Oscars: Omission of Black Actors Upsetting, But Not Inexplicable or Proof of Racism

"None of this year's excluded films about people of color or people of color themselves were thought to be slam-dunks going into the nominations," writes THR's awards analyst. "They were competing in very competitive categories."
Clockwise from top left: Michael B. Jordan in 'Creed,' Will Smith in 'Concussion,' Idris Elba in 'Beasts of No Nation' and Samuel L. Jackson in 'The Hateful Eight'  Photofest

An abbreviated version of this piece recently appeared on the website of The New York Times.

Nobody was more disappointed than I was last Thursday morning when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed its 88th Oscar nominations and we learned that Straight Outta Compton had not been nominated for best picture, The Hateful Eight’s Samuel L. Jackson, Creed's Michael B. Jordan and Concussion’s Will Smith had not been nominated for best actor and Beasts of No Nation's Idris Elba had not been nominated for best supporting actor. Each was worthy of recognition.

Many reflexively reacted to the news by accusing the Academy of being a racist organization, and I "get" why: this is the second year in a row in which not one of the five directing nominees or the 20 acting nominees were black (last year's big omissions were Selma's director Ava DuVernay and lead actor David Oyelowo), hence the popular Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.

But I feel compelled to speak up in defense of the Academy — a stance that Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs (a black woman) will tell you I don't always take — because I believe the root of the problem is less with the Academy than with the film industry as a whole.

Even in 2016, very few people of color direct or star in major American movies. That is the result of decisions made not by the Academy, but by the studios that finance and produce movies — for reasons of commerce and/or bigotry and/or cowardice. This leaves the Academy with a pool of options lacking in diversity, in terms of eligible films and individuals, and in terms of who the Academy can invite to become members (since one must have a considerable body of work to be considered).

Over the last few years, particularly during the administration of Ms. Boone Isaacs, the Academy has made great efforts to address these problems, leaning on studios to be more open-minded in their hiring practices, and leaning on its own branches to make diversity of all sorts — race, gender, age and nationality — a higher priority.

There is always more that the Academy can do. I, for one, think Ms. Boone Isaacs should follow the lead of the late Gregory Peck, the actor who served as the Academy’s president from 1967 through 1970, another period in which the organization was widely criticized for out-of-touch voting. In response, Peck pored over the membership rolls and reclassified people who had not worked for many years as "associate members." Those individuals, most of whom were older and retired and not especially in-tune with the cutting-edge of cinematic or social ideas, retained all of the privileges of membership (free screenings, etc.) except for the right to vote, which he felt — as do I — should be limited to people who are actually involved in the industry. It's time for another round of respectful house-cleaning.

The Baseball Writers' Association of America, the group that votes to determine inductions into the Baseball Hall of Fame, implemented a similar rule in 2015, restricting voting to journalists who had been active in the last 10 years, and they wound up with results that are much more aligned with the way today's baseball lovers feel than the results they had gotten before. Nobody is suggesting that Academy should turn the Oscars into the People's Choice Awards — just that it cannot act as if the status-quo is acceptable.

But back to this year's Oscar noms. The reason this year's #OscarsSoWhite outrage was a bit more muted than last year's is because one can understand better how it happened. None of this year's excluded films about people of color or people of color themselves were thought to be slam-dunks going into the nominations; they were competing in very competitive categories.

Compton is an amazing movie — I included it on my personal year-end top 10 list — but the Academy guarantees only five slots, and can go only as high as 10, and few would argue that any of the eight films that were nominated were less deserving of a nom than Compton was. If the Academy still guaranteed 10 nominees for best pic, as it did back when Casablanca won and briefly again just a few years ago, then Compton would have been nominated. I have no doubt about that.

Jackson, Jordan, Smith and Elba gave incredible performances — all were guests on my 'Awards Chatter' podcast before voting closed — but again, none of the people who were nominated instead of them were indefensible selections. It's a tough pill to swallow, but it was just a terrific year for actors, lead and supporting. Additionally, the distributor of Jordan's film didn't realize it was an awards contender until it was already very late in the game (perhaps too late to mobilize a fully-effective campaign); the distributor of Elba's film released it through a model never before tested with the Academy (in just a few theaters simultaneous to its debut on Netflix, which a lot of fogies still don't have); and the Academy wasn’t crazy about anything to do with Jackson’s or Smith’s films, including the contributions of the white people who wrote and directed them.

The bottom line? I understand being pissed off that one's favorites were not Oscar-nominated — but I genuinely don't believe that racism was the driving reason for any of this year’s exclusions. And, if it's any consolation, Jordan, Smith, Elba and the folks from Compton are in pretty good company: also denied noms that many expected them to get were Sir Ridley Scott (who got bounced by Room's Lenny Abrahamson, a guy most Academy members still haven't heard of), Helen Mirren, Johnny Depp, Quentin Tarantino, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Keaton, Aaron Sorkin and Kristen Stewart.

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