The Whitest Oscars Since 1998: Why the ‘Selma’ Snubs Matter

For the first time in almost two decades, no person of color received an acting nomination—the depressing icing on a white-washed, male-dominated Oscars cake. This sucks.

01.15.15 4:18 PM ET

The annual eye-roll criticism of the Oscars is that because of its depressing demographic makeup—94 percent white, 76 percent male, an average of 63-years-old—the nominations for the most prestigious and important awards in entertainment reflect the movie tastes not of a complicated, modern, and diverse culture, but of a bunch of old white guys. 

That might explain how the best reviewed Best Picture nominee of the year, Selma (Rotten Tomatoes score: 99), a beautifully passionate film about a key time in America’s civil rights movement, gets only two nominations while the middlingly reviewed and critically polarizing American Sniper (Rotten Tomatoes score: 73) ekes out six surprise nods, including Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. Of course, then, it should come as no surprise that Selma is a film from an upstart visionary young black woman named Ava DuVernay while American Sniper comes from Hollywood’s favorite old white guy. Congratulations, Clint Eastwood!

After making major strides in diversity last year with its slate of nominations with a (sometimes excessive) celebration of 12 Years a Slave, the first Best Director win by a Hispanic man, and a nod for Captain Phillips star Barkhad Abdi, the biggest talking point of this year’s roster is how it is the Whitest Oscars Ever—or at least in nearly two decades. 

The depressing and undeserving snub of Selma’s Ava DuVernay in Best Director and David Oyelowo in Best Actor combined with the surprising surge of support for the bland, macho, and, yes, white American Sniper is just the cherry on top of an unfortunately white-washed list, with no people of color receiving an acting nomination.

We’re not going to say the Academy is racist. (But you can.)

There is, naturally, something to be said for differences in taste. It’s certainly possible that a large body of cinema experts simply thought the elements of American Sniper were powerful than those of a film that The New York Times called “a triumph of efficient, emphatic cinematic storytelling”—a film that is not just stirring and expertly made but which is quite possibly the most relevant and culturally necessary movie of 2015, timed to the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches and the Voting Rights Act and released on the heels of racial turmoil in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York. 

Yes, it’s quite possible that voters weren’t impressed by the way DuVernay managed to capture the nobility and tumult of the Selma marches without making her film heavy-handed or schmaltzy or too grand. And there is a fair case to be made that the Academy thought Bradley Cooper’s performance in American Sniper was more powerful than David Oyelowo’s in Selma, or that Carmen Ejogo wasn’t as impactful in her film as Keira Knightley, Emma Stone, or Laura Dern were in theirs. (Though that case would be wrong.)

But when Selma was as good as Selma was this year, and when there had seemed to be so much progress made in diversity in the Academy, there really is no excuse for the fact that this is the whitest Oscars since 1998, the last time not a single person of color was nominated for an acting Oscar. 

Even before Oyelowo and DuVernay were snubbed Thursday morning, critics and pundits were prepared to explain their depressing absences in their respective races. Explanations ranged from Best Actor being too crowded of a category to Selma not sending its For Your Consideration screeners out to the voting guilds early enough—an explanation that seems like it could be true based on the film’s poor performance at the guild awards, too. 

The most infuriating explanation was that attacks against Selma’s historical accuracy hurt it. In recent weeks, the film has suffered a bit of backlash from a segment of predominantly white liberals loyal to the legacy of President Lyndon Johnson who were none too pleased with the film’s portrayal of his reluctance to help Dr. Martin Luther King and seeming lack of empathy to the voting rights of blacks. 

DuVernay, sharpening her skills as a former publicist, responded perfectly to the controversy, saying, “For the film to be, I think, reduced—reduced is really what all this is—to one talking point of a small contingent of people who don’t like one thing, I think is unfortunate.”

But the backlash against Selma for its apparent historical inaccuracies, and the idea that they’re the reason DuVernay and Oyelowo were snubbed, is hypocritical bullshit especially when the likes of The Imitation Game and especially American Sniper—two films with accuracy issues of their own—were showered with nominations Thursday morning. As IndieWire editor Sam Adams tweeted, “The Academy: Historical accuracy is important, unless your movie is about a white man killing Arabs.”

But it’s important to not just focus on DuVernay and Oyelowo, or the fact that Selma did not reap more nominations. No, there’s a plethora of depressing facts to talk about. For example, there were no female directors, screenwriters, or cinematographers nominated at all. 

Gillian Flynn, who was at one point pegged to win for her Adapted Screenplay of Gone Girl, wasn’t even nominated. In fact, Gone Girl, which many predicted to be a major Oscars player, including in Best Picture, only managed one nomination for star Rosamund Pike. But perhaps that fact shouldn’t be a surprise, either, when you look at the eight nominees in that category: eight very masculine films with male leads and featuring nearly all-male casts. No female-driven films were major Oscar players this year—with the exception of Wild in the acting races—and only one Best Actress contender is in a Best Picture nominee. Yay, old white guys!

“The basic message to the industry from the Academy today was: don’t invest in women in any power roles,” tweeted awards guru Sasha Stone.

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So here we have the whitest Oscars in nearly two decades. We have an infuriating male-dominated slate of nominees. And let’s not even talk about the Academy’s treatment of yellow people Thursday morning. (What did those little figurines in The LEGO Movie do to deserve that film's snub?)

It’s a situation that’s all the more confused considering that the Academy president is a black woman (with major teleprompter issues…Dick Poop!), though that should of course never serve as a mandate or even provide an expectation that the body she governs reward diverse talent. There are people, too, who will say that the Oscars are just a silly Hollywood dog-and-pony show, and we shouldn’t care what a bunch of old white guys think about movies. 

But the truth is that the Oscars do and should matter, because film matters. Film should challenge us and be used as a catalyst for, at best, provoking forward thinking or, at the very least, whisk us off to a different world, one that makes us contemplate our own. Selma proves that. Heck, even American Sniper proves that. (None of this is writing to say that American Sniper is not a film without merits, importance, or worth.)

It would be nice if the Academy, the governing body of this medium, would prove that, too.