Oscar nominations

Oscars diversity not so black-and-white

Michael B. Jordan (left) and Sylvester Stallone in Creed. The only nomination for the movie went to Stallone, a supporting actor.
Michael B. Jordan (left) and Sylvester Stallone in Creed. The only nomination for the movie went to Stallone, a supporting actor.PHOTO: WARNER BROS

Films with black leads, such as Creed, might have entered the awards race too late

NEW YOR•K • Is it the members who vote on the Oscars, the films, the campaigns behind them or something else?

Last Friday, the day after Oscar nominations were announced, revealing that all 20 contenders for acting awards were white and that films with black themes had been shut out of the Best Picture category, critics were asking how the top awards could be so narrow-cast a second year in a row.

Fingers pointed to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which gives out the Oscars and which still skews older, male and white, according to a 2012 investigation by The Los Angeles Times.

The truth probably springs from a murkier confluence of factors, from missteps and misjudgments in awards campaigns in support of individual movies to the systemic lack of diversity in Hollywood.

We may win an Oscar now and then, but an Oscar is not going to fundamentally change how Hollywood does business. I'm not talking about Hollywood stars.

I'm talking about executives.


The studios behind two films that focus on black characters, Creed and Straight Outta Compton, seemed to come late to the realisation that their productions were awards contenders. The Academy's preferential voting system works against films and actors not selected as voters' top picks.

And, perhaps the biggest factor of all, many of the 305 films eligible for Oscars did not reflect the lives and complexions of audiences.

"Every time I say the same thing: Until we get a position of power, it's not going to change," Spike Lee said a few hours after the nominations came out. "We may win an Oscar now and then, but an Oscar is not going to fundamentally change how Hollywood does business. I'm not talking about Hollywood stars. I'm talking about executives."

Chief among the surprise omissions were Idris Elba, projected to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for playing an African warlord in Beasts Of No Nation; Michael B. Jordan, the lead boxer of Creed; and the biopic Straight Outta Compton, about seminal rappers N.W.A. The star of Concussion, Will Smith, was also considered a possible nominee.

Yet Concussion was overlooked entirely; the only nomination for Creed went to a supporting actor, Sylvester Stallone; and Compton landed just one nomination, for its white writers.

Nearly all potential Oscar films are the subject of expensive, months-long campaigns to woo Academy voters. Creed was released in late November, long after campaigning had begun for other eventual Best Picture nominees.

Elba's exclusion was the biggest head-scratcher, not least because Netflix had held a big campaign, including blanketing Hollywood with advertisements. But the film's subject was tough and the fact that Netflix, new to the scene, was behind the film might have hurt it.

Straight Outta Compton received recognition from the industry's guilds, which hand out awards that are considered clues to the Oscars. The producers, screen actors and writers guilds nominated Compton as among the year's best. So what happened with the Academy?

Academy watchers said chances were, voters did not love Compton enough or at least not enough to make it their top choice, necessary for a film to advance in the preferential voting system.

Gangsta rap is also a hard sell to an Academy that in years past failed to give a Best Picture nomination to the Eminem drama 8 Mile (2002) or the widely praised Boyz N The Hood (1991), which nonetheless earned nominations for John Singleton, its writer and director.

"Did anyone in the marketing department say Straight Outta Compton really has potential with older white men?" said Mr Marty Kaplan, a professor of entertainment and media at the University of Southern California. "It's a challenge in a group dominated by older white men to make it a contender without buzz among their peers."

Yet this was also the same Academy that awarded Best Picture two years ago to 12 Years A Slave and named one of its stars, Lupita Nyong'o, Best Supporting Actress.

Its lead, Chiwetel Ejiofor, was also up for Best Actor. But 12 Years A Slave had a narrative that resonated deeply with voters and the awards campaign included advertisements that simply read, "It's time."

The omission of minority actors two years in a row is an aberration in recent Academy history: The last time there were only white acting nominees for two consecutive years was for films released in 1997 and 1998.

Ms Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is black and became the Academy's president in 2013, said that while she found the all-white nominations "unfortunate, really disappointing", she did not see a trend in the back-to-back shutouts. "I don't think there's any pattern at all," she said, noting that good work was perennially snubbed at the Oscars.

She has made diversity both in membership and awards recognition a touchstone of her presidency. In November, Lee was awarded an honorary Oscar, and for the Feb 28 ceremony, Reginald Hudlin is a producer and Chris Rock is the host.

Part of Ms Isaacs' effort to broaden the voter ranks has involved inviting a younger, more diverse crowd to join the Academy, which bestows lifetime memberships. A good number of the 322 people invited last year were from abroad, and one awards campaigner privately suggested that this group could be making it tougher for African-American films, whose stories might resonate less with international audiences.

But Ms Isaacs dismissed this notion, adding that the international component of the Academy was probably too small to significantly shift awards trends.

So was this year's shutout just an unlucky bounce? "A bounce I never want to see happen again," she said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2016, with the headline 'Oscars diversity not so black-and-white'. Print Edition | Subscribe