Early on the morning of Jan. 14, the nominations for the 88th Academy Awards were announced. Sadly, for the second straight year, there was not a single person of color recognized among the twenty acting nominations. The reaction, much like last year’s, was as swift as it was outraged.
#OscarsSoWhite has become the hashtag of choice, often accompanied by exclamations of shock and disappointment at the lack of diversity in the talent the Academy chose to reward. The last unofficial census revealed that Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences (AMPAS) is roughly 94 percent white, 77 percent male, and 54 percent over the age of 60. These factors lead many to conclude that the Academy is nothing more than another collection of regressive traditionalists—slow-moving conservatives hesitant to acknowledge the accomplishments of anyone besides straight, white men. How else, as so many have asked, could Will Smith, O’Shea Jackson, Michael B. Jordan, Idris Elba, and all of the other performers of color have not been nominated?
This is where the discussion gets tricky. It does, of course, seem odd that, in an industry that purports to represent America, the most prominently recognized performers (not to mention directors, writers, and editors) tend to be overwhelmingly white. However, when it comes to nominations, it’s reductive and rather unhelpful to cry foul at the exclusion of people of color if the performances don’t really warrant that reaction. Idris Elba is a prime example. Elba was excellent as the chillingly brutal Commandant in “Beasts of No Nation,” and he seemed primed for his first nomination. But, taking a look at the list of nominees, the only slot that’s debatable is Sylvester Stallone’s, which he picked up for his work in “Creed.” Stallone revived a dead franchise and submitted his best performance in years, releasing the movie near Christmas and subsequently launching a massive awards campaign. “Beasts of No Nation” is a much darker film with a narrow appeal.
The Oscars are fundamentally political; the amount of work that goes into campaigning for an award is as integral to a nomination as the performance itself. So, when an actor in a violent independent movie goes up against an established star in a commercial and critical success, the Academy is typically going to go with the latter, regardless of color. Though many (myself included) believe Elba turned in a superior performance, that’s only half the battle. Same goes for Samuel L. Jackson in “The Hateful Eight”—a performance in a movie with so much bloodshed is going to have a much tougher time getting nominated, regardless of color.
In “Straight Outta Compton,” we saw a traditionally Oscar bait-y genre—the music biopic—being inverted and recreated in a Black image, much to the delight of audiences. The film brought in over 200 million dollars worldwide. And yet, only the film’s white writers were nominated. Critics have decried what they see as only rewarding the white faces attached to what is an emphatically Black story, but this gets right to the heart of this discussion. If the white writers of “Straight Outta Compton” are recognized for bringing a Black story to the screen, that’s a step (albeit a baby one) forward—a uniquely Black story has been recognized, and that’s more important than the race of the person who wrote it. You hardly hear anyone criticize Jill Soloway for being a bisexual woman who brings the story of a transgender woman to screen in “Transparent.” And why should they?
The problem with an all-white nomination field isn’t that performances or technical work by people of color aren’t being recognized—it’s that their stories aren’t being produced in the first place, which is by far the greater issue. Many of the highest grossing films of the year (“The Force Awakens,” “Furious 7,” “Pitch Perfect 2”) featured performers of color, and Hollywood is far more likely to move forward if they see money at the finish line. What’s unique about some of those films is that they featured actors of color in roles that didn’t make tokens out of them. John Boyega’s race has nothing to do with his character in “The Force Awakens.” Rather, the era of people of color getting to just be people— full stop: onscreen is arriving, however slowly. It’s yet to reach the world of prestige films, but as people start to vote with their dollars rather than with their tweets, Hollywood will follow suit. If you want someone to blame for the lack of diversity, don’t look at the Academy—they can only vote for what is available to them.
At the same time as all of this, I’m tempted to ask—why do we care? 364 days out of the year, we all know that awards shows are generally just an excuse for self-congratulation and unattainable opulence, the ceremonies as much of a performance as the films they celebrate. They’re essentially commercials that bestow meaningless little idols on celebrities, who are expected to detail just exactly how much they are humbled and honored (my personal favorite: when a winner exclaims that they’re “speechless,” only to follow that proclamation with a speech). So why is it that the ethnicities of the nominees become such an issue? Does “Tangerine” going unrecognized take away from the beauty or humor of that film? Does Will Smith not getting a chance to win an androgynous gold statuette detract from the importance of the message in “Concussion?” The answer should be obvious.