OscarsSoWhite
Andrew Maclean sums it up.

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.

Michael B Jordan Creed
Race aside, it is some straight up BS that this guy received less votes than the utterly pitiful nominees for Best Lead Actor this year.

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).

 

Before you get too grouchy about the Oscar nominees this year, just remember: THIS
Before you get too grouchy about the Oscar nominees this year, just remember: THIS. THEY NOMINATED THIS RIGHT HERE.

 

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.

12 COMMENTS

  1. I took great issue with this last year because the only worthwhile black performer in any acting race was David Oyelowo and yes he was snubbed. But you know what? I reckon last years Best Actor race was a disgrace. Gyllenhaal, Spall and Fiennes all gave better performances than the five men nominated. They were snubbed too. People get snubbed.

    Yes it’s a shame that Straight Outta Compton missed a picture nod. But I’m just as sad for Inside Out, Ex Machina, Carol and The Hateful Eight. Straight Outta Compton got a screenplay nomination, and people are complaining that it shouldn’t count because the writers were all white. That’s horseshit. The screenplay was written by white people but the story was about NWA and you could feel Cube and Dre had influence on it. And it’s no mean feat getting that nod because they beat Quentin Tarantino to get there, among others.

    As for the acting, once again there’s not a lot of choice. I wasn’t a big fan of Elba’s performance. Will Smiths movie was received with a critical “eh”. The Compton cast probably all cancelled out, much like Spotlight at the start of the season. Abraham Attah was too young. Jamie Foxx, Viola Davis, Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker didn’t do anything big this year. Chiwetel Ejiofor was brilliant in all his movies but they were all small films//roles which struggle for attention. The same thing happened to John Cusack and Paul Dano in Love and Mercy. There are reasons that their films didn’t get nominations that have nothing to do with race.

    At the end of the day neither Beasts nor Concussion nor Compton was a force at the Oscars. Black Mass wasn’t a force and so Depp missed out. The Revenant was a force so Hardy got in. Films they love get big love. It’s how they work.

    You can’t blame racism unless Concussion won 10 oscars but wasn’t nominated for Will Smith. Racism is alive in Hollywood – see people who violently protest a black James Bond or Hermione, people who boycott Episode 7 of Star Wars because John Boyega is the lead, or people who omit Ejiofor from a poster on 12 Years a Slace for Brad Pitt who had a 10 minute cameo. But don’t let cries of racism taint the Oscars. It’s the “best” performances, not the “most suitable”. Nominating a black performer because they’re black is no different to nominating an old actor because they might die soon. I’d have gone on the record devastated if Mark Ruffalo or Sly Stallone had missed a nomination because the PC police had to give a token nomination to Idris Elba.

    Personally I’m more disappointed that all the actresses are gorgeous save for Charlotte Rampling. How many non gorgeous Best Actresses can you name (with a caveat being they were gorgeous at some point i.e. Streep and Mirren)? In the last 25 years, Kathy Bates is the only one that jumps to mind (depends on your view of Frances McDormand). The fact that Jennifer Lawrence got in over Lily Tomlin and Maggie Smith speaks to that. But no one starts that conversation. Instead we waste time on this one.

    • I hate the term “PC Police” because it’s almost always employed by bigoted douchebags and I think you’re better than that, but I hear you otherwise. In fact, I addressed almost all of your points in this very article. I obviously don’t believe there should be a racial “quota” either but I think you’re missing the forest for the trees, here. It’s not about who specifically was worthy of what, and I wouldn’t trade Sylvester Stallone’s or Charlotte Rampling’s (you don’t think she’s gorgeous?!) nominations for the world. This is about a general trend. Are you saying of the five best male lead performances, five best female lead performances, five best supporting male performances and five best female supporting performances, you can’t think of at least *one* that was given by a non-white performer? Not a single one? I mean, I’m sure it could apply to an odd year every now and then, but especially in this day and age it automatically strikes me as suspicious.

      Or how about this: there has never been an Asian Best Lead Actress or Lead Actor nominee ever. Do you really think that in the entire history of cinema, not *one* Asian actor has given a lead performance worthy of the Academy’s attention? Not one from Toshirō Mifune or Machiko Kyō or Takashi Shimura or Gong Li or Michelle Yeoh or… you get the idea. Again, I’m not talking about specific actors and performers, I’m talking about the big picture of what AMPAS chooses to highlight annually.

      And I don’t know where you’ve been hanging out where you think Academy ageism toward its actresses hasn’t been discussed many, many times. I’ve certainly brought it up often on Awards Circuit and I know I’m not alone among internet film writers. It seems awfully unreasonable to imply that one has to choose one or the other issue worthy of discussion.

      • Yeah I honestly can’t include a black performance in my top 5 in any category. My ballot for ACCA 2015 was all white. It comes down to not loving Beasts of No Nation or Concussion. I think Attah, Jordan and the Compton boys were all brilliant but their films had other things holding them back. However, my ballot did have Coogler and F. Gary Gray for director both in the mix. That’s where I’m at. This year is less forgivable than last year, where Oyelowo was the only performance snubbed, but I’m still not going to complain unless we get something along the lines of an alternate universe where Whitaker gets snubbed so they can throw Greg Kinnear a bone for Little Miss Sunshine, or where Bale steals Ejiofor’s spot instead of Hanks’.

        I completely agree about the whole idea of black actors having to play black characters. Honestly, look back through all the black Oscar winners and see if you can spot any who could’ve been swapped to white actors without changing the story. Denzel for Training Day is the only one that works, because the rest played real life people, slaves, maids, etc.

        I am with you on the Asian thing, I think Lucy Liu was absolutely nomination worthy for Kill Bill.

        Yeah I’m not saying that I’m the only person complaining about ageism. I just think its worse. Honestly, I was cross that of the 5 slots, Smith Rampling Danner and Tomlin all had to compete for one, an “old person” quota if you will.

        • One more point I want to make: if you honestly believe there were no other notable performances from non-white actors in 2014 except Oyelowo, I *highly* recommend you rent Beyond the Lights.

          • I didn’t mean there weren’t any good performances, I meant there weren’t any awards force performances. Tyler Perry in Gone Girl was one of my favourite supporting turns last year, and Adewale Akkinouye-Agdabe (please forgive me) stole Pompeii completely

    • You managed to hit it on the head Luke. I couldn’t agree more with most everything you said. To pin this on a “Oscars are racist” theme isn’t really relevant. The fact is that there was only 1 African American probable that got snubbed, and that’s Elba. There wasn’t much else getting any attention, which Hamer acknowledges in the article fairly.

      I personally have no issue this year because I’m just as guilty in my own personal nominations for ACCA. Outside of Jordan and Coogler (and Creed, if that counts as a “black film”) I have no minorities nominated. I don’t think that makes me a racist. I just feel that there wasnt much else that deserved anything.

  2. Really great article. It’s especially annoying this year with having one of the worst Best Actor lineup I’ve ever seen and I can think of six or seven black leading men who would have been better than any of them.

  3. I think it’s a shame that no actors of color were nominated. However, when it comes to the snub of Straight Outta Compton, Creed, or Beasts of No Nation for Best Picture, I don’t really think it’s the Academy’s fault entirely. They all had their work cut out for them. Like Robert Hamer pointed out, the studios had a lot to do with it as well.

    Straight Outta Compton got killed by the way Academy members must vote for Best Picture. You’re only allowed to vote for 5 films. And really, while Straight Outta Compton is a universally liked, there isn’t a large number of people who LOVED it. You can even tell from the critic’s top 10 lists. If Straight Outta Compton even made any list, it was usually in the bottom half. Even the reviews don’t scream enthusiasm for it. All of the Best Picture nominees have a Metacritic score of at least an 80, while Compton is down at 72. If we were back to the voting rules that made the 2009 and 2010 Best Picture lineup so great, then Compton would have probably got in.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t feel like Warner Bros. pushed all that much for Creed in the awards campaign. Surely it surprised everyone that Creed turned out as good as it was. But they couldn’t promote both Creed and Mad Max?

    And I think Beasts of No Nation just suffered from the Netflix thing. That movie has an Oscar prestige to it like Carol and The Revenant. Had it been able to screen in more theaters and build buzz from it’s box office, then maybe it could have worked? I could be wrong. I just feel like Beasts of No Nation felt like an Oscar movie, and Netflix was the only thing that was in it’s way.

  4. Just because someone says #OscarsSoWhite does not mean they are advocating a racial quota or some sort of Academy affirmative action. This is deeper than that. It’s about the systemic inequalities of the entire industry; that black actors aren’t being nominated is a manifestation of this. So, yes, Oscars are so White because Academy voters are overwhelmingly old white guys who do not as Robert astutely observes, “represent modern tastes, changing industry demographics, or forward-thinking films.”

    It’s abhorrent to say that there’s no race problem when an overwhelmingly white electorate says that not one single black performance — not one — can crack the Top 20 in film. White power players making decisions about “merit” with respect to African Americans have stained our country’s history to justify racist policies; that cannot be denied. Admittedly, whatever inequalities are manifest in AMPAS do not rise to the level of say all-white southern juries summarily convicting black defendants in the 1930s, but to say that the Academy is race blind is outrageous. Sure, they may not be overtly racist, but let’s not kid ourselves and think that race is playing no part in their decision making at all.

    And it’s downright disrespectful to say movies like Straight Outta Compton should be happy simply to have scored an Original Screenplay nomination. That reeks of racial tokenism. It’s even more egregious when SOC has received countless accolades by other organizations not named AMPAS (e.g. PGA, SAG, AFI Top 10, BFCA).

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. Although, I DO believe the academy is primarily made-up of individuals who hold the establishment back from forward movement. If this were not the case, the statistics for non-white actors, directors, writers etc, would be far better than what they are… Which is appalling. If the last two years tell us anything, it’s that it could take decades before a small to medium sized dent is put into the aforementioned statistics. A way to fix the problem would be to increase the number of annual invites send to non-white individuals. This would change the demographic of the voting body quicker, and enable results to be seen in a short time span. However, they would never do that, because they are all about keeping long-standing traditions and all-important prestige. Increasing the number of invites to non-white individuals would take away the exclusive nature of the academy. This in-turn would take away a fair bit of their prestige. And by taking away a fair of their prestige, it is possible they would no longer be viewed as the definitive voice in the industry. And that is something they would never want to happen. I guess they are more interested in keeping up appearances than actually fixing the problems within the organization. I think Robert’s idea could work, but I can see the voters complaining (similar to the online voting fiasco), so much so, that lifetime memberships would be reinstated. In the end it seems we’re destined to play the waiting game. Wait for the demographic of the voting to change. I am guessing by 2026 Oscars things may look a lot different.

  6. 1) Of the possible contenders you mentioned, only Idris Elba was expected to get nominated. It’s not that the award ceremonies you mentioned don’t matter, but most of them aren’t the best forecasters.
    2) The main problem with discussing award snubs is that people indirectly insult the actual nominees (“[Blank] deserved to be nominated? So I don’t deserve it?”). You directly insulted them. That’s not cool. It’s OK if you didn’t like THE DANISH GIRL, but don’t say it like your opinion is a fact.
    3) “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.” What is your complain here? That they’re racists? That they’re not racists but instead choose the same person they did last year? That they’re the “I’m so worried about being P.C. that I’ll end up accidentally acting like an ignorant anyway” type of racists so they nominate based on diversity? I’m sorry, but it feels like you’re reaching for straws here.
    4) “They had not gone with an all-white lineup of acting nominees since 1996.” So they spent almost 20 years nominating people of all races and then they just happened to nominate only whites 2 years in a row. That makes them racists?
    5) “There’s also the very encouraging fact that the last three Best Director recipients were non-white filmmakers.” “Four out of the ten screenplays nominated for Oscars this year are written (or co-written) by women.” Now you admit that they’re not racists or sexists. Phew!
    6) “The Academy will never ever represent modern tastes.” Now I seriously think you haven’t read the Best Picture winners and nominees from this or any year.
    7) You’re right about movies starring women and minorities not being box office poison… but some of your examples don’t apply. CREED, FURIOUS 7, MAD MAX 4, CINDERELLA, 50 SHADES OF GREY and STAR WARS VII are sequels and adaptations of previously successful works. So are ENTOURAGE (which flopped anyway) and PITCH PERFECT 2 (that IS a good example since PITCH PERFECT 1 also had a mostly female cast). It’s hard to say on STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, since it had an original screenplay based on the lives of popular people.
    8) “It got there solely because of the accolades it received by critics and cinephiles like us.” Really? So it’s not because MAD MAX 4 is a well-made movie?

    • “…but don’t say it like your opinion is a fact.”

      You see that? That right there makes it impossible for me to take anything else you say seriously. You’re not a baby. I’m not going to coddle anyone by constantly reminding them of something that should be obvious to any thinking adult. I’m not going to clutter every sentence I type with “IN MY OPINION.”

      And I never accused the Academy of being racist. If you bothered to read the article instead of just cherry-picking quotes to troll me, you would know that.

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