Over-Correcting: Reactions to the 2015 Oscars Through a Racial Lens

Posted February 24, 2015

As human beings we tend to over-react.

You’ve lived the “worst day ever” countless time.

There have been multiple cuts of beef that were the “best steak you’ve ever had.”

You’ve passed the “hottest guy ever” on the street every single month.

We often talk about how those over-exaggerations tend to be damning and diluting, but we never seem to address it when it comes attached to truly important topics.

It happened again last night as a lot of people over-reacted to the Oscars when discussing race.

First, it’s important to say that current events have shown that issues of racism and racial inequality absolutely still need to be addressed in this country. Second, its definitely troubling that the acting categories at the Oscars still remain dominated by white actors and actresses. The combination of those two truths, therefore, makes it more understandable why people were watching the Oscars last night with more of an eye towards race than might usually be the case.

However, this racial lens led to some troubling comments during the show and in the aftermath this morning.

The most apparent, to anybody who checked Twitter as the show was going on, was the analytical breakdown of Chris Pine’s tears. Despite the fact that many people in the audience were shown crying after Common and John Legend’s performance of Glory (including Oprah and David Oyelowo), the internet seemed to take particular note of Pine’s stained cheeks.

It’s not because he’s Captain Kirk or has played a gruff assassin in multiple movies; it’s because he’s white.

Chris PineWho suggested that Chris Pine’s tears absolved “racist sins”?

Why does he need to “sell his tears,” and why do we assume that we should look at a grown man crying in response to a moving performance about a troubling societal issue and make it a reflection of whether he is racist or not?

Isn’t constantly looking at people and judging their actions as a barometer for how racist they are simply re-hashing old arguments and preventing us, as a culture, from moving on?

I’m not saying Chris Pine shouldn’t have cried; I’m merely suggesting that nobody should care. So, he cried. So did dozens of other people, white and black, and probably other races as well. If we keep drawing attention to moments like these as a racial statement then how can we ever hope to grow behind racial demarcations as a society? Over-analyzing every time a white person has an emotional reaction to a cause supporting racial equality/freedoms will only continue to make that reaction seem less normal.

However, it wasn’t just random tweets caught up in the moment that seemed to present over-reactions to the racial significance of last night’s events. Even intelligent and thoughtful journalists were doing it too.

I’m a fan of Wesley Morris’ writing on Grantland. I find his articles to be intellectual and philosophical without pandering or being narrow-minded. However, I found one of his observations about last night’s show particularly troubling.

In a piece on Grantland today, he reflected that, “Neil Patrick Harris…coated an already fatuous evening in glibness. It wasn’t merely the subpar puns, shameful introductions, and careless jokes about the snubbed. It was the way he singled out Octavia Spencer to watch a briefcase that rested in a glass case on the stage (Harris’s Oscar predictions) or asked David Oyelowo to stand and speak in his natural English accent. Harris might have intended to boost these two into the pantheon of award-show sidekicks, to what Streep and Nicholson have always been. But Harris performs with bright, conceited entitlement. So when he approached Spencer and Oyelowo, he did so as a spoiled heir or a clueless boss.”

The briefcase bit aside (it was terrible and the ultimate punchline missed in a big way), I can’t help but balk at the notion that picking Octavia Spencer reflected a “spoiled heir or a clueless boss.” Oscar hosts perennially ask people in the audience to help them with bits; the engagement is  meant to show the cliche “stars are laid back and have fun too” attitude that the Oscars assume viewers want to see.

Isn’t it more probable that Neil Patrick Harris looked into the front row, seated near his briefcase, and saw Octavia Spencer and Robert Duval and simply asked himself: who’s more likely to go along with this bit?

Two seconds of last night’s broadcast would have led anybody to believe that Duval was not the answer. However, Spencer is an actress that has done such a wide range of roles that she seems game to improvise, and a good sport on top of it.

By analyzing a small bit so radically, aren’t we doing more harm than good? Niel Patrick Harris wasn’t overly bossy to Spencer, and while the joke he had Oyelowo read was far from funny, he seemed more obviously focused on him as a Brit than as a black actor. The only mention of race in the bit was him chiding the people who applauded Oyelowo for not nominating him for Best Actor just weeks earlier.

I know that Wesley Morris, and most others who wrote sensible and well-intentioned responses to the pale hue of last night’s ceremony, are only trying to bring continued racial discrepancies into the public consciousness, but can’t that also be harmful?

If we fill the public talking space with discussions about potential racism that isn’t really connected to “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race,” then aren’t we going to take away from the discussions that really touch on this issue? (Webster’s Dictionary).

As a cultural we have a short attention span. If we want to captivate as much of the national audience as possible in regards to a single issue than we need to make sure the attention we’re drawing will yield positive results.

Watching the Eric Garner video was horrifying, but displayed a violence that couldn’t be ignored. The grand jury verdict in Ferguson and ensuing riots were equally troubling, but directed attention towards very real inequalities. The perversion of the Voting Rights act is upsetting, but it demonstrates a racially-motivated manipulation that needs to be addressed.

What’s to be gained from turning our attention to Chris Pine’s tears and Neil Patrick Harris’ briefcase? In the end, is the desire to turn our collective attention to these moments taking people’s eyes and minds away from far greater indignities in the same fight?