I’m a reluctant writer. It’s a gift. It’s a curse. It’s a gift because God has given me the voice to express myself. It’s a curse because of the toll it takes and the burden I have to carry. Your fearless leader Jacob has been nudging me to write film commentary like we used to do at Hollywood Jesus. The gift kept calling. The curse kept weighing on me. So I ducked and dodged him.
And then the Oscar nominations came.
There was one nomination for the white screenwriters of Straight Outta Compton. One nomination for the white superstar supporting actor in Creed. Zero/nada/zip for Beasts of No Nation, Chi-Raq and the other African American centric films/actors/etc. The question of diversity within the Motion Picture Academy is now on the table. Blacks across America are furious. Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee are calling for a boycott.
I can feel most of you sharpening your knives because you think you know what I’m going to say. Allow me to disappoint you.
Sorry, Jada. Nothing but love for you, Spike. But I won’t be boycotting anything. I will spend my Oscar night in front of the TV like I do every year cheering the winners I loved and booing the winners I didn’t want to win.
- Creed was good…but it was nothing more than Rocky 7. The notion that Sly Stallone is nominated for playing Rocky is a joke to me…but, hey…strokes for folks.
- A note to filmmakers: if you’re using Netflix to launch your movie in the Oscar race, you’re a TV movie. Beasts Of No Nation getting snubbed is not a statement against Black actors. It’s a statement against a TV distribution system that is attempting to destroy the motion picture theatrical experience. The video on demand industry is dedicated to shrinking theatrical release windows to the point of non-existence. Within the next few years, movie theaters will be few and far between due to the fact that everyone can watch movies on their tiny smartphones. I still love going to the movies. Nothing beats sitting in the theatre with popcorn in hand and watching a story be told on a sixty-five-foot (NOT INCH!) screen. Cry all you want about Idris Elba getting snubbed, but I’m doggone proud that the Academy chose to preserve my favorite national pastime!
- Had Universal received the memo that Steve Jobs wasn’t playing to audiences and the guilds like it had hoped – and repurposed their 2015 awards campaign to ride behind Straight Outta Compton as they should have, Spike wouldn’t be boycotting and Jada wouldn’t be ranting. Harvey Weinstein does the same thing every year, which is why his films bag a gazillion nominations and wins year after year. Don’t blame the Academy. Blame Universal for betting on the wrong horse.
- And, as much as I loved Chi-Raq…and as much as I admire your body of work, Mr. Lee, you can’t call a major Hollywood studio a “plantation” and not expect any fallout or blacklisting. Yep. Back in 1992, out of his frustration with completing his classic biography of Malcom X, Spike Lee called the film’s distributor Warner Bros. those very words. Twenty-something years later, he’s expressed in news outlets his difficulties in getting the major studios to finance his projects. I wonder why. Yeah, we have freedom of speech, but that freedom ain’t necessarily free. God Himself through the inspiration of Scripture reminds us to be wise, slow to speak and, by all means, watch that flaming inferno called The Tongue. Unfortunately, many have not heeded this warning – Mr. Lee included. Speak your mind…but be willing to pay the price!
- As I shared my thoughts on my Facebook page, I undoubtedly received my fair share of dissention – particularly from an old buddy from my old South Central LA neighborhood. This particular gentleman called me a sellout because I wanted to see films that were off the beaten path. I will never forget how he read me the (uncensored) riot act because I wanted to see the U2 documentary Rattle & Hum in the 80’s. Dude lost his mind back then…and lost his mind again today as I took my anti-boycott stance. He’s not the only one who gave me grief in our “hood.” I got ridiculed for saying that Clint Eastwood was a better actor than Eddie Murphy. My constant pleas to see a movie at the larger than life Hollywood movie theatres were ignored. While everyone else was living the 70MM life, I used to take the bus to a piece of crap three-screen shoebox across the street from USC’s campus. Once I got a driver’s license, I made my way to Hollywood Boulevard and haven’t looked back in thirty years! I still march to the beat of my own drum. I don’t explore EVERY film that’s off the beaten path, but I take pride in the fact that I will have seen every one of this year’s Best Picture nominees. I will not allow my old pal, or anyone else, to use my color or race to define who I am as a person. The fruit of my life transcends my color. I am a child of God and a lover of cinema FIRST! That’s never gonna change.
- Lastly…there’s one way to fix the diversity problem at the Oscars: make a film SO DOGGONE GOOD that the industry can’t take their eyes off of it. Make a work of cinema so decadent and impactful that it simply will not be denied. Steve McQueen did in 2013. The result: 12 Years A Slave. Winner of Best Picture…and many Black folks refuse to even watch it because we won’t grieve the pain and scars of slavery. In order to heal, we must go back to the pain and discover that, in spite of what we went through, we must first realize that we WENT THROUGH – and SURVIVED. Props to the writers/directors/actors taking number one spots from Star Wars. But I’d rather see Sam and Denzel taking shots at each other as opposing attorneys in a courtroom judged by James Earl Jones than Cube and Kevin Hart shucking and jiving across the streets of Miami!
- That same sentiment goes to the world of Christian film, too. I have ZERO INTEREST in the US vs. THEM mentality set forth by stories like God’s Not Dead. The success of War Room was based on the fact that the story was centered in actual reality. Like 12 Years A Slave, War Room was so doggone good that it would not be denied. Let’s see more stories like that! Yes, we as Christ followers stand for what is right in pure in the eyes of God. But we need to see more gritty and real stories of transformation through His power. Let’s see the story where the lead starts out as a foul mouthed, train-wrecked mess of a man and, two hours later, we see the spirit of God upend his life and transform his soul. Let’s see the story about the sister who uses sex to gain acceptance from the world only to discover that, through Christ’s love, she has the acceptance that she longs for. And please don’t make it PG rated. That’s not real.
We live in an R-rated world (X…if we wanna be truly honest). Are we too proud to take the Apostle Paul’s example of becoming all things to all men in order to save some? Or are we too concerned about our image? I don’t know about you, but my journey with God has been decidedly R-rated. I was the foul-mouthed trainwreck. I was the one who used sex to gain acceptance from the world. But His love continues to transform me. My story of redemption is not pretty…but I know He has taken my ashes and made them beautiful. Can we get more stories like that on screen instead of incessant preaching to the choir? God doesn’t need us to create sanitized classroom scenarios to prove that He’s not dead. The harvest is in the muck and mire of the world. And that harvest is sho-nuff ripe. But the laborers are few. Hopefully, in this artform that I love, that will one day change for the better.
Editor’s note: Chris Utley is a forty-something writer, director, (sometime) actor, songwriter, singer (only at church!), husband, and father to three beautiful children. Hailing from Los Angeles, he shares his love for film and Jesus Christ with everyone he can.