This column first appeared in the Big Issue magazine – Journalism worth paying for
It was one of the most exciting and original nights out I’ve had at the theatre in years – Moliere’s 17th century French satire, Tartuffe, about a swindling conman of a priest making fools of a degenerate aristocratic family, transposed to modern Atlanta and the world of gospel preachers and African American millionaires. A Wolf In Snakeskin Shoes was very much playing on the ultra rich world evoked in the smash hit US TV show “Empire”. The audience in the London theatre that night happened to be mostly black. Which made it all the more noticeable when a group of 4 – two middle class white couples in their 60s – didn’t return after the interval. My (incidentally white) husband and I were bemused.
The play had a superb cast and staging and the most exquisite writing by Marcus Gardley. Those 2 couples may not have loved it, but we couldn’t work out why they wouldn’t have stayed to the end. We came to the one conclusion – they must have felt this isn’t for or about “us”.
That experience has come back to mind as I watch the Oscar whitewash row deepen since the 2016 nominations were announced. Whole strata of modern life – popular music, civil war in Africa, the excitement and drama of sport, lesbian identity, black masculinity – were virtually ignored in favour of costumed white period pieces some of which received many mediocre reviews. Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation, Concussion, Creed and Carol aren’t just “worthy” films; they’re outstanding in terms of critical acclaim and crucially proved big box office.
The fact that their stars and writers and directors such as Ryan Coogler, Michael B Jordan, Idris Elba and Todd Haynes have won awards from other respected bodies, made the comparison between that ageing audience walking out and the overwhelmingly over-60 white male demographic of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seem more and more the logical explanation.
The Academy’s reliance on nominations from existing members perpetuates an appointing/rewarding-in-one’s-image culture that has marked every institution battling discrimination. But it is the refusal of a persistent group of privileged people to accept that their world view is not a neutral “norm”, to keep rewarding safe familiar material that stays in their comfort zone, and to regard other perspectives as “minority” ones that does so much damage. What happened to celebrating great stories and the talented women and men who make them on the basis of their skill not their background?
But this is not an angry column. I am inspired by Creed – which has only been nominated for Sylvester Stallone’s supporting role as Rocky Balboa, training the son of his original rival. Strangely for someone who can name 3 favourite Stallone films (Copland, Demolition Man and The Specialist in which he and Sharon Stone get steamy in the shower) I had never seen any of the Rocky films before I saw Creed.
Rocky is now a melancholy poet of a man. Writer director Ryan Coogler who grew up watching Rocky 2 all the time with his dad, lovingly re-imagined the whole plot arc of the original 1976 Rocky film and all the tropes – the training montage, the steps that he runs up, the romance and especially the drama of the fight sequences into which he injected such dynamism compared to the simpler original 40 years ago. It’s a celebration of kind-hearted masculinity with a really distinctive lead performance by Michael B Jordan, a young black man, the product of an adulterous affair – who regards himself as a “mistake”.
When Rocky won best Picture back in 1977 Stallone was the outsider. His character has never been properly understood. In the 90s his character John Rambo became a lazy shorthand symbol for militaristic neo-con arrogance. Yet Stallone is the man, I recently discovered, who stuck a joke about Rimbaud the poet into the Expendables 2. He also appreciates academic Susan Faludi’s feminist analysis of Rambo and Reaganomics in her book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. This makes me feel more positive about his recent Warburton’s ad, which I now see as a knowing riff on his on screen personae rather than a cry for help.
Talented filmmakers like Ryan Coogler, are staying focused on making the best movies they can. But personal endeavour along isn’t enough. Stallone needed Coogler to write him that comeback. And the Academy has to fix its unintentionally discriminatory ways to ensure a generation of deserving heavyweights get a fair fight in the ring.
Marcus Gardley on BBC Front Row (October 2015)
Ryan Coogler on BBC Front Row (Jan 2016)