If the 2016 Oscars were a fence, Tom Sawyer could show it to his Aunt Polly with pride. But as Hollywood’s most esteemed — for better or worse — celebration of film, this year’s Academy Awards leave much to be desired. Look directly at the list of nominees in the acting categories, and you might need shades.
None of the acting categories include nominations for people of colour, and filmgoers have taken notice. #OscarsSoWhite resurfaced from last year on Twitter in response to the Academy’s whitewashing, and notable names like Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith have since said they’ll be boycotting the ceremony this year. And it’s easy to see why; when Creed, one of the year’s most acclaimed films, receives one nomination for its white supporting actor (no offense to Mr. Stallone), and nothing for its two rising talents (director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan, both people of colour), something is up.
Some background: A Los Angeles Times study from 2012 found that academy voters are markedly less diverse than the moviegoing public, and even more monolithic than many in the film industry suspect. Oscar voters are nearly 94 per cent Caucasian and 77 per cent male; Blacks are about two per cent of the academy, and Latinos are less than two. Oscar voters have a median age of 62, and people younger than 50 constitute just 14 per cent of the membership. What this creates is a perpetual cycle where voters stick to what they know and what worked in years past, and films that break from that hegemonic structure are shunted to the sidelines (save for the odd year where films like 12 Years a Slave earn a nod).
But the lack of colour representation smacks less of a refusal to nominate actors and directors of colour and more of a refusal to invest in movies that feature these kinds of actors and directors. Stories of colour are what are lacking, and in some cases it’s just a refusal on the part of the industry to bother making them.
In response to the ensuing controversy, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs said, “Of course I am disappointed [in the nominations], but this is not to take away from the greatness (of the films nominated),” while acknowledging that the Academy needed to speed up its diversity efforts. And it’s true that there is some diversity on display: LGBQT issues are represented in The Danish Girl, and there’s a strong feminist (albeit white feminist) lilt to both the lyrical Brooklyn and the glorious Mad Max: Fury Road.
Yet such inclusions can only highlight the glaring failure on the part of the Academy, but more critically the industry as a whole, to create and endorse films with stories of colour at the forefront. Perhaps we might even go further, and suggest that we the consumers play a not-so-limited role. If Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ success is anything to go by, audiences are responding to if not clamouring for films with non-white-male leads, whether they’re blockbusters or indie budget flicks. It would be wise for the Academy and Hollywood to get with the times, lest the nominations continue to look like a white picket fence.