UPDATE Thursday morning with more information, below:
Lawrence O’Donnell, the former political aide who hosts MSNBC’s Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell, let loose on Wednesday night with a fusillade of arrows aimed at Hollywood and the Academy Awards. O’Donnell used the final segment of his program for a withering takedown of the Oscars’ nominating process that resulted in this year’s all-white acting nominees, while blasting presumably clueless voters for ignoring both Straight Outta Compton and, especially, Beasts Of No Nation. For good measure, he threw in cheap shots at best-picture nominee Brooklyn and best-actor nominee Leonardo Di Caprio .
The host — one of prime time cable’s smartest observers of the political and cultural scenes — declared the latter film and its star, Idris Elba, deserving of at least as much attention as any of the other nominees. But he claimed that when voters received their screeners over the holidays, they threw the DVDs for Compton and Beasts into the pile of films they had no intention of watching. O’Donnell offered no evidence to back up his observation, other than to quote the published comment of one voter who admitted that he hadn’t watched best-picture nominee Mad Max: Fury Road.
“There were a lot of great performances this year,” O’Donnell said after showing a clip from Beasts Of No Nation. “But no actor gave a better performance than Idris Elba did in Beasts Of No Nation.”
That was followed by O’Donnell’s exegesis on the selection process: “Big stacks of movies come every day,” he said. “You really can’t tell what movie is in each envelope, so you really have to open them all. … Perhaps the most insidious problem when it comes to the awards end of the business is that moment when the awards voters open their envelopes at home.” That’s when O’Donnell went after Brooklyn, which, he averred, goes in the must-see pile: “Hey, a lot of Academy voters are from Brooklyn. Plenty of them have ancestors from Ireland,” O’Donnell said, possibly tongue-in-cheek. “They feel a connection to that movie.”
The next moment, he continued, they open the envelope containing Beasts Of No Nation, “and for those seconds, while they hold this stunning work of art in their hands … many of them saw nothing that interested them, they felt no curiosity about it, they felt no connection to it. And that, that is how you get all-white Oscars.”
Not mentioned by O’Donnell were several of the other Best Picture nominees to which voters presumably felt “a connection” — being mauled by a rampaging bear in the frozen North, per The Revenant, for example, or by a predatory priest, as in Spotlight. Or perhaps losing one’s home and savings as a result of a rancid mortgage deal, as in The Big Short. Spending childhood in a shoe-box size Room?
As advocacy for a point of view about a broken system that has troubled the industry perhaps more this year than at any other time, O’Donnell’s comments were on the money. As journalism, however — even as opinion journalism, which is MSNBC’s brief — his observations were shabby. They adhered to what has become the preferred narrative about the Oscar nominations process, which made the comments safe for a liberal-minded audience that loves nothing more than to beat up on itself.
And while every word might have been true, O’Donnell offered no hard evidence to back up a wildly generalized statement like “they threw it in the pile of movies they’ll never watch.” Indeed, he didn’t even quote one secondary source, one voter admitting to tossing those two movies into the must-miss pile. He also didn’t account for the vibrant marketing of both Straight Outta Compton and Beasts Of No Nation, especially in the voting heartland of Los Angeles.
And that, that is how secondhand, unverified conjecture passes for news.