ONCE IS UNFORTUNATE,
TWICE IS A PROBLEM
The Academy Awards are the pinnacle achievement of feature films. There are plenty of other nights to commemorate excellent filmmaking – Critics Choice, Golden Globes, SAGs, Satellite and overseas AACTA and BAFTA – but nothing comes close to the Oscars.
But we have a problem and we need to talk about it. It’s not something can be swept under the rug or awkwardly pushed to the bottom of the news heap. There is a real issue of racial bias in the Academy’s voting caucus.
This caucus is built by six thousand respected members of the industry. This includes actors, directors, editors, cinematographers, producers, visual effects artists, composers and anybody else they choose to invite. It includes both men and women, straights and gays, African Americans, Hispanic, Asians, Caucasians and anybody else. There is no restriction who may join.
Each year the members of the Academy are asked to vote. This determines a short-list of nominees and the eventual winner.
The problem is that for the second year in a row none of the major category short-list’s include an actor of colour despite magnificent performances from Michael B Jordan, Will Smith and the Straight Outta Compton ensemble. None for Best Actor. None for Best Actress. None for Best Supporting Actor. None for Best Supporting Actress.
Now an objective person may look at this year’s results and conclude that on an individual level there’s not too much to worry about. That even though the Rocky spinoff Creed was a critical darling it’s lead did not do enough to surpass other veteran actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Bryan Cranston, Michael Fassbender, Matt Damon and Eddie Redmayne. Widespread praise is one thing and an Oscar nomination is another and it may be that Michael B Jordan was the sixth highest voted actor. We may never know.
The issue is that none of the big four actor categories received a nomination. Again, an objective person may say that it was not their year. But this is the second year in a row. It is now beyond plausible deniability. Something smells in the Academy’s ranks.
For the second year in a row there are no people of colour within the big four nominations. Look further and ninety percent of the entire nominations are white. Why? The prevailing theory is that the demographics of the Academy’s voting membership is not reflective of today’s film.
94% of voting members are Caucasian. 77% are male. The median age is 62. That’s the same age as James Cameron, Jerry Seinfeld and Oprah Winfrey. Older than your mum but younger than your nan. Experienced, certainly, but perhaps out of touch?
It is all a popularity contest after all. Bias occurs. But racial bias can also be a nasty little thing called discrimination and that is certainly not okay. So a conversation should occur.
Director Spike Lee is an Academy Award nominee and has spent the last week campaigning for a complete boycott of the Oscars. Jada Pinkett Smith is on board. The outspokenness of this issue has been galvanising, with Academy voter David Oyelowo of Selma and The Butler telling the press “This institution doesn’t reflect its president and it doesn’t reflect this room. I am an Academy member and it doesn’t reflect me, and it doesn’t reflect this nation.”
He went on to cite Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Empire as some of the biggest brands in the world, proudly lead by black men and women.
When Hateful Eight director Quinten Tarintino was asked if there was any resentment for frequent collaborator Samuel L Jackson’s snub as Best Supporting Actor he said “My only guess, frankly, is that they take him for granted”
In fairness there are nominations and wins for black men and women littered throughout the records. Jackson has previously been nominated for Best Supporting Actor after a lengthy campaign from production house Miramax for his previous Tarintino project Pulp Fiction. Will Smith has two Best Actor nominations, Morgan Freeman has two Best Supporting Actor nominations, two Best Actor nominations and a Best Actor win while Denzel Washington has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor, won a Best Supporting Actor, been nominated for three Best Actors and won a Best Actor Award.
As recently as 2014 12 Years a Slave swept the night with a win for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress Lupita Nyong’o and a nomination for Best Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. This was the last year a person of colour was nominated.
So where to from here?
The Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaac released a statement in the days following the announcement of nominations. It seems her heart is in the right place.
But then, hypothetically, if I were Will Smith and I went to cast my vote would I feel obligated to vote for a person of colour? I certainly hope not. But by diversifying the ranks of the members it gives a better reflection of the true Best Picture. Regardless of race.
There’s one final lingering idea floating around that needs to be addressed. Do Oscar nominations even matter? Do that have an impact the wider race issue?
For eighty-eight years the Oscars have been the biggest event in the world for quality film. It is the definitive example of peer recognition and although the members have inadvertently isolated a whole community and made the event a touch more reductive than usual it remains a cultural touchstone. And if this continues (which I assume/pray it will not) the Oscars will be irrelevant and universally belittled for being a league of racists. Which currently it is not.
It matters. #Oscarssowhite is a dark spot on the Academy’s history and it should move swiftly to avoid any further backlash. Once is unfortunate, twice is a problem, three times would bring irreversibly damage.