Do movies matter? Not to me. I am notoriously frustrating to watch a movie with since I lump the vast majority of films into one of two categories: depressing or stupid.
Depressing movies might be moving and smart, but I avoid them in an attempt to protect my soft heart. A few years ago, my husband talked me into watching Winter's Bone, a movie based on a bleak but beautiful novella about poverty by Daniel Woodrell, set in the Ozark mountains. It's Jennifer Lawrence's breakout performance and she's legitimately amazing as a self-sufficient teenager navigating a hauntingly brutal world. That night, I woke up at 3 a.m. crying, requiring a good hour of consoling from my bleary, regretful partner.
The stupid category divides into subcategories such as "puerile" (most often because of unnecessary violence and/or bared breasts) and "idiotic" (the average rom-com). It can also mean "irrelevant," at least to me.
I am not interested in seeing white people have spiritual awakenings through interactions with "magical Negros" (despite a borderline obsession with Viola Davis, I've yet to watch The Help). I also don't have time for the struggles of rich men searching for meaning in their gilded but empty lives (American Beauty was so boring I drooled).
I learned long ago that Hollywood movies do not consider my existence. This isn't "offensive," it's just true; it could be endlessly hurtful or infuriating, but it's not hard for me to ignore Hollywood since I'm more drawn to the written word than the moving image. So when this year's slate of Academy Award nominees turned out to be all white (and overwhelmingly male) for the second year in a row, my first reaction was that since movies don't matter, #OscarsSoWhite, as the controversy has been dubbed online, didn't matter at large.
But of course it does. I tell stories for a living and Hollywood is the biggest storytelling machine in the world. Its successes and failures and prejudices and triumphs trickle down, whether I like it or not. I know what it's like to face a power structure that is ignorant of the narratives I care about, and disbelieving that there is an audience for them. Accepting the erasure of non-mainstream stories in any realm is to accept it in my own life and my own work, and that is not an option.
I've been mulling over a thought shared by Janet Mock, a black trans woman who hosted an #OscarsSoWhite discussion panel on her MSNBC show when the nominations were revealed. "To be simultaneously copied and erased is our plight," she tweeted, a sentiment that sums up the frustrations with the Academy Awards, and the trouble with storytelling at large.
The old excuse used to ignore stories by "alternative" voices (whether women, LGBTQ people or racialized people) was that they didn't make money. This has been disproven time and again, whether by the emergence and domination of hip hop culture, the suburban embrace of Ellen DeGeneres or the fact that women's books and magazines are profit anchors for basically every major North American publisher. There's no longer a financial argument against diversity, especially for former mainstream behemoths (such as Hollywood) that have taken big hits from the flourishing niches of the digital world.
But accepting money from diverse audiences is much more appealing than giving diverse creators autonomy and control. One flashpoint of this year's Oscar nominations is the lack of nods for the actors of Straight Outta Compton, a biopic about the rise of the gangsta rap group N.W.A, a group of young African-American men in a historically ignored and impoverished neighbourhood who fought to develop a new art, tell their own stories – and won.
The cast of young black men should have gotten the credit for one of the year's biggest box-office successes – instead, nominations went out to the white scriptwriters. Once alternative narratives are proven successful, they get roughly absorbed, with outsiders winning accolades and those who struggled to tell authentic stories often left bitterly behind.
Unsurprisingly, I won't be watching the Oscars, despite being interested to see how Chris Rock, one of America's most insightful commentators on race, handles the controversy. But looking away from the problem isn't a long-term solution, it's just a coping mechanism, and one with many flaws.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified the mountain range where Winter's Bone was set. This version has been corrected.