(Published July 7, 2016)
A week ago today, The Los Angeles Times’ front page had a big story about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — aka AMPAS, aka the Motion Picture Academy — inviting 683 industry professionals to the ranks of its 6,261 voting members.
(In case you’re unsure, AMPAS is the movie business’ official trade organization, for lack of a better description, that provides many programs and services for the movie biz, but is best known as the producer of the annual Academy Awards show.)
This was news because months ago in January, when the 20 nominations for the highly visible best actor categories (actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress) for 2016 were announced, all the individuals were white folks. It was the second year in a row.
But in the bigger picture of life, so what? We still live in a nation whose demography is majority white, so numerically it’s bound to happen some of the time.
But when there are nom-worthy performances by blacks, Latinos, Native Americans or Asian Americans that get overlooked or unacknowledged, it’s particularly galling. Add to that the perception (reality?) that when, say, black talent is either nominated or selected for an Oscar statuette, they are mostly related to slavery or its legacy. How often do we see a movie role like the one in which Brie Larson, who is white, won the best actress prize as the lead in “Room,” go to an actress who isn’t white?
Hence, the #OscarsSoWhite social media movement, which strove to put the spotlight on Hollywood in general and the Motion Picture Academy in particular. It was as though there was a collective, indignant “Haven’t we seen this movie already?” response to the lineup to fuel the Twitter handle. (See past columns on this at http://tinyurl.com/heqz4y5 and http://tinyurl.com/jmueab3.)
There was anger — some misdirected, in my opinion — at AMPAS because of the acting nominations lineup. The organization can only choose from amongst the movies that get produced in a given year. So, its choices are limited by that fact.
It’s actually more the fault of Hollywood’s big movie studios for the dearth of Oscar-worthy roles for anyone who’s not a Caucasian.
If any entity were to be targeted to make changes in front of the camera and behind the scenes, it would be the studios for making movies, for example, in which roles that should by any definition of sanity go to an Asian actress in the case of “Ghost in the Shell” or an Asian male (the Dr. Strange movie’s character the Ancient One). Both roles went to white women.
If there was a legitimate criticism to be lodged against AMPAS, it would be it membership makeup and requirements, especially for those who voted. According to The L.A. Times, its voting members in 2012 were 94 percent white and 77 percent male. Many members, according to Oscar-winner and AMPAS member Chris Tashima, are no longer active in the industry, having left decades ago to pursue, after brief stints in movies, other ways to make a living while still keeping (lifetime) membership and the ability to cast votes.
The Academy, to its credit, said it would do something about the status quo — and did. By adding more women and minorities, it would seem less likely to overlook worthy movies, performances and contributions. Bravo to its leadership for responding by making the necessary improvements. (If only those who make the decisions in the movie divisions of Hollywood’s studios would do the same …)
But I have to take issue with that L.A. Times front-page art that accompanied the article by Josh Rottenberg. First, none of the 15 people pictured were identified by name. I knew about 12 of them, either by name or a “that’s the dude from that movie …” form of recognition.
Among the photos, there were women — black, Latin and white; and there were men — mostly black with two Latins, one of whom is probably of partial African heritage. (According to Variety, the new list of invitees was “46 percent female and 41 percent people of color. …”)
Not one, however, was of Asian heritage. Snubbed, yet again — (see http://tinyurl.com/j97n48d) — but not by Hollywood or AMPAS. It was someone in a decision-making capacity at The Los Angeles Times. I know I’ve written before that given the choice between being portrayed inaccurately or maliciously, I’d rather be the victim of benign neglect. But for a significant portion of the population to be ignored by The Los Angeles Times in 2016? That’s shameful.
(For the record, there were Asians who could have been in that photo lineup, including Karyn Kusama, Cary Fukunaga, Daniel Dae Kim, James Hong, Elizabeth Sung, Peter Pau, Poon Hang-Sang, Tatsuya Nakadai, Naomi Kawase, So Yong Kim, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and many more I have to leave out.)
Why? How? Who? I wish I knew. Yes, I realize there are real-world factors like time constraints and personnel shortages that surely could have led to that decision to include nary an Asian on the front page of The L.A. Times. But it strains the limits of my credulity to believe there wasn’t one photo of at least one or two of the better-known names just listed that could have been included.
And to think I just renewed my subscription. (Don’t worry, L.A. Times — I’m not thinking of canceling!)
Speaking of Subscriptions Dept.: Yes, that was a cheap shot and a cheap segue into the next topic. But as many are already aware, thanks to coverage not just in this paper but also The L.A. Times, NHK World and KPCC-FM, The Rafu Shimpo needs to gain new subscribers after so many long-time and steadfast Japanese American readers/supporters have in recent years died.
Meantime, younger readers (and that’s a relative term for the Japanese American demographic) have either chosen to go without — or have no idea this newspaper even exists.
So, I initiated a drive to get volunteers (and as it turned out, staffers) to help by attending this summer’s community events such as festivals and Obons to drum up brand awareness and sell subscriptions.
Two weekends ago it was particularly busy, with some five major matsuri happening. I volunteered to get new subscribers at the Venice Japanese Community Center’s Summer Festival, and I think the volunteers — my wife, Sachi; Tony Osumi and Jenni Kuida-Osumi; Sharon Yamato and myself — did OK. (Hopefully people who promised to subscribe and took with them pre-addressed envelopes and subscription forms will come through, too!)
For those who paid for subscriptions at the VJCC fest, thank you! While you know who you are, allow me to list the most of the names of those who are new subscribers, some among whom are getting subscriptions as gifts: Kuni Tomita Bowen, Jeff Kawana, Sheri Weiss, Tom Yamaguchi, John Kocker, Jim Akioka, Toshi Asato, Michael and Jean Imanaka, Ruth Kono, Tokiko Minami, Fusako Ogasawara, Annie May Umeta, Grace Hamada, Alan Oda, Lori Shiotani, Jodi Komesu, Jose Soto, Jon Inouye, Kevin Kunisaki, Gail Mukai and Gail Yoneda.
Again, “major domos” to all, not to mention the VJCC Summer Festival planning committee for allowing The Rafu to be there and the VJCC’s Young Adults Club, which sponsored The Rafu Shimpo’s table!
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2016 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.