The Canard of Objectivity: Why 'Quality over Diversity' Makes No Sense
Last Tuesday morning, Stephen King tweeted that he “would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.” Stephen King is not alone in this thought. It’s a popular line of argument. And it’s a powerful tool, often used to resist the inexorable, two-steps-forward, one-step-back march of progress. I love Stephen King's writing. I disagree vehemently with his statement.
Most people who read this might agree with me, and I suspect many others won’t be convinced by a few hundred words. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to put down on paper why exactly I disagree. It’s as simple as 1, 2, 3. One, the entire notion of “quality over diversity” rests on the faulty premise of objectivity in art. Objectivity is a cudgel that the anti-PC people wield sporadically, invoking its sacred name only when championing white art, or male art. But in fact, art in general, and movies specifically, are very subjective. The technical side of film-making certainly has objective measures: we can all agree that The Room is bad and Casablanca is good; that Martin Scorsese is an adroit director, Thelma Schoonmaker a skilled editor; Bradford Young an ambitious cinematographer. But at the margins, when offered dozens of fantastic technical films and performances every year, picking a favorite becomes inherently subjective. The movie that you connect with most. A performance that resonated. We all bring our individual experiences, biases, and feelings to our judgments. In 2019, for example, over 50 different movies received at least one first place vote from a film critic as the best movie of the year. Most, if not all, were technically great. But subjective evaluations took over from there. The fact that art is not objective is what makes art interesting. Claiming the Oscars should be about “quality over diversity” assumes that there are only 10 films, 5 lead actresses, 5 supporting actors, or 5 costume designers that made “quality” work in a given year. It ignores the major role that subjective judgment plays in these selections. Two, even for those technical aspects of filmmaking that are objective in some way, the Academy has not historically been a reliable measure. Sure, they sometimes get it right. But perhaps more often, they miss the mark. Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles never won an Oscar for Best Direction. Al Pacino won an Oscar for Scent of a Woman instead of The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, or Dog Day Afternoon. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly? No nominations. Breathless? Zilch. Heat? In the Mood for Love? The entire country of South Korea from 1929 until one week ago? Nothing. Why is that? Because like all of us, Academy members bring their own subjective judgments into the voting booth. Best Picture winners like The Artist and Birdman appealed to the experiences on and behind the screen and the stage that so many Academy members have. And further, because Oscars are often a contest of popularity, timing, financing, and campaigning. Publicity departments spend millions on Oscar campaigns – last year, Netflix spent over $25 million on Roma’s Oscar campaign. Predators like Harvey Weinstein bullied and smeared his way to Oscars. Studios don’t win Oscars because they have some preternatural ability to sniff out the best film of the year during pre-production over and over – they know how to buy, bully, and bargain their way into contention. They know how to appeal to the subjective side of voters’ minds. Point one: evaluation of movies is both objective and subjective. Point two: the Academy has their own biases, and has never been a perfect measure for the objective aspects of filmmaking. Even if that’s the case, why should Academy members feel compelled to bring diversity into their evaluations of films each year? Point three: awards are about opportunity. Yes, awards are intended to – and often do – highlight great performances, great work, great movies. But more than anything they create opportunity. Months after he won his second Oscar in three years, Mahershala Ali was announced to be joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Blade. He’d been acting with varying degrees of success for two decades. After receiving a Best Director nomination for the Best Picture-winning Moonlight, Barry Jenkins received triple the budget for his next film. After the same Director nomination – Picture win for 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen received a budget for Widows that was more than he got for his first three films combined. After being nominated for Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig received four times as much for Little Women. Ruth Carter had done the costumes for three other Spike Lee movies before becoming the first African American nominated for costume design for Malcolm X. Within a few years, she was designing costumes for Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. After seven years directing television, Regina King won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in If Beale Street Could Talk. Six months later, she finally had her first feature directing gig greenlit, One Night in Miami. I could go on. Quality in film is not purely objective. To the extent one can measure quality, awards have not reliably done so. Each year, faced with dozens of technically accomplished films and performances, Academy voters must rely on subjective responses to pick their favorites. In doing so, voters should consider the opportunity that these subjective judgments can create. Do not pick nominees who have not brought quality and skill and talent to their respective roles. But where there is a plethora of fantastic choices, seek to bring attention to those that have historically been ignored. Create opportunity where there has historically been little to none. Opportunity for women seeking more challenging roles and a chance to sit in the director’s chair. Opportunity for Black, Latinx, and Asian actors, editors, cinematographers, and more. Awards can be about quality and diversity. It seems to me to do otherwise would be wrong.