If memory serves me right, the conclusion we all came to last year with #OscarsSoWhite – when the Academy’s nominees for Best Performance by an Actor/Actress in a Lead/Supporting-If-We-Feel-Like-It Role were released and were made up of only white actors and actresses – was that it wasn’t necessarily the voters’ fault this time. The only performance from a minority in 2014 that really broke big out on the awards beat was David Oyelowo’s as Dr. King in Selma (hardly the only truly worthy performance, but whatever) . And since that film did receive a Best Picture nomination, the real problem, it seemed, was with the filmmaking industry not giving people of color better roles and more opportunities.
One year later, and for the second consecutive time, all twenty of the “best” performances chosen by the Academy are white people. The only difference is “Well, you can’t blame them because there weren’t very many notable performances from minorities last year to choose from!” doesn’t cut it this time. Not when 2015 saw such significant publicity and recognition for the acting of Abraham Attah (NBR’s Breakthrough Performance) and Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation (Golden Globe, SAG, and BAFTA nominee for Best Supporting Actor), Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina (Florida Film Critics Circle and Online Film Critics Circle’s Best Supporting Actor), Michael B. Jordan in Creed (winner of the BOFCA and NSFC Award for Best Actor), Mya Taylor in Tangerine (the San Francisco Film Critics Circle’s Best Supporting Actress), Benicio Del Toro in Sicario (BAFTA nominee for Best Supporting Actor) and three excellent lead performances from Straight Outta Compton. While it would be silly of me or anyone to insist every single one of these people absolutely without question deserved Academy recognition, for them to enjoy the kind of positive reception for the work they did last year and not one of them successfully made headway with the over 5,000 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences…now it looks less like an unfortunate one-time lapse and more like a Problem.
Unlike 2014, last year was chock-full of strong acting work from non-white actors and actresses. And by the way, we’re just narrowly focused on actors and race right now. We could expand to sexual orientation, and how an LGBT movie directed by a gay man that doesn’t end in the typical death or heartbreak missed the top nominations. Or how the Academy decided to spotlight a dull Oscar-baiting film with an offensively poor approximation of a trans woman over considering a film starring actual trans women. Or how Straight Outta Compton’s messy screenplay from an all-white writing team was nominated, but the film itself, directed, produced and shot by non-white professionals was ignored everywhere else. Alejandro G. Iñárritu was recognized again, I suppose, but it’s a cold comfort to see them just going back to one of their old favorites as a sign of “diversity” rather than looking to recognize new artists.
So what gives? It’s not like the Academy has a habit of doing this. After all, until the 87th Academy Award nominees had been announced, they had not gone with an all-white lineup of acting nominees since 1996. There’s an argument I’ve heard that previous non-white nominees/winners made it because they played the “right” roles to appeal to a conservative, older white voting base: slaves, Somali pirates, illegal immigrants, maids, impoverished raped illiterate teenagers with HIV, sassy mommas, African dictators, divas, pimps, etc. I resist that accusation, mainly because it belittles the accomplishments of all those previous nominees (plus, Idris Elba’s role in Beasts of No Nation doesn’t exactly challenge this notion if you really buy into it). There’s also the very encouraging fact that the last three Best Director recipients were non-white filmmakers.
But what those movies and performances all had were strong, dedicated publicity campaigns working to secure votes from a group of people who just aren’t as proactive in seeking out essential films as they should be (as this recent tweet from Scott Feinberg so depressingly illustrates). Reports are coming in that there was never a lot of confidence in Straight Outta Compton, Netflix had no idea how to campaign for their first exclusive feature film, and by the time New Line realized Creed could be in play for more than just Best Supporting Actor, it was too late. So the problem is really twofold: one is that studios did not believe in these films and performances enough to put their money, effort and time into getting them recognized, and the second is that the voting base of the Academy has become so bloated and apathetic to their responsibility as voters (and it is a responsibility, make no mistake) that the membership criteria needs serious reform.
I have long believed AMPAS’s lifetime memberships are a huge mistake that explains so many of their problems. The Academy will never ever represent modern tastes, changing industry demographics, or forward-thinking films if their members can vote well after retirement and into their eighties and nineties. And if you think I’m being too harsh, just look up past “Brutally Honest Oscar Voter” articles and notice how many of them sound like your grouchy, out-of-touch grandfather. The Academy needs to cull their voting members, dramatically and mercilessly. They need to be more proactive in admitting more black, Hispanic, Asian, women and LGBT members in their ranks. And most importantly, they need to limit those memberships and have them expire after a certain number of years, so for someone to stay a member, they have to re-apply and prove that they are still active and contributing to the industry.
Studio executives need to have more confidence in these movies and put substantial effort behind them from now on. “Women and minorities don’t make money at the box office” is no longer an even remotely acceptable excuse anymore. Last year alone, audiences flocked to see Creed, Straight Outta Compton, Spy, Furious 7, Mad Max: Fury Road, Pitch Perfect 2, Trainwreck, Cinderella, and Fifty Shades of Grey (I guarantee you no one suggested white men are box office poison after Entourage tanked). Oh, and let’s not forget Star Wars: The Force Awakens, starring an unknown British woman, a black man, and a Guatemalan sex symbol has recently become the highest grossing film of all time (surpassing a White Savior Fantasy as icing on the cake!). So mainstream moviegoers clearly “get it.” It is no longer acceptable to present a movie about an affluent white guy’s self-absorbed angst as something “universal” while, for example, a film about an issue affecting millions of Americans or something that millions of women have gone through are seen as only attracting a “niche” audience.
Critics need to practice what they preach and recognize more diverse films and performances as well if they are going to chastise the Academy for failing to do so. As Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience shrewdly observes, it is more than a little hypocritical for critics to get on their high horse over the lack of non-whites or women being recognized if they also only handed out their awards to white men (the article linked is about a lot more than just that, though; go read the whole thing).
But despite all of this, never forget things are getting better! Besides the aforementioned recent Best Director winners, four out of the ten screenplays nominated for Oscars this year are written (or co-written) by women. Not only did an ingenious and energetic sci-fi action epic garner a whopping ten nominations including Best Picture and Director, but it’s an action film with feminist themes and characters, and it got there solely because of the accolades it received by critics and cinephiles like us. That’s great! But we need to keep drawing attention to the issues that continue to mar the Academy when they pop up. No matter how many times we hear otherwise, they matter. Not in terms of recognizing the actual “best” film achievements of course, but as a cultural touchstone that reveals what the industry thought of itself at the time. None of the Academy voters got together and intentionally shut out minority performances; there simply wasn’t enough awareness of ingrained cultural and racial biases among voters to make a difference this time. The only way to reverse that is to speak up, and set the example ourselves.