This past year proved to be a powerhouse one for narratives of people of color at the movies. We watched black directors, actresses, and actors deliver exceptional work not only in 12 Years A Slave, but Fruitvale Station, The Butler, and Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom. Any of these films fit the "Oscar-worthy” bill, and sure enough almost all gathered some Oscar buzz in the months preceding last week’s nominations. But if Saturday night’s SAG Awards provide any predictions for Oscar hopefuls, American Hustle could take top honors, upsetting 12 Years A Slave. Even with Lupita Nyong’o graciously accepting the award for Best Actress, the night ended once again with an all white cast and production crew taking home the equivalent to best picture.
Out of the 120 films that received a best picture nomination in past two decades, only 17 featured nonwhite protagonists. So when this year’s contenders were announced, I released a sigh of relief at the Academy’s recognition of nonwhite talent in Hollywood: 12 Years A Slave leads in number of Oscar nods, Lupita Nyong’o stands in the same category as Jennifer Lawrence, two people of color—Alfonso Cuarón and Steve McQueen—compete in the Best Director category.
But I wouldn't applaud this year’s nominations just yet. There were gaping holes in the Oscar snubs—Oprah for her role in The Butler and Blue is The Warmest Color Best Foreign Language Film. Particularly surprising was the omission of Fruitvale Station, an impeccable film on the murder of young African American by San Francisco police that incited riots on racial violence in the Bay Area. Although this might be “the black year in Hollywood” in the Academy, there’s only so much room for recognition for racially insightful movies.
But why we would expect diversity from the Academy in the first place? Look at the numbers: last year the Los Angeles Times compiled a damning report on the Academy's voting base—94% of the Academy's members were white, 76% male. In an effort to reform, the Academy inducted an unprecedented 432 new voting members this year. Good, right? Except even with the new inductees, the voter base is now "only" 93% white. There wasn't even a statistically significant change in the gender ratio.
Frankly, I wasn’t particularly surprised by this year’s nominations. To me the real problem isn’t who is and is not nominated, but that we still look to the Academy for validation of how far we’ve come in terms of diversity. But I don't expect much from a voting pool that is 93% white. Don’t tune into the Oscars if you don’t care about the opinions of a group of mostly old, white, men.
This isn't to say that the Oscars are a (completely) irrelevant parade of white males patting each other in the back. For the producers, directors, and actors in each film, winning an Oscar translates to a very real economic pay off in future opportunities (hence the reinforced whiteness of the winners) and pay. And it isn't to say that recognition by the Academy is inherently bad; I will be thrilled for Nyong’o if she wins an Oscar (Lawrence, too). But I do think the incredulity around these types of institutional affirmations wholly misses the point. The fact that nominating people of color is exceptional at all points to the larger systemic inequalities within and throughout the movie industry. The Oscars are merely the symptom.