesser God in 1987, Penny Marshall for Awakenings in 1991, Barbra Streisand for The Prince of Tides in 1992, Katia Lund (co-directed with Fernando Meirelles) for City of God in 2004, Valerie Faris (co-directed with Jonathan Dayton) for Little Miss Sunshine in 2007, Loveleen Tandan (co-directed with Danny Boyle) for Slumdog Millionaire in 2009, Lone Scherfig for An Education in 2010, Debra Granik for Winter's Bone in 2011, Lisa Cholodenko for The Kids Are All Right in 2011, and Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty in 2013.

In fact, in the 87-year history of the Oscars, only four women have EVER been nominated for Best Director.

Although the box office does not necessarily reflect the creative accomplishment of a film, it is worth a quick analysis of how the other Best Picture nominations fared in comparison to Selma. The following chart shows box-office gains (adjusted as of January 27) and reported by Box Office Mojo, a subsidiary of IMDB and an industry reporting standard.

The titles are listed in order of receipts, and also release date to give a sense of how long it has taken that film to earn that much.

Finally, I show where a film has also received another premium nomination (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress). Outside of the tent pole American Sniper, and festival favourite, The Imitation Game, Selma has comparatively outperformed all other nominees in a shorter period of time. (See Table)

We naturally seek the validation of others. It makes us feel good to know that our identities, our attributes, and our decisions are accepted and appreciated. It builds confidence, which leads to advancement. Yet institutional invalidation is still very real and very present.

According to Ms DuVernay, speaking at a recent interview at the Sundance Film Festival, "... Folks see films, see history, see art, see life through their own lens. And when there's a consensus that has to be made by a certain group, you know, the consensus is most likely going to be through a specific lens.

"The obstacle, it is systemic. It's systemic. It's a system that's been set up in a certain way. Times have changed, ideas have matured, and the system might not have caught up with that or stayed up with that."

That Miss Colombia earned the award, and that Miss Jamaica should have/could have placed higher - there is no doubt. Our Miss Universe may or may not have been snubbed by a system that was set up with a specific lens; but whether she is ready for it or not, she joins a legacy of women in the entertainment industry who represent the invalidation of the public opinion when the institutional gatekeepers fumble to open their doors.

n RenÈe Robinson is a Jamaican international media strategist, currently based in Rome, Italy. She is the Programmer with responsibility for Industry Initiatives at the Toronto International Film Festival, and former director of programming at the JCDC. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and renee.t.robinson@gmail.com.