Though regular figures during award season—they’re nominated this year for Best Original Screenplay for Bridge of Spies—Joel and Ethan Coen are not very interested in the Oscars. They also have the unfortunate timing as to be promoting a new movie, Hail, Caesar!, during this contentious award season, so they’re getting asked Oscar questions. Particularly, Jen Yamato of The Daily Beast asked them about #OscarsSoWhite, and you can practically hear their eyes rolling right out of their heads. The Coens are not concerning themselves with this at all, saying, “Diversity’s important, the Oscars are not that important.” Of course they can say that—they have four of them.
There are two things happening here. One is that we can argue the actual importance of the Oscars to death, but at the end of the day they represent the highest achievement in film, and are, at the very least, a measure of taste. So they’re not totally unimportant. They carry a cultural significance. But the other thing is the question of how much responsibility do we put on individual artists to “solve” this problem for us?
When asked about the pervasive whiteness of Hail, Caesar!—a film set in 1950s Hollywood—Joel Coen’s response is defensive: “Why would there be? I don’t understand the question. No—I understand that you’re asking the question, I don’t understand where the question comes from.” Ethan, responding to a question about the filmmaker’s responsibility to service these concerns, adds, “It’s important to tell the story you’re telling in the right way, which might involve black people or people of whatever heritage or ethnicity—or it might not.”
Now. There is DEFINITELY room to question any kind of creator about how their art reflects the world, and what it says about them and their perspective if that reflection seems homogenous. The Coens can be critiqued for lack of diversity and what that says about how they see the world—although they have produced a lot of stellar heroines over the years—but do they actually HAVE to be as inclusive as we may want them to be?
And the answer to that is no. They don’t HAVE to be. No individual artist owes us anything on that score. They tell the stories they want to tell the way they want to tell them, and we’re either into it or we’re not. We can judge them for seemingly not being interested in the stories of people different from themselves (and we will), but at the end of the day, the Coen Brothers are making Coen Brothers movies. What they do is up to them.
Audiences are clearly craving more diverse stories, but we get them not by pressuring individual artists but by squeezing the system itself. The Coen Brothers are going to do what the Coen Brothers are going to do, but the people backing them? The studio execs giving them greenlights and the financiers lending them money? Those people are not storytellers. They’re not artists. They’re businesspeople. And diversity is good business (see also: Fox television; Fast/Furious franchise; Universal Pictures 2015, inclusive). Those people are the ones we demand greater diversity and inclusion from. You want to give the Coen Brothers $20 million to make a movie? Great. What about doing the same for Rick Famuyiwa to get a follow-up to Dope?
There’s a problem with the Oscars because the Academy, as a group, only finds a narrow range of films worthy of singling out. And there’s a problem with Hollywood because not nearly enough is being done to support the voices of artists who aren’t white men. But there isn’t a problem with any one artist. The problem is bigger than a single filmmaker and it’s bigger than the Oscars. The problem is the system that has for so long valued one voice over every other. THAT is what has to change.
Attached - Joel and Ethan at the Los Angeles premiere of Hail, Caesar! on Monday.