Two Time Oscar Winning Sound Mixer Russell Williams II Reflects on Hollywood’s Crisis of invisibility

RRII_self PortraitAs Hollywood struggles with its crisis of inclusion and invisibility, we sat down with two-time Academy Award Winning Sound mixer Russell Williams II to talk about the challenge of diversity in front of and behind the camera in the entertainment business. Williams, who has worked on more than 50 films since 1976, won back to back Oscars for his work on Glory and Dances With Wolves. He is now teaching the next generation of Hollywood hopefuls as a distinguished Artist in Residence at American University.

In a wide-ranging interview, Williams discussed the #Oscar-STILL-so-white hashtag, the difficulty in finding financing for films that explore diverse cultures or points of view, the changing technology in sound mixing and post production and The Academy’s tendency to reward safe or more predictable story lines over films that push the envelope in terms of storyline, concept, casting or point of view. While he applauds the discussion and call to action sparked by the #OscarSoWhite hashtags, Williams laments that the passion around the twitter shaming of Hollywood is not matched by an equally passionate commitment to support diverse films at the box office. Too many films with diverse casts or diverse directors and backers are under performing at the box office, he says. That has a compound impact when it comes to award season because studios tend to put their most robust PR efforts behind films that performed well at the box office or received widespread critical buzz.

As a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Williams was able to provide some behind-the-scenes insight on how members are chosen and how votes are tallied. And as someone who has been in the room where it happens, Williams advises anyone who is ever so fortunate as to receive a nomination to have prepared remarks. You just never know.

AUDITIONING SOUNDSnw Samuel LWhat you see in a film is obviously important but what you hear transports you the baseball diamond in rural Iowa, or the open plain where herds of buffalo roam or the wooded ravine where black Union soldiers calm their fears with prayer and song as they prepare to march to battle. That unforgettable scene where the soldiers clap their hands and sing the spiritual “Oh My Lord” is where you can see the handiwork that earned Williams the Oscar. The singing was not in the original script. He had to improvise on the spot to provide the background track and make sure it would mesh with the voices and the hand claps and the night noise on the shoot. The end result has an ever-so-slight imperfection that only a highly trained ear can detect. When Williams heard it, he felt pride. Because the sound gathered on the shoot that night was so rich and so real and so riveting that they did not smooth out the edges in post production. It was just that good.

williams_tout2So where does Russell Williams II keep his two oscars? Williams said “They are the property of the Smithsonian.” Both have been donated to the National Museum for African American History and Culture. He is looking forward to seeing his two “babies” again when the museum opens in the fall. Williams grew up in Southeast Washington DC and never dreamed that people who looked like him worked behind the scenes in Hollywood until he saw “In the Heat of The Night’. He was wowed by Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger but what really floored him was realizing that Quincy Jones did the soundtrack. He says it was a life changing moment. Thousands of children will trek past his statues at the museum. Perhaps, a few will be inspired to follow his path.

As is our tradition at The Race Card Project, we ask people to distill their thoughts on race and identity in to once sentence with just six words.

Williams offered his:
Don’t Grade Me On A Curve

Video shot by: John Ledbetter – Sunchase Media
Photos Courtesy of Russell Williams II