Peter Nicks’ 2012 documentary, The Waiting Room, filmed in the emergency room at Highland Hospital in Oakland, was on the short list for an Oscar nomination, but ultimately wasn’t among the chosen few.
FEBRUARY 19, 2016 | BY PETER NICKS
reprinted from the San Francisco Chronicle, sfchronicle.com
Oakland filmmaker Pete Nicks is a powerful voice in the national media community. He is a storytelling powerhouse, a mentor to so many others, an artist raising a family in Oakland and raising the bar in the field. On one level, his recent article in the SF Chronicle is about why we need the Academy Awards. On another level, it is a call to action for artists—to stay true to creating personal stories laden with a sharp sense of purpose and passionate conviction.
In 1988, Eddie Murphy stood on the stage at the Academy Awards to present the award for best picture. He began his introduction as one would expect—cracking a couple of jokes—but quickly changed course to scold Hollywood for its historical snubbing of African American actors. Camera cutaways to the audience revealed the mostly white audience whispering to each other in what appeared to be surprise and discomfort as he challenged the academy to do better. “I’m going to give this award, but black people will not ride the caboose of society and we will not bring up the rear any more,” Murphy said. The impact of the speech resonated in that moment. But back then, there were no hashtags, no viral social media movements and no way for the collective voice of the disenfranchised to reach a mass audience.
Today, some 28 years later, we are in the same situation. This time it will be Chris Rock who takes the stage. The intervening years have seen a black president, the rise of social media activism such as #BlackLivesMatter, and demographic change that has led to a far more diverse nation. What is less clear is just how many African American directors like me are out there, adding their artistry to the collective film tapestry. Has opportunity increased but talent simply not been recognized? Or is the problem much deeper, that we simply do not have enough filmmakers of color telling the stories that matter to them?
Shortlisted for award
For a brief moment in 2012 that I can only describe as rapturous, it looked like I might be invited to join the club. My documentary, “The Waiting Room,” had been shortlisted for an Oscar. My head spun, considering the impact this could have on the film and my professional life. Surely this would mean more opportunities and an easier path to financing films. It would mean an invitation to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, allowing me to play a small part in spicing up this stubbornly homogenous organization. For just a moment, I was in awe of my proximity to the winds of cultural influence. And then the announcements were made, and my film was not nominated.
Instead of being disappointed, I was energized to continue my mission of telling stories that draw from my unique experience as an African American. I carry these life experiences with me as a storyteller, understanding that we all have value that is often hidden below the surface of stereotype and fear. I wish I knew how many like me are out there striving, telling and dreaming to stand on that academy stage one day.
That gold statue is a symbol, a representation of cultural relevance, that surely has an impact on how we view and value artistic expression. And it is quite simply a lever that can provide the winning artist the capital to tell more stories. When the body that makes these decisions does not reflect the increasing diversity of this nation, the fabric of cultural empathy is worn thin.
The people who decide which films, directors, producers and editors should be nominated for and ultimately win an Academy Award are the 6,028 voting members of the academy. They are 93 percent white, 76 percent male and an average age of 63, as of 2013. I do not know exactly how the members are chosen, but I do know that you do not need to be nominated for an Oscar to gain admission, at least in the documentary branch. Filmmakers who are allowed into the academy are considered “in the judgment of the documentary executive committee, [to have] achieved unique distinction, earned special merit and made an outstanding contribution to theatrical documentary filmmaking.”
Some say the nominations do not matter because the academy is incapable of valuing the breadth of artistic expression in America due to the narrow point of view of its voting members. This may be true. But we must also consider why the nominations do matter.
That gold statue is a symbol, a representation of cultural relevance, that surely has an impact on how we view and value artistic expression. And it is quite simply a lever that can provide the winning artist the capital to tell more stories. When the body that makes these decisions does not reflect the increasing diversity of this nation, the fabric of cultural empathy is worn thin. The kaleidoscope of our evolving nation becomes flattened into a myth told by the same people, gathered around the same campfire, unable to truly see the multidimensional world around them.
Putting academy on notice
The academy, led by President Cheryl Boone-Isaacs, an African American woman, recently took action by mandating changes in electing voting members. The hope is that the academy can better reflect the cultural story of America and use the power of story to build empathy between communities that do not truly know one another. This opportunity can be lost when artists who judge themselves all share the same cultural point of view. Junot Diaz summed it up well when he observed that “if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”
The academy has been put on notice that it needs to do better. In the meantime, we need to renew our commitment to telling our stories with the ferocity of purpose that demands notice. Because a well-told story in your voice, from your perspective, is a monster-killer.
Peter Nicks is the director and producer of “The Waiting Room” (2012), a documentary filmed in the emergency room at Highland Hospital in Oakland.
STORYTELLING MATTERS is a blog series at NAMAC where we feature original and curated writing and photography about global story culture and innovation in the hopes of facilitating conversation about the ethical and responsible use of creative technologies in community. If you have a story to share for the series, let us know! firstname.lastname@example.org
Leave a Reply