One of the great lessons of my life--if I may--is that the way to make people do something is to make them want to do it, instead of making them feel they should do it. Moral injunctions are useful and necessary, and living an ethical life is not only good for you, it's good for society. But persuading people to do good, and to practice it, cannot only involve the embrace of virtue or the jeopardy of doing wrong.
Taste works in the same way. As much as we might like at times to reward performance or behavior that is correct and fair, how we respond to events and actions in the world is as much or more about our personal preferences and feelings, as it is about duty and obligation.
In the lead-up to the Oscars show this year, we heard a lot about the racial prejudice of the film industry, and how minority actors, directors and so on, have not been treated fairly by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, denying them recognition and rewards.
I grew up in a severely prejudiced little town in California in the 1950's and '60's. Napa had no blacks living in it, while Vallejo, just a dozen or so miles down the road, had something like a third to a half African American population. In this environment, it was possible to believe that racism was something that happened elsewhere, to see it as a dilemma that occurred in the third person, something in the abstract. This is fair warning: if you want to believe that what I'm saying is just bigotry dressed up as critical rationalization.
I can distinctly remember watching Sidney Poitier in the movie Lilies of the Field, which came out in 1963 when I was sixteen. It wasn't exactly a "feel good" movie, but it was clearly as safe a part as could be fashioned for the man who was, then, probably the most talented Negro actor, if not the best actor, in the whole film industry. Poitier won the Oscar that year for his part, in the face of stiff competition from Paul Newman (for Hud), and Albert Finney (in Tom Jones). It would not have surprised anyone if either of these two other white actors had won, but I don't remember feeling or thinking at the time that Poitier didn't deserve to win, or that giving him the award signified anything but an acknowledgement of talent and effort that went into his role.
In 1994, Morgan Freeman starred in The Shawshank Redemption, a prison movie, with Tom Robbins, ostensibly about the travails of a white banker wrongly convicted (a life sentence) for having killed his wife. Though he was nominated for best actor in that role, Freeman lost out to Tom Hanks (in Forrest Gump). Shawshank and Gump were both feel good movies, and both involved important male bonding relationships. I don't remember feeling that something had gone wrong with that award; the award choice didn't seem "racial" to me. Gump was a well-made movie, and Hanks is a talented actor. Had Freeman won, I wouldn't have thought the choice was either politically correct, or based on the moral duty to honor minorities, even if they aren't perceived as having earned what they're given. Freeman was wonderful in the role, and nothing the Academy could have done, positive or negative, could have taken away what Freeman accomplished.
Shawshank was a painful movie to watch, but also an uplifting experience. People suffer and hurt each other, but at the end, there's a revelatory release in which the two main characters, who've shared years in the hardship of imprisonment, are able to become friends on the outside. You could say, with justice, that their friendship transcends their respective racial differences--both genetic and social--and that it is this feeling, rather than any moral injunction, that is the movie's essential message. In other words, we're made to feel the attractions and values of friendship, instead of being reminded and scolded into politically correct behavior and attitudes.
Watching the Oscars awards program last night on television, I often felt uncomfortable with all the clammy attitudinizing on the part of the host and various presenters, intent upon scolding us for not being "tolerant" and "diverse" and "representative" in our choices and opinions. It got so bad, that I muted the sound with the clicker several times, as the unctuous invocations were repeated over and over.
The cinema is an art form. It's certainly possible to teach and to document with movies, but Hollywood is in the business of presenting entertainment for profit. The industry awards exist to encourage the industry to make better movies. Not movies that tell the right message, not movies that make the world better, but movies that entertain people and make a profit. Oscars are voted on by the 7000 filmmakers and film professionals in the industry, so the Oscar selections are very much an expression of the opinion of the industry.
The taste reflected in the choice of winners in the various categories will always to some extent reflect the general spirit of the times. Over the decades, Hollywood has variously been accused of being too conservative or too liberal, by critics of varying persuasions. Over the last half-century, the kinds of movies that have been made, and the kinds of subjects explored, and ideas expressed, have progressed significantly. Today, movies almost routinely examine racial and ethnic prejudice, sexual difference, extreme violence, crude comedy, and ordinary suffering. But movies are first and foremost about making money, and determining awards for aesthetic quality and technical acumen is an expression of taste, not political or social equality.
It's fine to advocate equal access under law, but in the arts, it can't be just, or primarily, a matter of politically correct racial, ethnic or sexual "diversity" or "representation." The point about talent and skill is that it cuts across these divides, often making them irrelevant as guides to judgment or conduct. You can't insist that you automatically deserve to be given extra consideration, simply because you are a member of a suppressed minority.
Chris Rock may be popular among his admirers, but I find him banal and clueless as an Oscars host. His jokes aren't funny, and he has a poor sense of his audience. Nearly everything he said last night was followed by an uncomfortable moment or two of silence, as if the audience couldn't comprehend whether it was supposed to frown or smile at his remarks. This may have been partly due to the bad script, but Rock seemed remarkably out of place as host.
The attempt to hijack the Oscar awards night as an occasion to bring about "racial justice" fell with a loud thud. Everyone in the audience understood that this was an embarrassment, as I suspect the "television audience" across the land did. Over the last quarter century, Hollywood has bent over backwards to present itself as "concerned" and "aware" of social and political issues. Last night, it tried to "accommodate" the minority campaign by placing as many African American presenters on the stage as possible, and featuring speeches and remarks that told us how to feel and think about minority representation in the cinema.
But taste can't be legislated. It's that simple.