Pretty Much Only White People Got Oscar Nominations. Again.
Maybe you don’t care who gets nominated for the Academy Awards. I don’t blame you. I love movies, and spent the first three-quarters of my life obsessing about this weird pageant of self-appraisal and mawkish mourning, and even I’ve struggled in recent years to give the scantest of shits about who wins what. At its best, the Oscars offer the opportunity to reward the efforts of hard-working performers and creators; shine a spotlight on stellar but hardly blockbuster-sized releases (like, you know, Spotlight); and provide a context for the State of the Art. At its worst, it’s a cynical political campaign in which actors who’ve spent months shaking hands and enduring press interviews feign surprise at winning, and in which movies like Driving Miss Daisy are rewarded. I always watch the telecast, but halfway through, I usually wish I can tap out and have Sacheen Littlefeather take my place.
Still, even if you haven’t paid much attention to this morning’s nominations, you should, because the Academy Awards aren’t just Hollywood’s song to itself—they’re a pop-cultural status-update on where we are as a society, one that’s broadcast to the rest of the world. Last year, nearly 37 million people watched the Oscars telecast, and that’s just in the US alone. No matter how many see this year, the message sent by today’s nominees will be loud and clear: White people: We still got it!
Scan that list of names, and you’ll see why you might as well go ahead and make a keyboard shortcut to bring back last year’s #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. Mexican-born director Alejandro G. Iñárritu wound up with a Best Director nomination, but in the 2015 acting categories—all four of ‘em, a total of 20 slots—there wasn’t a single person of color. That’s despite several high-profile potential nominees, some of which had already been factors in this year’s other contests: Michael B. Jordan in Creed; Will Smith in Concussion; Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation; Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful Eight; Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina; and Benecio del Toro in Sicario. Oh, and don’t forget about Tessa Thompson in Creed. Or Jason Mitchell in Straight Outta Compton. Or Zoe Saldana in Infinitely Polar Bear. Or Jada Pinkett-Smith in Magic Mike XXL. Or Mya Taylor in Tangerine…
Maybe some of these names were total long-shots; maybe some of them were just a few votes shy of a nomination. Either way, we’ll never know: The Academy is a literal and figurative star chamber, where ballots are kept secret, and where the membership is overwhelmingly white and male. This, by the way, might also explain why women, as usual, felt underrepresented this year. There were no female directing nominees, and just four female screenwriting nominees. But then, Hollywood’s got so dismal a record with gender equality that the federal government is looking into it.
That this year’s lot of contenders is so overwhelmingly white doesn’t just feel exclusionary—it feels like a wildly screwy misinterpretation of the last 12 months of movie-going. The big studio releases still favor white stories (and white storytellers) by a huge margin, but 2015 proved that diversity can pay dividends. Two of the biggest movies of the year (F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton and Ryan Coogler’s Creed) were four-quadrant pleasers directed by black filmmakers and featuring predominantly black casts, each earning more than $100 million in the US. The Fast and Furious franchise, perhaps the most racially egalitarian film series ever, hit a new record when Furious 7 brought in $1 billion worldwide. And the Star Wars saga was re-imagined and re-energized for new and younger viewers in part by the additions of John Boyega and Oscar Isaac to The Force Awakens.
Yet when the Oscars air next month, and the nominees’ names are announced—their poker-faced expressions trapped in those cruelly tiny little on-screen boxes—they’ll all be white. And hey, look—these are, by and by, some pretty great white people! Have you seen Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn? Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight? Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs? Great performances, all of ‘em. If I still had a rooting interest in this thing, I’d be whooping it up if/when they happened to win.
Still, their faces aren’t the only ones we see at the movies—whether we’re looking at the screen, or at the people sitting around us at the theater. No one expects the Oscar voters to make up for all the systemic failures (both in Hollywood, and in society in general) that have made it difficult for non-white filmmakers and performers to get an equal share of screen time. But if movies reflect who we are, and if the Oscars are a reflection of that reflection, then the Academy members need to open their minds (and their ranks) to ensure that everyone’s story is being told. If the Oscars can do that—and shave 45 minutes off the telecast—maybe I’ll even start getting excited for them again.
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