The nominations for the 88th Academy Awards were announced Thursday morning, with eight films being nominated for Best Picture out of a possible ten slots. The Leonardo DiCaprio frontier-revenge film The Revenant was nominated for 12 Oscars in total and the post-apocalyptic thrill-ride Mad Max: Fury Road was second with 10 nominations. The other six films nominated were The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Room, Spotlight, Brooklyn, and The Martian.
While Mad Max: Fury Road revived that franchise in the best way possible, the Oscars have made an unfortunate sequel to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite by not nominating any black films for the top Oscars in acting, directing, and Best Picture. To be fair, The Revenant is directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, so there is at least a minority director of a film involving Native Americans. Also, Selma was nominated in 2015 for Best Picture and won the Oscar for Best Original Song with “Glory”, which had one of the greatest performances of a nominated song in Oscar history (it brought men both black and white to tears).
However, David Oyelowo was snubbed for his portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr., leaving all the acting nominations to white actors, as deserving as those performances were, for the first time in twenty years, the genesis of the first #OscarsSoWhite. This year, the same thing happened again: all the acting nominations have gone to white actors, marking the first such consecutive years since a six-year stretch from 1975-1980 where no non-white actors received nominations. This year there isn’t even Straight Outta Compton to add a little color to the Best Picture category.
Part of the issue here is the voting bloc of the Academy which, according to an NPR report in the lead-up to the 87th Oscars, is “an exclusive club that is 93 percent white, 76 percent male, with an average age of 63.” Obviously, a film like Straight Outta Compton is not going to be in their wheelhouse, which is an indictment of the Academy and not the film; it did get nominated for Original Screenplay (well-deserved), as written by white people Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman.
Full disclosure: my history with rap music is not that strong and I’m only coming around to liking certain rap music and that has to do a lot with this film. F. Gary Gray’s film about the rise of the rap group NWA in the 1980s is an impressive film that made me enjoy watching the early days of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, fear the psychopathic Suge Knight, and care about the rise and fall of Eazy-E. More importantly, its reflection on contemporary issues of police brutality and urban life set to the backdrop of 1980s Los Angeles (which exploded with the Rodney King riots in 1992) shows the true soul of hip-hop and takes a snapshot of America, both then and in 2015, and it’s not a picture America should hang on the wall with pride.
Social-relevance is normally a calling-card of Oscar-nominated films and the fact that it’s an exceptionally well-made biopic (another flavor of Oscar porn) should’ve made it a shoe-in for a Best Picture nomination. They had two extra slots to play with and they should’ve used them. The rule of the Academy voting process, though, is that films have to get at least 5% of first-place votes to be nominated; whether that’s an example of the casual racism of the Academy, differences in taste, or of their own laziness, we don’t know.
The bigger issue is that the number of black films made is severely outnumbered by the number of white films. For the purposes of this article, a “Black film” is a film that has a Black male and/or female lead/co-lead (if it’s a pretty even ensemble of characters, even third- or fourth-billing would work) and/or are directed and/or written by a Black person.
In the last 5 years (since the beginning of 2011) there have been at least 1,100 American films released (it’s difficult to find an exact number and that is the low-end of what I found), including documentaries and animated films. Out of all that, 11.3% (about 125 out of 1100) are “Black films”, and that’s an overestimation considering there have been more than 1,100 films released in the last 5 years.
If we narrow that number of 125 down by subject matter to films that are specifically about black characters, whether it’s a silly Kevin Hart comedy like Ride Along or a film dealing with issues within the black community such as Straight Outta Compton, it get’s cut down to about 4.5%, once again an overestimation. That sounds crazy, right?
The issue here is a disparity of representation and opportunity between white filmmakers and minority filmmakers. I’m not saying that there should be a perfect 1:1 ratio in terms of white:(insert minority here) film and not every film should be injected with social commentary on issues within any community. Most people go to the movies as a form of entertainment to escape from their lives and there’s nothing wrong with that. But movies and art can, and often should, do more than just entertain. Films are a representation of a character’s experience and if an audience member can see something like their own life or someone like them on the big screen, it’s going to be a more impactful film. The best way to do that is through a diversity of voices.
If a film like Selma can serve as an inspiration to a young Black girl who wants to make movies like Ava Duvernay, or if Javier Bardem can inspire a Hispanic boy to go out and try acting, that’s special. The simplest way to achieve this is by casting actors and choosing directors, screenwriters, and other parts of the filmmaking machine that represent the audience, especially those who are underrepresented in the film industry and in America as a whole, whether they are Black, Hispanic, Asian, etc., in important roles.
Another benefit of increasing minority presence in films: money. In television, the shows that have a higher percentage of minorities in the cast and crew have higher ratings. It would make sense that the same would happen to box office totals if the same practices were used in cinema. By having a more diverse set of voices contributing to the film catalog from both the production and the audience, you can diminish the use of racial stereotypes in films, which perpetuates the vicious cycle that we’re currently in. The process of employing people of color and awarding their performances still needs to be a meritocracy but institutionalized racism in the industry has created a lack of opportunity that perpetuates itself to this day.
Which leads us back to the original reason for #OscarsSoWhite. The Academy screwed up last year by not nominating David Oyelowo for Best Actor for his portrayal of an American icon. Carmen Ejogo could’ve easily been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for playing Coretta Scott King, his wife. This year they would’ve had to pick from…Will Smith in Concussion? He was nominated for a Golden Globe…when there were 10 slots for Best Actor. It is the only movie that is classically worthy of Oscar consideration that has an “Oscar worthy” performance (mixed reviews, zero nominations). Michael B. Jordan could’ve been nominated for his role in Creed but he hasn’t been nominated for any other major awards like the Golden Globes or the BAFTAs, a solid barometer for Academy Award nominations. Idris Elba has gotten rave reviews for his performance in Beasts of No Nation but he’s on a platform that many of the older Academy members may not know how to use: Netflix.
Greater representation and greater opportunity would make this decision much more complex. It would be a lot easier for great performances by Black men, Hispanic women, or whomever, from being lost in the shuffle of white cards if there were more colored cards in the deck.
But hey, at least Chris Rock is hosting the Oscars this year. Shit’s about to get real!
The 88th Academy Awards will air on Sunday, February 28th, on ABC, with the Red Carpet Show at 7pm Eastern/4pm Pacific, and the Awards Ceremony beginning at 8pm Eastern/5pm Pacific.