Whose Awards Are These Anyway?
I became a member of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) in 1999, when the then co-chair of the film committee, Simon Relph, recognised that the awards’ results were being skewed by the membership’s demographic . As a result, he offered to second any membership proposals for people under 30 and dramatically reduce their fees to promote access into the awarding body. My brilliant boss, Pippa Cross of Granada Film, nominated me and I found myself in the club.
I say this because that’s what BAFTA is. A club, and a private one at that. You can’t just bowl up to their offices and vote for what you think was the best film this year. There are strict criteria about joining and remaining a member. Although BAFTA has very recently abolished the need to be nominated and seconded by an existing member, you still need five years professional experience in a creative, technical or executive role in film, TV or video games. More problematically, the membership committee will consider the “quality” and number of your credits and any award nominations, so value judgments are still being applied. Indeed, even if you pass the selection process, film voting is currently capped and you will be put on a waiting list until BAFTA is able to identify those whose career has stalled and taken their voting rights away from them, as they do every year now in a process which has the potential to favour men voters. In the last few years the world has started to notice that it’s not just the age range of clubs such as BAFTA and the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the awarding body for the Oscars) which influences how they vote, but the gender and the race of its members too.
Small steps are being taken to address this. The Academy has opened its membership to welcome more women and people of colour, something that appears to have paid off, particularly for black actors in the 2017 Oscar Nominations. BAFTA has also announced its intention to apply the BFI’s diversity standards to the awards for Outstanding British Film and Outstanding Debut from 2019 (not two of the heavy-weight awards). But the question at the heart of it all is – do these initiatives sufficiently challenge the power of the few (white, men)?
When the BAFTA nominations for 2017 were announced my social media timelines erupted with complaints – from women, people of colour and British film workers who were concerned about the dominance of the American independent film sector in British awards. Despite a selection of strong contenders this year, such as Madina Nalwanga, Lupita N’yongo, Trevante Rhodes and Naomie Harris for acting, and Barry Jenkins, Amma Asante, Maren Ade, Andrea Arnold and Mira Nair for directing, the nominations in these categories were still dominated by white, American men. The African-American Film Critics Association has declared 2016 the best year ever for black cinema. But how well is this reflected in this year’s BAFTAs? April White, who created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, has responded to this year’s nominations by saying that they don’t go far enough and true diversity is still a long way off. Women and gender fluid individuals are still woefully underrepresented and people of Asian and Latino origin make a very scarce appearance. Disability does not seem to exist in this world at all, and is certainly not visible. Yet already media outlets are declaring diversity has been achieved.
In my work, I spend a lot of time thinking about fairness in the film industry and several years researching gender inequality in film. The barriers that women face are often the same ones faced by anyone who doesn’t fit the dominant wealthy, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied model: you don’t fit in, you’re not one of us. Fairness is a very scarce quantity. Nepotism, unconscious bias, sexual harassment – these are all far more common. But can these awards ever be fair?
As a BAFTA voter, I have struggled with my conscience this year over Manchester By the Sea, which was nominated in several categories including Best Film, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress. I am deeply troubled by the allegations brought by two women against the film’s star, Casey Affleck, and support those who are considering a boycott of the film. Cinematographer Magdalena Gorka and producer Amanda White have both sued Affleck for sexual misconduct (on a previous film where he was the director), including groping, sending pictures of his genitals through film equipment, getting into bed with Gorka uninvited and fostering a culture of sexist abuse, e.g. instructing a crew member to show his penis. Affleck settled out of court but you can still read details of both Gorka and White’s complaints.
However, as a BAFTA voter, I am required to watch all the films nominated in the final round of each category. My only other option is to abstain from voting in the categories. I do not want to watch Manchester By the Sea because I do not wish to spend two hours of my life being asked to empathise with Casey Affleck. BAFTA asked me to consider if it is fair to the other people who made the film. I feel very strongly that it is more important to support the right of women film workers not to suffer sexual harassment. I am concerned at the message sent when their assailants are subsequently celebrated by the great and the good of the industry, not least that this could discourage young women thinking of a career in film.
So am I being unfair to those who choose to make a film with Casey Affleck? Would you watch The Cosby Show to enjoy it’s editing work? Or Jim’ll Fix It for the set design? All I’m asking for is the option to chose to not watch this film without losing my ability to participate in the voting, as is possible in the first round. I understand this brings complications and questions of fairness, but the system is far from fair now. In the end, I didn’t watch it, and I lost my vote in many categories.
Casey Affleck won both the BAFTA award and the Oscar for Best Actor. The film also won best screenplay at both so the system was “fair” to Kenneth Lonergan (white, American, male, winner of many other awards). He has had his talents recognised (again). However, the bigger question at play is here: what is the purpose of these award ceremonies? Whose interests do they serve? Do they really tell audiences (or film financiers) who is the best and which films we should be watching? It’s become increasingly clear that the award doesn’t always go to the most deserving. It’s even true for white men. It’s not hard to find theories about Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino or Leonardo di Caprio being given an award for a lesser film or performance because they were overlooked previously or have ‘served their time’. Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin and Stanley Kubrick somehow never won an Oscar. How many women, how many people of colour have been unrecognised over the years – even when considering those who actually were nominated are pretty exceptional and have had to overcome many barriers to even reach that stage?
The 2017 BAFTA nominations were dominated by Americans at least partly because of the cost of sending out DVD screeners around the world. I’m always amazed when a courier pulls up at my door for me to sign for a jiffy bag containing a glossy flier – not even the film itself. But we can’t ignore that awareness of a film undeniably influences voters. Knowing about a film, hearing that friends and colleagues have chosen to watch something, seeing images of it everywhere you look – these are the things that are likely to increase your sense that this film is a priority. But what if watching La La Land, Nocturnal Animals, Silence, Manchester By the Sea and Sully means you run out of time to consider The Queen of Katwe, Moonlight, When Marnie Was There or 20th Century Women? In the first round of BAFTA voting, members must only vote for films that they have seen. So what if your film isn’t considered a priority? What if you don’t have the budget to promote it or the stars to get press interviews circulating and whet appetites? Your film could well not make it into the official nominations based on marketing budgets alone.
It’s time to accept that these film awards aren’t fair in the way that we want them to be, unfortunately just like the industries that make them. By continuing to listen to their judgments about who is the ‘best’ and which films are a ‘must-see’, we are playing into the hands of the establishment of a small and exclusive minority who are take our money and continue to make films by and about white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied men: what good leaders they make, what good fathers they make, and what good heroes they make. Affleck is not the first powerful man in film and television to be accused of improper behaviour towards women or indeed children. In fact the list seems to be rapidly growing as women feel increasingly able to speak out. In the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, there’s never been a better time to question why we continue to celebrate these men. This year, everyone who voted for many of the key BAFTA awards is someone who is prepared to watch a film starring a man who has been accused by two women of sexual harassment in the workplace. And he won. We will never know for certain if he did the things he is accused of as he settled out of court. However, if those in the entertainment industries continue to stick their fingers in their ears and chant “La la land” when told things they don’t want to hear then, as a BAFTA voter, I think audiences should question the validity of the entertainment awards and be aware that the “best man” doesn’t always win.
Natalie Wreyford is currently Research Fellow attached to the AHRC-funded project ‘Calling the Shots: Women and Contemporary UK Film Culture’ established at Southampton University to investigate the lack of women in key roles in the UK film industry. She worked for many years in the British film industry including as a senior executive at the UK Film Council.