Last year the Oscars were accused of ‘appalling’ racial bias, and this year the awards show has been accused of being even worse – but is it the Academy’s fault?
When David Oyelowo’s astounding performance as Martin Luther King in Selma wasn’t nominated for an Oscar last year, there was outrage among critics. How could the star of one of the year’s best reviewed films not receive a nomination? Even worse, neither his co-star nor the film’s director, both of whom were black, received a nomination.
The media immediately began debating whether it was possible that institutional racism in Hollywood was behind the snub, and the debacle sparked a long overdue discussion on diversity and representation in the film industry.
Unfortunately, once the awards were over and the red carpet rolled up, the media, like a hyperactive child, turned its attention to other issues, and the public’s anger surrounding the “whitest Oscars since 1998” abated.
Encouragingly though, the Academy took drastic action to change its image and invited 322 new members in an attempt to make this year’s nominations more diverse.
Disappointingly, however, it seems to have had no impact on the actual award nominations, and this year’s hopefuls are very white, indeed.
One of the year’s biggest critical hits, Creed, was expected to do well at the awards, but the film’s only nominee was Sylvester Stallone. Its director, Ryan Coogler, and the wonderfully charismatic lead, Michael B Jordan, who are both black, received no nominations.
Meanwhile, Straight Outta Compton featured a wonderful ensemble cast made up of mostly young, black, unknown actors and was directed by African-American, F. Gary Gray. But the film’s only nomination is for its screenplay, written by two white guys.
Surely this demonstrates that there’s something very wrong in the heart of Hollywood, but the question is, is it the Academy who’s to blame?
Twitter and the general public’s outrage has been focused on the big flashy categories of ‘Best Actor’ and ‘Best Director’, and some are extremely angry at the Academy – the body that decides the Oscar nominations – accusing them of institutionalised racism and tweeting the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
However, the problems over diversity run deeper than the Academy, instead it’s a problem with the Hollywood system as a whole.
It can’t be denied that the Academy are out of touch with the average movie-goer. In a recent interview with Variety, Gil Robertson, president of the African-American Film Critics Association, said he believed ‘there’s an ongoing disconnect with the Academy members’.
But even they, in their ivory tower of film criticism, are self-aware enough to realise that last year’s nominations made them look particularly bad. So they worked to correct that problem, and a number of black actors and directors who were snubbed are now members of the Academy. However, this is such a big issue, that as powerful as the Academy is, it can’t fix it alone.
As bad as it sounds, it’s easiest to break this down to simple numbers. This year the Academy considered 305 films for the ‘Best Picture’ award – let’s say that 45 of those were directed by black filmmakers. Statistically, it’s more likely that a white film maker will receive a nomination over a black film maker due to there being more white film makers to consider. The same is true in all categories, as minority actors appear in less films than white actors, therefore they’re less likely to receive as many nominations.
In fact we can apply this rather bleak model to the whole of film. As the majority of those working in film are straight white males, they are the most likely to receive nominations for movies. There’s a frustratingly simple way to fix this, and that’s by casting and involving more minorities and women in film – although this may be easier said than done.
In fact, at times it seems the industry is going backwards, and that’s because, at the end of the day, film making is a business. Unfortunately, film studios aren’t benevolent factories turning out films for the good of humanity and enriching the cultural narrative, they’re about turning a profit, and the idea of a female lead or a black main character can be scary, as unfortunate as that sounds. Traditionally, those films don’t make as much money as a film with a male white lead, although this trend has thankfully started to change in recent years.
The problem is that film studios are slow moving juggernauts who react at a snail’s pace to changes in audience preference.
Just look at the Chinese market, where they relegated John Boyega to the size of a postage stamp on the Star Wars poster, or Black Widow’s omission from the marketing of Avengers 2 because people don’t buy her toy. Film marketing is all about encouraging the movie to make as much money as possible.
Shockingly, things aren’t much better over here in the UK. David Oyelowo has claims he went to the U.S. after being ‘pushed out of the UK’ by a lack of opportunity. He also accused the UK creative industries of failing to nurture talent from non-white backgrounds, claiming that he had to work four times as hard as his friend, Benedict Cumberbatch, to get to a similar position.
This view that black actors can only succeed in the U.S. is one shared by the highly regarded actor, Idris Elba. He recently spoke to MPs about being forced to move to the U.S. because he feared that he’d eventually hit a ‘glass ceiling’ which all black actors hit in the UK. He also argued that he would never have been given a lead role if he stayed in Britain, where he would have been typecast as a ‘best friend’ or ‘cop sidekick’, and needed to move to the U.S. to be given the chance of a starring role.
In America, at least, things may be about to change for the better. At the Governors Awards in November, the Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is an African-American, announced the formation of A2020. This will be a five-year plan where studios and the Academy will work together to ensure that film makers and executives expand their thinking when hiring, mentoring and encouraging new talent.
It’s hoped that this will encourage diversity within the industry.
#OscarsSoWhite… Again. I Would Like To Thank President Cheryl Boone Isaacs And The Board Of Governors Of The Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences For Awarding Me an Honorary Oscar This Past November. I Am Most Appreciative. However My Wife, Mrs. Tonya Lewis Lee And I Will Not Be Attending The Oscar Ceremony This Coming February. We Cannot Support It And Mean No Disrespect To My Friends, Host Chris Rock and Producer Reggie Hudlin, President Isaacs And The Academy. But, How Is It Possible 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!! It’s No Coincidence I’m Writing This As We Celebrate The 30th Anniversary Of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday. Dr. King Said “There Comes A Time When One Must Take A Position That Is Neither Safe, Nor Politic, Nor Popular But He Must Take It Because Conscience Tells Him It’s Right”. For Too Many Years When The Oscars Nominations Are Revealed, My Office Phone Rings Off The Hook With The Media Asking Me My Opinion About The Lack Of African-Americans And This Year Was No Different. For Once, (Maybe) I Would Like The Media To Ask All The White Nominees And Studio Heads How They Feel About Another All White Ballot. If Someone Has Addressed This And I Missed It Then I Stand Mistaken. As I See It, The Academy Awards Is Not Where The “Real” Battle Is. It’s In The Executive Office Of The Hollywood Studios And TV And Cable Networks. This Is Where The Gate Keepers Decide What Gets Made And What Gets Jettisoned To “Turnaround” Or Scrap Heap. This Is What’s Important. The Gate Keepers. Those With “The Green Light” Vote. As The Great Actor Leslie Odom Jr. Sings And Dances In The Game Changing Broadway Musical HAMILTON, “I WANNA BE IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS”. People, The Truth Is We Ain’t In Those Rooms And Until Minorities Are, The Oscar Nominees Will Remain Lilly White. (Cont’d)
Critics, however, have claimed that a five year plan is too slow, but that’s not entirely true. Realistically, the film industry works at a glacially slow pace. Films are cast and productions begin years in advance of their actual release, so this five-year plan is actually surprisingly fast.
A number of black celebrities including Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith have claimed that they intend to boycott the Oscars, and you can’t blame them for their outrage. To be perfectly honest, the fact that in 2016, the Academy aren’t considering any black actors or directors is a joke.
However, boycotting and anger doesn’t address the root of the problem. We need more people of colour working in the film industry, not just to improve diversity, but because by allowing new people and experiences into the creative process, we can then experience a richer and more colourful variety of stories, as opposed to the same kind of films being churned out every year.