Can we talk about the Oscars intelligently?

January 21, 2016
Photo: Academy Awards courtesy image

The 2015 Oscar nominations will go down as perhaps the most controversial in the 88-year history of the Association of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. They were announced Jan. 14 at 5:35 a.m. on the West Coast, and soon after the realization dawned that, for the second year in a row, the 6,000 or so Academy members had not seen fit to find a single performance by a black, Hispanic, or Asian performer worthy of inclusion in the four acting categories—a total of 20 nominees.

“If last year’s minority-free acting nominations led to the protest hashtag #OscarsSoWhite,” wrote the Hollywood Reporter, “this year’s all-white lineup is sure to trigger a fresh expression of outrage, #OscarsStillSoWhite.”

This week, the opposition is coalescing around calls for a boycott. The actor Jada Pinkett Smith, also the wife of actor Will Smith, said she would not attend the ceremony. Then came a blast from filmmaker Spike Lee, who released a statement, which read in part:

For The 2nd Consecutive Year All 20 Contenders Under The Actor Category Are White? And Let’s Not Even Get Into The Other Branches. 40 White Actors In 2 Years And No Flava At All. We Can’t Act?! WTF!!

The lack of diversity in the nominations is undeniable, as is the Academy’s long history of adoration toward the white male.

All that said, an intelligent discussion of the issue was made much more difficult by a curious exclusion from just about all of the media coverage. The Academy Awards have actually greatly improved their recognition of minority actors.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

In fact, in recent years, their representation, while not exemplary, has climbed into the realm of the respectable.

In the 15 years of nominations from 2001 on, there have been precisely 300 acting nominations (20 per year, times 15 years.)

In those years, by my count there have been 29 nominations for black actors, almost 10 percent. The US black population overall is a bit less than 15 percent, but note that the total for black performers includes both African Americans and blacks from the UK and other countries.

That’s just the number of black performers. Throw in other groups of color, including Hispanics and Asians, and that ups the count by another 16, for a total of exactly 15 percent. (That’s including Spanish actors like Javier Bardem, and Ben Kingsley, who is half Indian.)

Now, the US is about two-thirds white these days, and thus one third minority. Fifteen percent is but half of one-third, but it’s not insignificant either. At minimum it’s a figure worth mentioning.

But most news coverage, however fact-based —like this detailed Associated Press story on the boycott calls—focuses on the last two years and doesn’t put the Academy’s overall record in context. Here’s an in-depth Los Angeles Times story that doesn’t mention it either. So contrary is the Academy’s actual nomination history to the current discussion that even when it is mentioned, as in this conversation among New York Times film critics, it is cited—and then ignored.

So what happened the last two nomination cycles?

A number of factors go into the balloting, not all of which are necessarily attributable to racist attitudes on the part of Hollywood.

The film community is generally considered to be a bastion of liberal sensibility. The movies that are made, however, represent not that sensibility but the buying demands of its audience. If superhero movies and franchises based on baby boomer toys didn’t do well at the box office, the industry wouldn’t make them. And with some rare exceptions, movies based on the black or brown experience don’t perform particularly well, so not that many are made.

And given the institutional racism present in all parts of American life, this previous track record is used as a self-fulfilling prophecy going forward, while white-oriented movies that don’t perform well of course aren’t held to the same standards.

In that context, it is striking that the voters of the Academy in the last few decades have moved away from mainstream crowd-pleasers. In the 1990s it was typical for blockbusters like Forrest Gump and Titanic to run away with top honors.

Things are different now. In what is considered a watershed moment in Oscar history, the director of Titanic, James Cameron, in 2012 came to the ceremony with Avatar, a spectacular film that broke Titanic’s box office records. He faced off against a movie called The Hurt Locker, which had made just $17 million, or a fraction of one percent of what Avatar pulled in.

The Hurt Locker won, and remains the best picture winner with the lowest all-time box office gross. (Adding to the sting, it was directed by Cameron’s ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow.) 

The Academy’s switch to awarding most of its nominations to movies that don’t make a lot of money opened the door to the increase, over the last 15 years, in minority performers, as art films and those with more modest designs began elbowing aside slick commercial entertainments.

In 2008, Slumdog Millionaire, a film about a poor Indian boy, won best picture. Two years ago, 12 Years a Slave, the devastating portrayal of the lives of slaves in the pre-Civil War south, dominated the awards, winning best picture* for director Steve McQueen, and best adapted screenplay for John Ridley, both of whom are black.

That puts the state of the nominations in context. What about the specific complaints about snubs to black performers in the last couple of years? 

Last year critics focused on Selma, which was directed by Ava DuVernay, an African American woman, and got adulatory reviews, but did not receive a best director nomination. This year the Academy’s nominations drew howls of complaint, from everyone to the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah to Variety’s awards editor Tim Gray who wrote:

Creed was written and directed by the black Ryan Coogler and starred a black man, but the only nominee was a white man. Straight Outta Compton had a great acting ensemble of mostly young, black unknowns, and was directed by the black F. Gary Gray. But the film’s only nomination: for its screenplay, written by two Caucasians…

Surprising omissions from the actor race this year included Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation, Will Smith for Concussion, Michael B. Jordan from Creed and the many young actors in Compton.

Some of these criticisms are valid, but some aren’t. Will Smith, for example, has been nominated for best actor twice. It’s hard to see how he is an example of racism in the film industry. He was in a film that got a mixed reception and just didn’t get a nomination this year. As for Straight Outta Compton, few reviews singled out the acting.

And Selma got very good reviews in 2015, but if I can put a critic’s hat on, I suspect that the members of the academy’s directors branch, which makes the direction nominations, felt that Selma, while powerful in many respects, did not have the technical polish other films had.

The director’s world is a boy’s club, of course: Only two women were nominated for best director in the first six decades of the awards. But here again, things are getting better: There have been two more nominations just since 2000: Bigelow and Sofia Coppola. (And Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which she produced and directed, was nominated for best picture.) 

Selma was actually nominated for best picture, too—and won for best song—so complaints about the lack of other nominations seem a bit churlish.

The lesson here is that Hollywood is sometimes more complicated than its public portrayal. A case in point is the media frenzy that went on last year over the actress Jennifer Lawrence and the varying pay given to the male and female actors in the film American Hustle. Lawrence wrote a thoughtful essay about women, pay, and Hollywood; but after the piece went viral, her nuances were lost. Unnoticed was a report by Variety‘s Peter Bart, who, citing sources in the production, revealed that Lawrence worked on the film less than half as many days as the male stars—and that they had generously each given up part of their back-end “points” on the film to ensure that she would join the production.

That’s not to say that Lawrence wasn’t right or that women aren’t often paid less in Hollywood, just that the details can make the picture more complicated.

Finally, a point that has been noted in much of the coverage: The real scandal in Hollywood is the strictures—of many decade’s standing—that inhibit the rise of just about anyone other than white men in film-making’s ranks. Its liberal politics, while improving the representation of minorities in Oscar nominations,  has not led to diversity in the actual makeup of the industry; a minuscule percentage of top studio and filmmaking roles are held by women or non-white men.

That’s something for film critics to crusade about.

*Correction: This piece initially stated that McQueen received best director for ’12 Years A Slave’ when the winner was Alfonso Cuaron for ‘Gravity.’ CJR regrets the error.

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Follow him @hitsville.