An abbreviated version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
It has been a week of uncomfortable conversations in Hollywood. While many agree that the Academy’s overwhelmingly white membership does play a role in the types of films and performances that get Oscar attention, some white members privately express resentment over accusations of racism in failing to nominate a single nonwhite actor or anoint Straight Outta Compton a best picture candidate.
Penelope Ann Miller, best known for Carlito’s Way and The Artist, is a member of the actors branch that could have nominated Creed‘s Michael B. Jordan, Concussion‘s Will Smith, The Hateful Eight‘s Samuel L. Jackson or Beasts of No Nation‘s Idris Elba. “I voted for a number of black performers, and I was sorry they weren’t nominated,” she tells THR. “But to imply that this is because all of us are racists is extremely offensive. I don’t want to be lumped into a category of being a racist because I’m certainly not and because I support and benefit from the talent of black people in this business. It was just an incredibly competitive year.”
Miller, who is coming off of John Ridley‘s American Crime and is headed to Sundance with Nate Parker‘s slave drama The Birth of a Nation, continues, “I loved Beasts of No Nation, and I loved Idris Elba in it — I just think not enough people saw it, and that’s sometimes what happens. Straight Outta Compton was a great film; I think it just lost some Academy members who are older. There were a lot of omissions of white people that I think were just as disappointing — I’m sure [Spotlight‘s] Michael Keaton is bummed, you know?”
Another member of the actors branch, who wishes to remain anonymous, says, “I’m very offended by the idea that some people are calling us racists — race was the furthest thing from my mind when I cast my ballot, and in fact I nominated one person of color for an award. Such a sweeping declaration is extremely irresponsible.”
Jeremy Larner, a member of the writers branch — which did nominate Compton‘s (white) writers for best original screenplay — was a civil rights activist in the 1960s and won an Oscar for 1972’s The Candidate. “I cannot prove the Academy or anyone else is not racist,” he grants. But, he says in his own defense, “I have voted for many people of color for awards.” He adds, “I happen to think Straight Outta Compton is not a great film for reasons of structure and substance. I can imagine it is a powerful affirmation for those who share the assumptions of its music and see it as fans. But to me, a good film has to show a lot more than this one does.”
Larner feels that people displeased with the noms should focus their frustrations on the bigger picture. “It is not a time to make enemies among those who would move us further in the direction of fairness, freedom and justice,” he argues, referring to attempts to make voting harder for black people in many states. Miller agrees. “There were an incredible number of films in 2015 that were primarily about white people. Talk to the studios about changing that, not the Academy. There’s only so much we can do.” She adds, “I think when you make race the issue, it can divide people even further, and that’s what I worry about.”