This week’s announcement of the Oscar nominees was supposed to be an occasion for Hollywood to showcase the best of its 2015 films, actors, and filmmakers—the foreplay for its biggest, gaudiest awards show. Instead, it served as further evidence that Hollywood is still very much invested in highlighting and celebrating only the whitest of its content and creators, with zero out of 20 nominations going to non-white actors. On Oscar night, the only brown people onstage will be presenters, The Weeknd, and host Chris Rock. And for the second year in a row, social media responded with a justified roast of the Academy Awards with the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. Even Rock couldn’t resist ribbing the Oscars, calling the show the “White BET Awards” in a promo tweet.
In the mid-2000s, when black actors like Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, and Forest Whitaker were taking home statues, I thought that things were taking a turn for the better. I was encouraged by Mo’Nique’s Best Supporting Actress win. I was encouraged by 12 Years A Slave’s big year in 2014. Queen Latifah, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sophie Okonedo, Eddie Murphy, Octavia Spencer, Djimon Hounsou, Taraji P. Henson, Don Cheadle, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Jennifer Hudson, Will Smith, Gabourey Sidibe, Quvenzhané Wallis, and the late Ruby Dee had all gotten Oscar nods or wins in the decade between 2002 and 2012. But the last two years have felt like an alarming regression; and, frankly, the Academy has built up almost a century of bad will regarding its acknowledgement of black cinematic achievement.
It would be easy to dismiss the criticism against the Academy Awards as illegitimate—after all, it’s only been two years since 12 Years A Slave took home Best Picture—a movie with a black director that also landed a Best Actor nomination for Ejiofor and a Best Supporting Actress win for Lupita Nyong’o. But it’s important to take note of all that has happened culturally in those two years: in the wake of the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, “Black Lives Matter” became the mantra of a generation. At the same time, several filmmakers and films have emerged that tapped into that very spirit, from the civil rights epic Selma to the urban rage reflected in Straight Outta Compton. These are urgent and timely films, yet the Academy doesn’t seem to hold them in very high esteem.
Andrew Gruttadaro of Complex posited that, while the Academy is clearly at fault for its lack of diversity, “the truth is that this time around, the Academy didn’t really mess up in any egregious way by leaving black actors/creators off the ballot. This year, no black people deserved a nomination.”His position is condescending and dishonest. We can’t presume that every single white nominee that’s ever gotten an Oscar nod met some mythical criteria other than the tastes of the Academy, and we shouldn’t assume that those tastes aren’t wholly informed by aesthetic biases—which includes race. Every year, commentators and fans voice criticisms for movies and performances that they felt weren’t deserving of Academy attention, and Gruttadaro shouldn’t pretend that the major black films of 2016 were uniquely and obviously less qualified. Was Fatal Attraction such a remarkable film? It was nominated for Best Picture. Was Driving Miss Daisy more indelible to 1989 than Do the Right Thing? In a world where Crash (dishonest melodrama delivered via pretentious morality tales) and Birdman (visual gimmickry can’t mask disengaged storytelling) can win Best Picture, we can’t really justify Beasts Of No Nation or Creed not getting a nod as merely evidence of “high standards.”
As of 2014, the Academy was 94 percent white, 76 percent male, and an average of 63 years old. Do 63-year-old white men readily identify with a gangsta rap biopic set in the late ‘80s? Do they see it in the same grandiose fashion as they would, say, a film about a ‘50s country star or ill-fated ‘60s rock ‘n’ roller? Do the “fucks” and “niggas” in the soundtrack make it hard for them to view it in the same light as a movie about Steve Jobs or Brian Wilson? Maybe they can only relate to black struggle when it’s couched in a package they find acceptable, like a biopic about a soul singer they grew up listening to or a period piece about an embattled slave fighting for his freedom. Maybe old white men don’t know shit about new, black cinema.Ryan Coogler’s Creed transcended its tag as a reboot of the Rocky franchise to become both a critical and commercial hit; it’s success is a testament to Coogler’s visionary approach—the movie is part homage, part bold new chapter—and star Michael B. Jordan’s onscreen charisma. But when the Academy announced its nominees, the young black director and his young black star were ignored. The film’s lone nomination went to franchise mainstay Sylvester Stallone, who is white. Coogler’s directing wasn’t “good enough” to merit a nomination, Jordan’s acting wasn’t “good enough” either—but Stallone’s obviously was? If Sylvester Stallone happens to take home an Oscar this year, it will be a black director’s film that landed him the award.The Creed conundrum is even more disturbing when you compare it to the original Rocky. While the two films are fairly even in quality, Rocky received 10 Oscar nominations, taking home the gold for Best Picture and Best Director. So what was it about Creed that led to its snubbing? Certainly not that it’s a reboot, considering Mad Max: Fury Road received 10 Oscar nominations. What could it possibly be?It’s true that major studios aren’t greenlighting enough black stories—that much is obvious. But recognizing that doesn’t mean undervaluing the content that has been produced. Selma, Straight Outta Compton, Beasts Of No Nation, Creed, Concussion, Fruitvale Station, The Butler, Dope, and Girlhood aren’t uniformly inferior to every white film that’s been nominated for an Academy Award in the last three years; suggesting such only means that we still operate from the culturally-skewed position that black creativity must be regarded as unequivocally excellent just to occupy the same space as white work that is only very good—if that (looking at you, The Danish Girl).And the industry needs to examine what an Oscar means for black actors and actresses.Lupita Nyong’o took home the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 2014; since then, she’s appeared in a supporting role in a forgettable Liam Neeson action film (Non-Stop) and voiced an elderly CGI alien in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Meanwhile Jennifer Lawrence, after receiving a Best Actress nomination in Winter’s Bone in 2010, immediately landed high-profile star-making roles in franchise films like X-Men and The Hunger Games—on the way to more Oscar-bait opportunities starring in David O. Russell dramedies.Since 2001, Halle Berry, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’Nique, and Octavia Spencer have all won Academy Awards but only Berry—who is half-white—was afforded the kind of A-list post-Oscar visibility enjoyed by most white actresses who either win the award or get nominated. Actresses like Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, Hillary Swank, Reese Witherspoon, Sandra Bullock, and Natalie Portman have been fixtures on the A-list—many didn’t need Oscar wins to get there, but parlayed those wins into high-profile projects later. The same goes for many winners of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar—stars like Anne Hathaway, Penelope Cruz, and Renee Zellweger. The only winners who don’t seem to routinely land on Hollywood’s A-List are black women not named “Halle” or “Whoopi.”There are those who look at things like the blindingly white Oscar nominees list and decide that it’s pointless for black people to constantly call out awards shows. “Start your own” they say. “Stop begging for acceptance and validation.” But black people already have our own awards shows; and black people don’t really care about white validation. But when black actors, directors, and writers have to seek work from major studios and production houses, when said studios and production houses make billions off of telling black stories to white audiences, there damn well had better be recognition for black creativity and content. Black art cannot be whitewashed out of American society and culture. As a people, we build our own and we support our own—contrary to what some may believe. But while we continue to build and support blackness, we can’t allow mainstream platforms to mute our contributions when disseminating content to the world.At the 60th Academy Awards in 1988, Eddie Murphy addressed the industry’s Oscar biases.“When they came to me and they said they wanted me to present the award for Best Picture…my first reaction was to say, ‘No, I’m not going,’” Murphy revealed. “Because they haven’t recognized black people in the motion picture industry.”“I’ll probably never win an Oscar for saying this, but what the hey, I gotta say it,” Murphy continued, before wise-cracking. “Actually I might not get in trouble because the way it’s been going, every twenty years is when we get one so we ain’t due until about 2004 so by that time this will have all blown over.”“I came down here to give the award, but I feel we have to be recognized as a people. I just want you to know that black people will not ride the caboose of society or bring up the rear anymore.”Maybe the Academy didn’t hear Eddie in 1988. Coogler also addressed Hollywood diversity during his speech at the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards this last weekend. More than validation or acceptance, the fight is still for opportunity. “Find the diversity. Find the voices that are in those places you might not think to look, because it will be amazing to see the next generation,” he said. “Maybe more of them will look like Sue [Kroll, president of Warner Bros.]. Maybe more of them will look like me and Mike [Jordan.] Maybe more of them will look like [film critic] Justin [Chang].”That seems to make the most sense. That seems to be best for everyone. Sooner or later, we have to start asking ourselves why Hollywood continues to turn a deaf ear.