We Need to Talk About the BAFTAs

The awards body of Britain’s proud institution needs to take a good long look in the mirror.

“‘We’d have liked to have seen more diversity in the nominations, it does continue to be an industry-wide issue,’ BAFTA’s director of awards, Emma Baehr, told The Hollywood Reporter following the nominations. ‘I think more films need to be made, and entered, giving people a chance to see them. We’d absolutely like to see more diversity, but I also don’t want to take away from those celebrating today.’”

Ah, don’t you just love when the release of your big prestigious nominations slate designed to celebrate and bring joy needs to be immediately qualified and saved from a deservedly angry mob with an explanation which carries the distinctive intoxicating whiff of buuuullllllllssssshhhiiiiiitt?

Every single year, I promise to myself and to you folks who read my annual prediction pieces on the subject that I am not going to get annoyed at the BAFTAs.  After 11 years of paying attention to them with any serious intent, and coming up on my seventh year of writing analytical pieces about them (look for that in a fortnight’s time), one does eventually accept that their own individual tastes aren’t going to line up with what a consensus body of older, upper-class, heavily-White and male industry voters thinks are great movies.  Not on a consistent basis to put together a mostly-enjoyable awards list, hell not even enough to put together an entire category where the only snubs are a result of a lack of available slots.  And after a ceremony just two years ago where they failed to give Get Out a Best Film nomination, but apparently had plenty of room for fucking Darkest Hour, most people would probably just throw their hands up, resign themselves to the truth that BAFTA will never be in touch with the zeitgeist and will constantly ignore or undervalue minority and female cinema, and move on with their lives.  A lot of people, in fact, have; the ceremony itself has been dogged by consistently plummeting viewer ratings for the past six years.

Boy, it sure is a shame that Greta Gerwig just conveniently evaporated from existence whenever BAFTA needed to nominate people for Best Director and that’s why she’s been snubbed twice now.

Yet, every single year, I find myself breaking that promise and getting annoyed at the BAFTAs all over again.  You could probably make a drinking game out of my rotating list of rant-y complaints by this point.  The constant flagrant rule violations on display by both the studios and the BAFTA committee themselves in order to continue piggybacking off the generally-accepted Awards Season narratives rather than being constrained to the often nonsensical and anti-consumer British movie release schedule – never forget that Still Alice was rewarded at the 2015 ceremony despite not opening to the UK general public until a month after it won.  The troublingly constant lack of diversity in the nominees – in the 52 years that the ceremony has had a Best Director award, black directors have only been nominated twice, whilst female directors have only been nom-ed five times (and two of those were Kathryn Bigelow).  The recent active disinterest in British film aside from one token earmarked Hollywood studio-backed contender a year.

But I keep making these complaints because they keep being an issue.  BAFTA has been called out consistently on this for half a decade and every time they make big noise about how they’re going to introduce new mandatory “diversity quotas” for the nominees, or they’re going to expand the application pool for membership outside of the old boys-club vouch system, or they’re gonna move the ceremony forward and tighten up the qualifying quotas to avoid gaming the system, or they’ll make a big song and dance about how the industry as a whole needs to do better in these fields.  Then the next year rolls around and it’s the same all over again.

This morning’s nominee list is one of the most blatant displays to date that their pledges to do better for the last half-decade are nothing more than empty gestures and virtue-signalling.  Not a single person of colour in any of the four acting categories, most egregiously nominating Scarlett Johannsson and Margot Robbie twice.  Yet again no women in the Best Director category and just the one person of colour (Bong Joon-ho).  British films almost entirely shut out of the non-Brit-specific races, aside from 1917 and a token surprise nod in the acting categories (a not-unwelcome Jessie Buckley).  And one of the biggest-name nominees, Parasite, has been deemed eligible despite not being released to the general public until a week after the ceremony – talking to my London critic friends, the film apparently received a token pair of one-off screenings to the public in late-December to technically qualify which is some buuuuuuulllllllllllllssshhhhhhhhhiiiiiiiiiiiiittt.

This was the actual header image of the BAFTA Twitter page six hours after the nominations were released and “#BAFTAsSoWhite” started trending. You cannot make this shit up.

#BAFTAsSoWhite started trending within minutes of the nominations being announced, and members of the British institution have yet again had to jump in front of a mess of their own making to try and mitigate the damage.  In addition to Baehr’s Olympic-level attempt at deflection, Marc Samuelson, chair of BAFTA’s film committee, went for the kind of deceptively incendiary soundbite that could be stuck in a headline to make it seem like the real enemy is elsewhere when chased up by Variety.  “Infuriating lack of diversity in the acting noms…  It’s just a frustration that the industry is not moving as fast as certainly the whole BAFTA team would like it to be.”  With the mildest of respect to Samuelson, the level of cognitive dissonance and deflection required for this argument to work is legitimately astonishing.

Even setting aside the fact that this been a problem for decades and a major public image problem that has dogged every ceremony for yearsa study in early 2018 found that 94% of all BAFTA nominees across all acting categories in the complete history of the awards were White – and even setting aside the fact that the British film industry (much like British society) has a deeply ingrained racism and sexism problem they’ve proven unwilling to meaningfully address which does limit the level of artistic output in those areas…  What do you think BAFTA is?  YOU ARE THE FILM INDUSTRY!  You are made up of its many talents across the industry over the decades!  You are one of its longest-running, most prestigious, most exclusive, most public-facing representatives!  So, the words of both you and Baehr are not only hollow, they’re drowning in blind uncritical privilege!  “It’s the industry’s fault! Not our’s, the industry’s official awards ceremony voted on by members of the industry from the industry’s official representative body! There is nothing that we, the industry’s representative body, can do about it!”

In fact, no, it’s worse than that!  Because the art is out there and has been for the last several years!  This is not some kind of brief anomaly or even a passing fancy trend being co-opted for a moment.  Minority, LGBTQ+, and female cinema have been killing it for years!  Are they proportionately less prevalent than White straight male art?  Yes, unquestionably, since they don’t get the support of the industry.  But they’re there and oftentimes readily-viewable.  Yet even when they are excelling, they’re not given the time of day.  As Sterling K. Brown says in Waves – a phenomenal film which, even when it was by a White male writer-director, saw not a single nomination for any member of its incredible majority Black cast – to his son, “we aren’t afforded the luxury of being average,” a truism that minorities, queer folk, and women have to deal with every day.  Little Women, Us, The Farewell, Booksmart, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Queen & Slim, Atlantics, Just Mercy, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Hustlers.  All of these are examples of minority and female creative voices in just the last 12 months alone who have been better than average, they’ve actively excelled, and yet apparently none of them are good enough to break into the Acting or Directing or Best Film categories?  But Joker is?  11 times?!

Because some pedantic asshole will start: yes, Awkwafina was technically nominated… for an award voted only by the public which has nothing to do with her acting and has no bearing on anyone’s career.

And that’s not even touching on British voices who keep being squeezed out in favour of what’s effectively becoming the Diet Oscars!  Bait was one of the most acclaimed films of 2019 in this country period, yet it’s been left to rot in the British-centric awards categories Outstanding British Debut and Outstanding British Film; The Rise of Skywalker has more nominations than Bait (at 3)!  Beats was one of the year’s finest films, defiantly and purely Scottish, yet was shut out of Outstanding British Film in favour of Two Popes which was funded entirely by an American media giant, mostly produced by Americans, directed by a Brazilian, and written by a New Zealander – the rules for both British categories have been a lax joke ever since fucking Gravity got in back in 2014 and have not improved since then.  Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, snubbed entirely!  Hell, minority British voices had a great year too!  Farming, The Last Tree, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Blue Story has been speaking to a lot of young people in spite of the reactionary scaremongering by tabloids, and BAME actors and directors have been killing it in overseas films yet again – Daniel Kaluuya, Cynthia Erivo, Chiwetel Ejiofor, to name just a few.

It would perhaps be easier and less infuriating to just ignore Awards Season altogether, the BAFTAs included.  As repeatedly mentioned, they are forever behind the zeitgeist, notoriously exclusionary and snobby, work from a limited viewpoint filled with unchecked biases, and fall into a rather uniform line especially ever since the cottage industry of predicting how things are going to play out and what this means six months from now has cropped up around them.  So, why bother?  Well because, like it or not, they are a part of how the film industry works now.

A lot of mid-budget dramas, the kind which have otherwise largely disappeared thanks to rising ticket prices and audience shifts towards the biggest blockbusters over the years, are greenlit, funded and planned on the assumption that they might at least get a few awards nominations out of the process, which means they are often targeted just as much to the sensibilities of awards bodies as they are the general public (hence Oscar Bait).  Their release schedules are deliberately designed around how best to maximise profits from the marketing boost of awards nominations – late November (in US) or January (in UK), start very limited, go wide in time for the announcements as the ceremony draws near, pre-game by touring all of the major festivals.  If the boon of a nomination doesn’t drive up grosses at the cinema, then at least the missing gaps towards profitability can be made up on home media or by selling the rights to TV and streaming services (with a nomination driving the sale price up).  A nomination may not always, as Barkhad Abdi’s post-Captain Phillips career will attest, but usually increases the chances of one’s future career opportunities – those early Best Foreign Film nods Ang Lee got for his Taiwanese features undoubtedly laid the groundwork for him to cross over into English-language films – and I literally wrote all this exact same stuff five years ago yet nothing has changed.

Imagine having the unmitigated gall to not nominate this woman for her work in this movie! The absolute nerve!

As per usual, BAFTA will put out further damage control statements insisting that it’s the industry’s fault and there was nothing they could do, maybe they’ll try to diversify the voting pool again, some sentiment that this is not an overnight process will pervade proceedings, the awards will come and go on tape-delay in the year 2020, and then the process shall repeat all over again in 2021.  It’s that Sailor Moon “but you didn’t do anything” meme, basically, and it’s indicative of how the BAFTAs frankly need razing to the ground.  If after half a decade no meaningful change has been enacted and you’re still caught in the grip of a paralysing identity crisis where, as Guy Lodge has rightly pointed out, you are neither reflecting the scope of the British film industry (despite being the British Film Awards) nor the diversity and greatness of global cinema, then what are you actually doing?  We already have the Oscars, we don’t need “The Oscars but with the odd token British name.”

This is not just “the industry” not moving fast enough, BAFTA.  It’s you as well.  You are the industry, you’re contributing nothing to the conversation, and you are being actively ignorant of excellent work available right now by the very people you claim to want to support.  Get your fucking shit together.

Callum Petch’s got a medal, so why don’t you get a medal?

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