Last year to open the Academy Awards, host Neil Patrick Harris joked, “Welcome to the 87th Oscars. Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest.” Then, after a beat: “Sorry… brightest.”
It was a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of one of the biggest scandals to plague the Oscars in more than a decade: Every single acting nominee was white. Worse, in a year when Selma, a film about Martin Luther King Jr., was the best reviewed film of the year—but shut out in every race but Best Picture.
This year the joke is no longer funny.
In a year when diversity, representation, opportunity, and normalization was the driving conversation of show business—and rightfully so—we can now say that this is the whitest Oscars ever. If you’re looking for a benchmark, this is the whitest Oscars since last year. Isn’t that disgusting?
Not a single acting nominee this year is a person of color.
Idris Elba was widely predicted to be nominated for Beast of No Nation. He failed to receive a nod. The Academy found Christian Bale’s glass eye in The Big Short more intriguing instead.
Unlike last year, which was infuriating in its own right when Selma received a Best Picture nomination but not a Best Director (Ava DuVernay) or Best Actor (David Oyelowo) nod, there’s not even a “black” film, or a film that concerns people of color, in the Best Picture race.
Last year the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite circulated in outrage over the situation. This year, I’d be surprised if we could even muster the 140-character anger. Maybe we’ve resigned ourselves.
The situation is so glaring we need sunglasses. Hollywood needs some shaming.
Well, allow me.
Here’s the situation: Yes, all 20 Oscar nominees are white.
Is that a surprise? No.
There was really only one person of color who was considered a likely contender to be nominated—the aforementioned Elba. He starred in a movie that debuted on Netflix, which had never launched an awards campaign. The prevailing sentiment, though he was deserving, was that Netflix’s naïveté in the world of awards pushes was going to hurt his chances. This ended up being correct.
Despite deserving to be nominated and possibly to win for the kind of soul-shaking, transformative performance that makes you reconsider your place in the world (and, you know, gives meaning to this ridiculous business of show and validity to the vapidity of Hollywood), Elba finds himself shut out.
Beasts of No Nation was about child soldiers fighting in Africa. Instead, the Academy rewarded what they consider to be the greatest hardship plaguing society: actors doing accents! And otherwise whimsical things.
Did you even hear the accent Christian Bale had in The Big Short? It was, well, it wasn’t clear what it was. But it was not his normal speaking voice! Mark Ruffalo, too. He, I guess, shouted once in Spotlight. Give him an award! No, give it to that British guy who was so charming in Give Me an Oscar, I’m a Spielberg Film!—excuse me, Bridge of Spies. At the very least give it to Sylvester Stallone, who gives a semblance of a performance.
Last year, we all took on a cause. A body that was 94 percent white, 76 percent male, and an average of 63 years old failed to nominate a single person of color for the most prestigious and important awards in entertainment for the first time in almost two decades.
This year, they didn’t nominate a single person of color for... the first time since last year.
Worse, there was a sense of dread among those in the industry leading up this morning’s nominations, in anticipation of the Whitest Oscars Ever (Since Last Year). “Crap,” they whispered. “Those bloggers are about to lay into us.”
Yes. Yes, they are. Because they can’t be bothered to lay into themselves.
They failed to nominate Elba. They failed to nominate Straight Outta Compton for Best Picture, the film about the rap group N.W.A that was widely considered (by reviewers and moviegoers alike) one of the best made films of the year. It did well at precursor ceremonies that are supposed to predict such things, like the PGA Awards and the SAG Awards. But not the white-washed Oscars! No, the Oscars didn’t it give the predicted Best Picture nod it deserved.
Straight Outta Compton has an 88 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s not as high as Selma, which had a 99 score last year when it became the beacon of snubbed diversity. But it was the film that was ruled “The Contender” for people of color this year.
Because apparently they only get one.
Straight Outta Compton was better reviewed than The Revenant, the most nominated film this year. (Its Rotten Tomatoes score was an 81, capped off by a mid-screening snooze by yours truly. This movie was ridiculously long!) But, more importantly, I guess, it was considered the “one” film.
The one film anyone who cares about diversity gets.
It’s been a year in cinema where Tangerine (Rotten Tomatoes score: 96) changed the conversation about what filmmaking is and humanized one of the most topical issues of our time. But why nominate that when there’s a Spielberg film about a war to sleepily check off on your ballot?
It’s been a year when a black filmmaker and a black actor revitalized one of cinema’s most hallowed franchises with Creed (Rotten Tomatoes score 93), and screened to standing ovations from audiences and reviewers alike. That’s nice! Let’s give the one white guy involved an Oscar nod. (Ryan Coolger and Michael B. Jordan are Oscar nominees in my heart.)
It’s been a year when Samuel L. Jackson, who was only in the past week passed as the highest grossing actor of all time, gave the performance of his career in The Hateful Eight, but failed to pass the test for Actor Who Gets Campaigned for a Tarantino Film. (That test is, “Are you white?” Jennifer Jason Leigh passed with flying colors.)
It’s been a year when Bryan Cranston and Will Smith both did silly accents in Best Picture contenders but only one of them had a serious push for an Oscar nomination, because he was in a movie about important things like White Movie Writers Who Have Been Mistreated and not something like African doctors attempting to change the world’s minds about the value of an entertainment institution that could possibly be killing people.
Ha! No, not the Oscars. The NFL. But good guess!
This is to say that there was, arguably, a plethora of movies that were made by and featured people of color and their stories this year. But they were not, for whatever reason, deemed “campaignable.” Or Oscar worthy. And if they were, it was only in the service of ensuring that there wasn’t another white-washed nomination list that could be picked apart by outraged Internet writers like me.
It’s infuriating that for the second year in a row, the organization with the power to challenge society, to be a catalyst for, at best, forward thinking or, at the very least, wisking us off to a different world, one that makes us contemplate our own, doesn’t deem a story involving a person of color worthy. Especially when films that did all those things and featured people of color were worthy.
Why does The Revenant, or Trumbo, or Bridge of Spies, or Mad Max: Fury Road feature into an awards conversation when Beasts of No Nation, Straight Outta Compton, Tangerine, or Will Smith doesn’t? Look at the faces of the people on screen, and then at the people voting for them. It’s simple.
Last year’s Selma snub was probably more egregious than the lack of nominations for any of those films, though I’ll argue that the fact that none of those films were campaigned as hard as their “white” counterparts to be institutionalized racism in its own sort.
But the fact that those snubs last year kindled such cultural fire about the lack of diversity in the Academy and the tangible repercussions for omitting recognition for stories about people of color, and then this year we repeated the mistake, is inexcusable.
But it’s not the only thing we need to work on. Not one of the Best Picture nominees was made by a woman. Female filmmakers, in the midst of a conversation about equal pay, equal opportunity, and equal recognition, were snubbed entirely. Maybe there wasn’t an Oscar worthy film by a female filmmaker. But maybe there also wasn’t an opportunity to make one.
Following a trend that began last year, the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress races featured performances that were in films that weren’t deemed good enough for Best Picture. Only Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn, Brie Larson for Room, and Rachel McAdams for Spotlight can say that they are acting nominees for films that are also among the “Best” of the year. Twice as many male nominees (and every directing nominee) can.
The message here: Don’t invest in movies that have women in power roles, or that tell their stories.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, the body that votes for the Oscars each year, is headed by president Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Isaacs is a black woman. She is a black woman fronting a historically racist and sexist organization. Of course, Issacs’s involvement with the awards shouldn’t serve as a mandate or even provide an expectation that the body she governs reward diverse talent.
No. That should be on us.
We should be the ones not tolerating this.
That shame the old, white, male organization that has the power to mint the kind of cultural touchstones that can change society, or at least make us think. We should be the ones who roll our eyes at conversations about progress and change when one Emmy Awards happens to reward people of color—We did it! Everyone give yourselves pats on the back!—but the Academy Awards continues to limit the conversations to stories about the white male experience.
That confuses the existence of the singular Shonda Rhimes for actual change.
Maybe no film this year starring or made by people of color or by a woman deserved serious Oscar consideration. Maybe this is truly the best slate of nominees. But that’s an issue in and of itself. The stories that are being told and the people who are being allowed to tell them is too limited if that’s the case.
This is not even starting the conversation about Carol, a film about two women in love that received orgasmic reviews by critics, scored two acting nominations, and was otherwise ignored and robbed for a Best Picture nomination.
Should we be surprised that the awards group that gave Crash Best Picture instead of Brokeback Mountain and only rewards films about the queer experience when it’s a straight actor “bravely” and “daringly” playing gay (Hi, Eddie Redmayne, Cate Blanchett, and Rooney Mara) snubbed Carol? “Probably not” is the right answer.
Pieces about “snubs” this year may mention Idris Elba. Maybe Straight Outta Compton. They’ll talk about Helen Mirren being passed over for Trumbo, Pixar’s dwindling influence (no Good Dinosaur!), and veteran Ridley Scott being passed over in Best Director for exciting new talent like Room’s Lenny Abrahamson.
New talent? How novel.
Funnily enough, Chris Rock is the host of this year’s Oscars. There hasn’t been a person of color hosting since… the last time Chris Rock hosted. That was more than 10 years ago, in 2005.
That year Jamie Foxx won for Ray and Morgan Freeman won for Million Dollar Baby. Don Cheadle, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Sophie Okonedo, and Foxx a second time were nominees. It was one of the most diverse Oscars ever, and kicked off a decade ostensibly committed to the cause of normalization and opportunity in film—two words we see all the time when talking about this Golden Age of television.
It couldn’t be more glaring that nothing has changed.