Back in the early '60s, Dorothy Dandridge, the first African-American actress nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress (1954 for "Carmen Jones"), was set to play Cleopatra in the big-budget epic of the same name. The director of the project was Rouben Mamoulian, an Armenian-American worker-bee movie director and theater veteran who had helmed a number of movies but had previously been booted off "Porgy and Bess"—a movie that, by the way, probably would've been made with whites in blackface if not for the strident Gershwin estate holding off on approving earlier attempts to make the movie. Mamoulian would resign from "Cleopatra" and the project would eventually be directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and star Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra instead of Dandridge.
This is common Hollywood knowledge, though not common enough. Recently, film critic David Thomson (white, old, British, in case that matters) brought up Dandridge's initial casting in his book "How To Watch a Movie." Thomson's book is brilliant for the way it acknowledges all of these ugly things that lurk inside of crowd-pleasing entertainment—in the case of "Cleopatra," racism buried under an argument about star power and profitability—without becoming too "knowing" about the movies, which Thomson still asserts possess an almost magical ability to transform us and inspire us and all the rest.
The Dandridge and "Cleopatra" story seems relevant as this year's Oscars loom (the awards show airs on Feb. 28 on ABC at 7 p.m.) and with that, a conversation about Hollywood and diversity that reignited when the academy failed to nominate a single actor of color in any of the major categories. This is a combination of both the academy's ongoing refusal or inability to recognize black talent and the dearth of substantive roles offered to black actors, which is to say, what happened to Dandridge more than 50 years ago is still happening in Hollywood and not all that much has changed, really. Consider the mostly white cast of "Gods Of Egypt," which echoes 2014's lily-white Biblical epic "Exodus." And here is what "Exodus" director Ridley Scott said when he was confronted: "I can't mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I'm just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn't even come up." And earlier this month, "Gods Of Egypt" director Alex Proyas and the movie's production company Lions Gate recently half-apologized for the lack of diversity ("The process of casting a movie has many complicated variables, but it is clear that our casting choices should have been more diverse. I sincerely apologize to those who are offended by the decisions we made," Proyas said) which is better than Scott's comments but still lacking.
I was also thinking of Dandridge because of the Coen brothers' "Hail Caesar," a critically acclaimed, quirky hand job to 1950s Hollywood which features barely any people of color. In an interview with the Daily Beast, director Joel Coen was asked about the lack of diversity and said this: "I don't understand where the question comes from. Not why people want more diversity—why they would single out a particular movie and say, 'Why aren't there black or Chinese or Martians in this movie? What's going on?' That's the question I don't understand. The person who asks that question has to come in the room and explain it to me." Coen went on a little while later in the interview: "It's important to tell the story you're telling in the right way, which might involve black people or people of whatever heritage or ethnicity—or it might not."
Where to start here? Well, if Dorothy Dandridge almost got the role of "Cleopatra" in a movie that was initially directed by an Armenian-American, then the idea that 1950s Hollywood was all white is just not true. I'll let Violet Lucca over at Film Comment break this down for us further. "It's valid to take a stand against tokenism; on the other hand, it's unwise to use a phrase as loaded as 'telling in the right way.' (And including 'Martians' on a fake laundry list of races is just about the pinnacle of unartful.)," Lucca wrote earlier this month. "But more pressingly, the underlying premise behind the Coens' answers is wrongheaded: they're speaking as if no Black, Latino, Native American, Middle Eastern, or Asian people ever worked below-the-line jobs or in front of the camera, when in fact they had. There is no such thing as 'injecting' diversity into an industry that's had it from the start."
Locally, there was an even more immediate response to the Oscars' lack of diversity. Musician and visual artist TT The Artist crafted a compelling image of the infamous Oscar statue, reconfigured as a black body with its fist raised, black power style. She also penned an op-ed in What Weekly that broke down the issue and applied it to her own experiences at MICA studying video: "There were no films that represented people of color being shown in my class—I don't think it was intentional but what was shown was a reflection of the instructors' interests, and due to a lack of knowledge of African American filmmakers," TT wrote. "All of my instructors were white males and one female. All great teachers with a lot of experience in the industry, but the disconnect was definitely evident."
With an uptick in challenges to Hollywood, I thought I would resurrect the City Paper Alties, or "fake Oscars," a snide alternative that we offered up from 2002 to 2012. So with the help of City Paper movie critics Dominic Griffin, Nia Hampton, and Adam Katzman, I'd like to pick up where that snarky corrective left off in 2012, only this year, with a special focus on where Hollywood has failed on issues surrounding race. There are plenty of other reasons to mock Hollywood and occasionally praise those movies worth praising too. But we're especially angry this year. As Public Enemy once said, "Burn, Hollywood, burn." (Brandon Soderberg)
Directed by Sean S. Baker and shot entirely on an iPhone, this slapstick-y film about crack-smoking, trans women sex workers has more humility than I've seen on the big screen in a long time. More than anything, this is a movie about friendship and the variety of ways forgiveness manifests. And it's hilarious too. (Nia Hampton)
Ryan Coogler, "Creed"
The Coog somehow made the best Rocky movie since the first fucking "Rocky" and got signed on to be the first black man to helm a Marvel Studios production and he isn't even 30. It's not easy reinventing a decades-old franchise, especially one with as many messy, erratic entries as the Rocky films, but Coogler keeps enough of the magic that powered the original without slavishly aping John G. Avildsen's iconic imagery. He ticks off all the right boxes while firmly establishing himself as a powerhouse visual stylist (with bravura fight sequences as well as subtler moments of grace) and an important voice in modern film. (Dominic Griffin)
"A Family Affair"
Ed Schrader and Kevin Sherry's slapdash cartoon about a conventionally dysfunctional family and their Kramer-from-"Seinfeld"-like neighbor David Bowie (all voiced by Schrader himself) which floated around on the internet last year and then aired on Adult Swim, is also, if you look behind its goofy conceit, quietly devastating, thanks to Schrader's ability to lovingly capture the goofiness and loneliness of this crew. "Family Affair" does more in two minutes to capture suburban malaise than Lynch, Solondz, and all the other condescending ninnies of art cinema. (Brandon Soderberg)
"Bitch Better Have My Money"
This devilish music video in which Rihanna wreaks havoc and seeks revenge with her squad by holding a white woman for ransom, all set to her steely, kind-of, sort-of reparations anthem 'Bitch Better Have My Money,' is fundamentally churlish torture porn. But it is boldly unafraid to offend and is full of harsh sight gags such as Rihanna and friends doing the "Weekend At Bernie's" treatment to the unconscious woman and murdering her jerk husband. Of a piece with other unapologetically cruel, confessional comedy such as "Tangerine" or Comedy Central's "Broad City." (BS)
Best Foreign Film
Marrying Deleuze/Guattari and Fanon, Pedro Costa's epilogue of sorts to the Fontainhas trilogy explores postcolonial fracture through a schizophrenic's post-traumatic fragmentation. Here, Cape Verdean immigrant Ventura, since relocated from the crumbling slums and their sterile replacements to the haunted corridors of a mental hospital, recalls a stabbing in his younger years during the Carnation Revolution. Subjective, non-linear, folkloric, and confessional, the film still has demanding opacity that is undeniably powerful. (Adam Katzman)
"In Jackson Heights"
With election-season rhetoric looking to ramp up hostility toward migrants, sex workers, LGBTQ, the poor, and intersections therein, this quietly radical portrait of diverse Queens community Jackson Heights from Frederick Wiseman shows that those who actually make America great are fighting to not be killed by its policy—be it organizing against gentrification or police harassment of trans sex workers, operating perfectly benign mosque community centers, engaging in a vibrant gay nightlife, or elders just deliberating their last years together. (AK)
Best "The past is never dead. It's not even past"
"Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution"
Watching Stanley Nelson's documentary at the Maryland Film Festival just a week or so after the Baltimore Uprising was jarring and heartening. Fifty-year-old images of the National Guard and cops occupying city streets as activists boldly marched eerily matched what had just happened in Baltimore and immediately located the work activists did here within a noble, important tradition. And Nelson's documentary, by not pulling any punches when it tells viewers that Fred Hampton was murdered by police for example, also reminded us of what is at stake and what the movement is up against. (BS)
Meek Mill's 'Lord Knows' in "Creed"
In a movie about a boxer conflicted over his roots in both juvie and American sports royalty, it makes sense that the most cathartic moment comes from a song by Meek Mill, a sincere Philly orator of fallen street warriors deeply uncomfortable with the duplicitous music industry he's escaped into. Running with a pack of dirt bikers, Michael B. Jordan's Adonis finally achieves peace with the rough upbringing he was plucked from and the arena his legacy is clearly marked for—all set to Meek's stunning song. (AK)
Best Shit-Covered Epic
"Hard To Be A God"
Aleksei German's ambitious three-hour adaptation of a sci-fi novel of the same name about a group of scientists who find a planet strikingly similar to Earth though still in the Middle Ages is in the tradition of patience-testing, what-the-fuck movies by Bela Tarr, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Elem Klimov, only here everything is covered in shit and bile and so on. Like, everything. Hanging bloody animal corpses bump into the camera, everyone's coughing and spitting all of the time, and there's just poop and piss everywhere. It's a special kind of gross-out art film. (BS)
Best Biopic About An Actually Kind of Shitty Rap Group
"Straight Outta Compton"
Hey kids, I'm going to let you in on a little secret: N.W.A. kinda sucked. There's like five good songs in their whole discography and a whole lot of tedious not-even-all-that-entertaining venom. They represent a whole lot for sure and they matter, but they were not very good. They were also not exactly good guys, as many reminded us following the "Straight Outta Compton's" mega-success, especially Dr. Dre who infamously attacked journalist Dee Barnes (an event omitted from the movie). (BS)
Best Movie You'll Probably Never See
"From What Is Before"
At the dawn of the Marcos dictatorship, a village beset by strange fires, animal sacrifices, and vampire killings is slowly encroached on by a military encampment, increasingly succumbing to both internal and external sabotage. Playing briefly at the Maryland Film Festival and a handful of screenings elsewhere, Lav Diaz's latest five-plus-hour opus on the everlasting damage left by colonialism and military dictatorships on the Philippines is still without proper distribution or home video release. (AK)
Best Lead Actor
The Bear in "The Revenant"
Never in my life have I been so captivated by a performance that may have lasted no longer than 15 minutes. This bear deserves to get the Oscar that Leo never had. Something about the way he mauled Leo while also not mauling him is amazing—like, who trained that bear? (NH)
Best Supporting Actor
Abraham Atta in "Beasts Of No Nation"
While Idris Elba did his job in "Beasts Of No Nation," all I remember from that film was Abraham Atta's performance as Agu, separated from his mother and growing tougher under the rule of Elba's Commandant. Watching such an extreme loss of innocence conveyed with grace from Atta is what makes "Beasts Of No Nation" so successful. (NH)
Michael B. Jordan in "Creed"
Go watch "Creed." Fall in love with Michael B. Jordan and those lips and biceps and the way he helps his boo take out her braids. Wish he was your bae. (NH)
Best White Character Actor Ensemble
The first time I saw the trailer for this film, I thought someone had finally made an Avengers film for the various, versatile white dudes who always get the best lines in movies starring their younger, hotter counterparts. Also, Rachel McAdams reminds you she won the "Mean Girls" breakup. What do you know? Another goddamn year where Michael Keaton goes Oscar-less. Where's his irritating cult of Leo DiCaprio-esque obsessionists? (DG)
Best Performance By An Actor Playing His Dad
O'Shea Jackson Jr. in "Straight Outta Compton"
Jason Mitchell and Corey Hawkins both provide impressive performances as Eazy E and Dr. Dre, respectively, but O'Shea Jackson Jr. had to play his actual dad! And not in that weird Shooter Jennings-in-"Walk The Line" kind of way. His dad is still alive. And still surly as fuck. And probably on set a lot. Fuck sleeping in a bear or whatever Leo did, that shit sounds terrifying. (DG)
Best Movie Moment
The comforting knowledge that "Spectre" was really, finally fucking over
There's no reason to stick around for any prospective "James Bond will return in . . ." postscript. With any luck, an enterprising time traveler has already written this film's existence out of the chromosphere and the quantum revisions just haven't hit our era yet. (DG)
Best Car Movie
Though completely without chases, "Taxi" still rides on maybe the most daring stunt of the year. Banned from filmmaking and placed on house arrest by the Iranian government, this is the third film Jafar Panahi has made and exported illegally and the first that's mobile. Playing a cab driver and picking up passengers from a variety of backgrounds, Panahi surveys oppression at a variety of levels, allowing the buoyant persistence of his new confidants and the act of filmmaking itself to serve as acts of resistance. (AK)
Thirstiest Oscar-Bait Biopic
Sitting in front of a blank Final Draft document, one hand wrapped around the naked golden statuette he earned for "The Social Network" and the other cutting up coke with the chamfered edge of an iPhone 6, Aaron Sorkin thought to himself, "Steve Jobs has WAY more gravitas than Mark Zuckerberg. Plus, he's already dead!" (DG)
Second-Thirstiest Oscar-Bait Biopic
Outside of Bradford Young's wonderful camera work, this is a movie that thinks a paranoid, racist chess prodigy is endearing enough to be awarded plaudits and financial success. Also, Tobey Maguire is in it. In the lead. People thought this would work? (DG)
You can say a lot about Spike Lee's recent cinematic output, but you can't say he's not trying. You can say he's failing. You can say he's out of touch. You can emphatically shout that he sit his old ass down at the Knicks game and stop performing celluloid Armageddon every time he gets behind a camera, but you can't deny that he's one of the most ambitious helmers working today. (DG)
Best Pre-emptive Response to the GOP
"Mad Max: Fury Road"
The GOP's ever-escalating war on women (and everything in sight) makes Immortan Joe and his war boys seem like nuanced character studies instead of outsized cartoons. Furiosa and company's climactic storming of the citadel, then, doubles as a plan of action if one of their demonic clowns manages to transcend the party's historic incompetence and take the White House. (AK)
Best Neo-Con Porn
Benghazi, the bullshit conspiratorial obsession of the right, becomes a boneheaded mess of action flick propaganda bolstered by director Michael Bay's signature Dutch angles, cocky tracking shots, and unintelligible rah-rah storytelling. And the umpteenth movie in which brown people are faceless evil caricatures gunned down by tough-talking Americans. Just in time for election season. It is the movie equivalent of Jeb Bush's gun tweet. (BS)
Best Argument For Recidivism
The basic argument implied by "Ant-Man's" plot is that recidivism is both inevitable and downright righteous when ex-cons are vilified and strained even in the shit jobs allotted to them. While not full-on Genet (who probably would have had Paul Rudd fuck Cory Stoller before killing him), there is something mildly daring about an ex-con's redemptive arc in a family-friendly, superhero crowd-pleaser being presented as "commit more crimes." (AK)
Best Most Toxic Depiction of Masculinity
"Sicario" throws a bunch of terse, tough-talking, gun-toting badasses into a morally compromised purgatory and lets Josh Brolin boss them around with the relative cuddliness of a spiked bat. No other movie made you feel worse about fist pumping at bullet-hole-ridden drug peddlers. (DG)
Best Least Toxic Depiction of Masculinity
"Magic Mike XXL"
The only way "Magic Mike XXL" could have been a sweeter portrait of male bonding and decency is if it were a locked-room murder mystery set during an all-bro slumber party to find out who killed chivalry. (DG)
Best Lacanian Climax
The mirror stage dance in "Magic Mike XXL"
While a potent combo of ecstasy and dancing to work through one's psychological issues sounds more Laborde than Lacan, the final act in this male-stripper emotional epic is almost literally the latter's "Stade du Miroire," featuring two Jeremih and 112-soundtracked lap dancers coordinated to mirror each other like "Duck Soup." If Zizek doesn't have a 12-part YouTube lecture on this he's more full of shit than he already is. (AK)
Best American Psycho
Tom Cruise in "Mission Impossible 5"
A benevolent dictator of sorts, Cruise makes a career out of defying death for public approval while privately carrying out nefarious misdeeds for a shadowy cabal. "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" forgoes the self-deprecating, mid-life crisis of the last Mission movie "Ghost Protocol," and sees him in full delusional mania, having his character referred to as a "Manifestation of Destiny." The logical next step is for Cruise to go full "Revenant" and be drawn and quartered to all corners of America. (AK)
Best Industry Takeover
Ava Duvernay and the League of Extraordinary Black Girls (Shonda Rhimes, Amara Brock Akil, Mona Scott Young)
Shonda Rhimes is probably the most popular showrunner due to the success of "Grey's Anatomy," but she didn't stop there. The world has been blessed with the deliciousness that is "Scandal" and the mind-blowing "How to Get Away With Murder." Amara Brock Akil is so slept on it's criminal (do your Googles) and Mona Scott Young is responsible for "Love and Hip Hop," which, whether you think it's the downfall of the black community or not, still amasses an average of nearly two million viewers a night. And Ava Duvernay is changing the industry of independent film in a major way. Stop sleeping on these ladies. (NH)
Kathleen Collins' "Losing Ground," made in 1982 but only screened theatrically in 2015, was the first film made by a black American woman that 30-odd years later would still find difficulty getting financed much less recognized during awards season. Starring herself and the undersung auteur Bill Gunn as a philosophy professor and her artist husband in a crisis both marital and existential, and not solely defined by what's conventionally allowed to be explored in black cinema, it packs enough depth into one movie to make up for a career lost to both industry negligence and an untimely death six years later. (AK)
Best Most Welcome Appearance By POCs
Edgar Ramirez and Dascha Polanco in "Joy"
At times, "Joy" feels like the whitest film David O. Russell has ever directed and he made "I Heart Huckabees." It can't be a coincidence that the only two people in the movie you don't want to see spontaneously burst into flames are the only two any shades darker than the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. They both embody a warmth and humanity none of the supporting cast is capable of. (DG)
Best White Whine
"The End of the Tour"
Smarmy dick-head Jesse Eisenberg plays David Lipsky, the smarmy dick-head journalist who talked to postmodern fiction "genius" David Foster Wallace (played here by schlubby sad-sack Jason Segel) once for a few days, then turned the transcriptions into a book which is now a movie. The whole thing is icky. And very white: Watch as two unassured dweebs explore their honky neurosis for 90 minutes. (BS)
Best Worst Revenge Movie
Quentin Tarantino vs 'Black Critics'
When your last two films ostensibly untangle the white anxiety around the black masculinity that your early features were gleefully awash in, it's probably best to not wage war on "black critics." Tarantino, though, is aiming for the long con, claiming his greatest revenge will be when that bogey monolith would have to deal with their grandchildren taking Tarantino classes in college. Though he caught flak for lending his support to #blacklivesmatter and calling cops murderers in a racist system, his inability to look in the mirror suggests he should just stay the fuck out the way. (AK)
Best Delusional White Woman
"Two years ago, I said something about the Academy being very white male, which is the reality, and I was slashed to pieces by the media . . . It's funny — women can't talk. I sometimes wish I were African American because people don't bash them afterward." That's what Julie Delphy said to The Wrap in response to the growing conversation about a lack of diversity in Hollywood. Julie, if you were African-American, you'd be an African-American woman. And you wouldn't be bashed in Hollywood because you wouldn't be acknowledged. Because African-American women don't exist in Hollywood. (NH)
Best Supporting Delusional White Woman
In a surprise supporting role to Julie Delphy's starring role as The Delusional White Woman, Kristen Stewart acknowledges that—gasp—not only do black women exist, but they are marginalized, but then follows up with "but like, do something about it." Kristen, please see the blurb of extraordinary black girls and explain to me how organizing a boycott isn't "do[ing] something" and IDK maybe get your head out of your ass? (NH)
Best Anti-Oscars Rant
Jada Pinkett Smith
In a stunning show of support for her husband, Jada Pinkett Smith took to her favorite medium, Facebook, and voiced her disgust at the Oscars for being so white this year. She also stated that she and Will would boycott the Oscars, setting off a crucial conversation—even if Will really didn't deserve to get nominated for "Concussion" anyway. (NH)
Best Clapback to Anti-Oscars Rant
Janet "Aunt Viv" Hubert
If you haven't seen this, you must stop reading this and log into Facebook, search "Blacktress Janet Hubert," and watch it. Now. Watch the webcam-recorded video and appreciate the comic-book filter she chose and laugh your ass off. But also listen to what she's saying. She has very valid points, especially in regard to the Smiths' production company and its own lack of diversity. These are things that make you go "hmm . . ." (NH)
Best Industry Revolution
Netflix and chill, Netflix binges, the decline in television subscriptions, and so on. These are all ways that Netflix has changed the movie watching experience and thus the industry. With the release of "Beasts of No Nation" this past year, Netflix has entered the film-production realm, having already found success with a string of original series. I hope to one day live in a world where instead of movie theaters we just go to mansions and watch Netflix on projectors, with really comfy couches and blankets. (NH)
Best Movie About Computers 'Puting
Michael Mann and his neon-hued, Night Bus approach to the modern action thriller reminded us that hackers aren't all bespectacled beta saplings. Some of them look like fuckin' Thor and read Foucault. Finally, a movie about the internet David Mamet can tug it to. (DG)
Best Use of Colin Farrell
If there's one thing "True Detective" season two successfully proved, it's that hot leading men are a million times more effective when they have silly hair and endearing amounts of pudge. Pathetic is the new sexy and Farrell is so pathetic in "The Lobster." (DG)
Best Uncanny Valley
CGI Paul Walker
As we inch closer to the singularity by curating alternate selves through meta-data, it's fitting that Paul Walker's death was embalmed by a fully breathing digital copy. Literally driving off into the uncanny valley in a Toyota Supra, Paul Walker 2.0 alerts us that the simulacrum will be as full of tears as our plane of existence is now. Life in the Serial Experiments Fast Lane. (AK)
Best Episode of "Family Ties"
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens"
The new Star Wars savvily updated familiar tropes for an updated cultural climate, but also occasionally grappled with an earlier generation's failed legacy. Boomer laureate Lawrence Kasdan, hearkening back to domesticated hippie anxieties in the Reagan era, has villain Kylo Ren be the Alex P. Keaton to Han Solo's and Princess Leia's dashed rebel dreamers, providing potent balance of dumb anti-millennial skepticism and smart pro-millennial auto-critique, leaving new generations to duke out the same battles that have been waged in Sisyphean perpetuity. (AK)
Lifetime Achievement Award Three-Pack
Chantal Akerman (1950-2015): Combining housewife liberation with sex-work positivity and formal rigor with Shoah-inflected Judaic ritual, Akerman's 1975 film "Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles" is still peerless. Yet Akerman wasn't just uncompromisingly experimental, she was also a romantic populist, easily vacillating from the post-colonial disruption of "Almayer's Folly" and the Holocaust survivor rom-com "Tomorrow We Move." A loss that only reminds how much is left for the world to catch up. (AK)
Jacques Rivette (1928-2016): Finally out of the cinephile black market, the 13-hour "Out 1" exposed a wider public to the fullest indulgence of Rivette's preoccupations—literary semiotics, conspiracy theories, and experimental theater—when it was released last year. Rivette's work, like a French New Wave Pynchon, offered attempts at reconfiguring the world while the world steadily works at keeping liberation at bay. (AK)