Oscars talk with Katya Gibel Mevorach

Katya Gibel Mevorach is a Professor of Anthropology and American Studies at Grinnell College. Gibel Mevorach sat down with The S&B’s Teresa Fleming to discuss the recent set of Oscar nominations and issues of diversity in Hollywood.

Were you happy with this year’s nominations?

I didn’t pay attention to the Oscars at all because I was out of the country when they were announced … I don’t think that there was a great crop of films, to be honest. I don’t speak as a film critic, I just speak as a person who likes to go to the movies and likes a good story when I go. They were okay. “Gone Girl,” it was good, it kept my attention, I didn’t fall asleep, I thought the ending was stupid, and it was like okay, where did you really want this film to end? I thought “Boyhood” was good, it had a slice of life which was competent. Was it Oscar-worthy? Depends how Oscar-worthy is described … And I did not think “Selma” was excellent. But since none of the films were excellent, if you just judge them on their own merit I am taken aback that it received no recognition.

“Selma” and “American Sniper” are films that both deal with racial politics in very different ways, and they’ve both been recognized this year. I was interested to hear your thoughts on that.

I haven’t seen “American Sniper” … [the fact that] so many people are seeing it, that makes it something that is culturally, for us, worth examining. What is it that is attracting people to see the film? So I can’t really speak about the film’s racial politics. I think [“American Sniper” director] Clint Eastwood is tricky at this point. I used to like his films. They used to have a sensitivity to issues of race and poverty. And his performance at the Republican convention was so outrageous to me that I really find it difficult to want to go back and see more of his films, even though he makes excellent films … I don’t think that “American Sniper” should really be put in the same context as “Selma.” I think they’re both based on events and people, and film and art takes great license, and that raises all sorts of questions, what events should be manipulated, and what events should be told as straightforwardly as possible? One can argue either way. Does the filmmaker have a responsibility to tell the truth and what is the truth? But I would see them just differently.

A lot of discussion of this year’s Oscars has focused on the fact that they’re the least diverse set of nominations since 1995, and I was wondering why you thought that might be this year?

There are very few black recipients of Oscars at all, and they tend to come in clusters … the film industry stays white, you know, and the diversity that one would expect isn’t happening, and where do we place the responsibility and the blame? I don’t know, to be honest with you, and my views are in the process of changing, because I think that there’s some degree to which—how do you find the funding to get a film produced? Who do you cast? What is your commitment as a filmmaker or producer or director, where are your commitments, what stories do you choose and how do you present those and how do you cast those? Those are questions that I don’t think people address at the core, of “Alright, I’m going to do this, whatever it takes I’m going to … create this film, I’m going to hire these actors.” Instead we’re relying on Hollywood to do something for us, in a sense, so Hollywood is not representing people of color. Well the question can’t simply be this amorphous Hollywood, it’s got to be directors, where are they getting their money, where are they getting their support? It’s more targeted … And the other part to that is audiences. Audiences have power to not go to the movies. And so I should, in a way, feel culpable—I do, but I do it anyway—of going to see films that have an all-white cast, on principle. So that if we boycotted, then those who made the films would begin to pay attention. And I’m not sure that that’s the answer either.

Do you think that the Oscar selections are a reflection of the committee that selects them?

Probably, yeah. The question also is to what degree are the Oscars taken really seriously today. We’re having these conversations and I’m reading these conversations in the paper, and I’m thinking, “Well, in Europe nobody cares.” I mean they really don’t care. The big festival is Cannes, that’s what matters, and then even then it doesn’t really matter, it matters in terms of the politics of recognition in a very small group. When it’s released to theaters, its audiences who decide which films are going to be popular and which films [are] not. And in an age of social media, the word gets out in ways that weren’t true when you really only relied on the distributor … Do I think that there’s racism in the cinema world? I think that there is racial bias, and it’s a legacy, it’s not necessarily even individual, it’s saying, “Well, Reese Witherspoon is better for this role than Halle Berry,” it’s that kind of thing. And so is it consciously racist, no, but if it’s not disturbing you to see that everybody looks alike, they’re all white, but the story’s about a New York family, well that’s a problem. Unless of course this is a reflection of what people think that New York really looks like. That’s Woody Allen’s films. They look like the world he inhabits. It’s all white. Yeah it’s a problem … I don’t like the fact that, over and over, only white aesthetics  celebrated. But when you ask actors, they will say, “Look, very few actors get recalled.” It seems to us sitting outside that there’s so much available, but actually there is not. So it’s a difficult cal