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On The Return Of Hollywood Pariah Mel Gibson, And #OscarsSoWhite

Would we have had a record six nominations for black actors without #OscarsSoWhite and the social media frenzy that overshadowed the past two years' awards?

27/01/2017 04:58 SAST
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters
Octavia Spencer (L) , Best Supporting Actress winner for "The Help", and Meryl Streep, Best Actress Winner for "The Iron Lady", look at their Oscars at the Governors Ball for the 84th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 26, 2012.

After Tuesday's announcement of 14 Oscar nomination nods for "La La Land" and the Annual Meryl Streep Nomination: Version 2017, two questions surfaced: When on earth did Mel Gibson return to Hollywood's good graces? And are the record number of nominations for black actors and actresses this year a sign of true progress toward inclusion and representation in the industry, or did the #OscarsSoWhite social media movement ignite a reluctant process?

But first, let's talk about Mel.

Since his anti-Semitic rant in 2006 when he was pulled over for drunk driving by a (Jewish) police officer, he has been a non-presence in Hollywood. No amount of "Lethal Weapon" reruns could redeem him and a 2010 recording by his then-girlfriend of a racist tirade (directed towards her, by the way) didn't help. At all.

So, the news of his best director nomination for "Hacksaw Ridge" came as a surprise – but also not so much.

A surprise because where the hell has he been? But also, is giving him an Oscar not like saying, "it's OK, Mel, you were pretty racist and all, but let's put that behind us. All forgiven! Happy days!?" Or, should the art be judged separately from the artist? Is the creator not part of the art, the core from which everything else flows and builds upon? There have been lively debates about this, just think about Woody Allen, who has been accused of sexual assault. And then there's Chris Brown. Have you stopped listening to his music because he physically beat ex-girlfriend Rihanna to a pulp?

But "Hacksaw Ridge" is an astonishingly moving film, forcing your eyes upon the screen and makes you live the story, not just watch it. It is based on the true story of an army medic, portrayed by Andrew Garfield with a performance that also received an Oscar nomination, that refuses to kill people during his service in World War II. The film is also nominated in the best picture category, and very rightly so. The sum of this film's wondrous parts did not come from nowhere, someone built this story from the ground up to what you see on the screen before you and that someone is Mel Gibson.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters
Actor Mel Gibson arrives at the Hollywood Film Awards in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., November 6, 2016.

Somewhat related is the furious criticism unleashed by Casey Affleck's best actor nomination for "Manchester By The Sea." Affleck reached a settlement out of court after two women claimed he sexually harassed them on the set of "I'm Still Here" in 2010. After his nomination was announced "Fresh Off the Boat" actress Constance Wu lashed out on Twitter, writing that a "good acting performance matters more than humanity, human integrity."

In this case, with a settlement in place, we have no idea as to the validity of the women's claims, but it still raises questions as to the responsibility of institutions like the Academy of Motion Pictures in society and if awarding controversial artists like Gibson or Affleck for their art doesn't translate into condoning their alleged behaviour. Art never gives us clear-cut or "right" answers, if there is even such a thing. That's why, even though actions have been taken to remedy #OscarsSoWhite, the increased diversity representation in this year's nominations, shouldn't be taken at face value.

It would be great news if we could say that for the industry and that by extension the Oscars evolved because they wanted to. Because they recognise the worthiness of minorities in the industry and the amazing work that has been created not only this year but in all the years past. But would we have had a record six nominations for black actors in the acting categories without #OscarsSoWhite and the social media frenzy that overshadowed the past two years' awards?

We can hope, but we can't know for sure.

In any event, it is amazing that credit is being given where it is due. We should all bow down to Viola Davis (nominated for best actress for "Fences") who has never failed to give a compelling portrayal of any character she plays. Then there's Ruth Negga (best actress, "Loving"), Naomie Harris (best supporting actress, "Moonlight") and Octavia Spencer (best supporting actress, "Hidden Figures"). "Fences", "Moonlight" (if you only see one movie this year, this should be it) and "Hidden Figures", three movies with predominately black casts, were nominated for best picture. "Moonlight" has eight nominations, six less than "La La Land", which in turn has more than it deserves.

Powerful stories are also told in four of the nominated documentaries, "13th", "I Am Not Your Negro", "OJ: Made in America" and "Life Animated", steered by black directors. Of these, "13th" by Ava Duvernay, who also directed Selma, has an iron grip. Hopefully it latches on to an Oscar. Ah, but just as people started to applaud the Oscars for making a 180 degree turn, they realized it was more of a diagonal shuffle. Diversity in this year's Oscars translates to the inclusion of black artists. Representation did not extend to other minorities – including no nominations for any female directors.

Not that Meryl Streep's 20th Oscar nomination makes up for it, but at least her speech will, after she in all likelihood wins for Florence Foster Jenkins, be a plea for equality and the end of oppression, discrimination and inclusion of minorities as in her speech at the Golden Globes. Basically, Streep will be saying and asking for things that the industry should have been doing all along.