Last year’s Oscar nominations drew howls of protests for their lack of diversity. This year, it’s even worse.
“Creed” was written and directed by the black Ryan Coogler and starred a black man, but the only nominee was a white man. “Straight Outta Compton” had a great acting ensemble of mostly young, black unknowns, and was directed by the black F. Gary Gray. But the film’s only nomination: for its screenplay, written by two Caucasians.
Last year, the hopes for diversity were based on one film, Paramount’s “Selma,” which earned two nominations, for best pic and song (winning the latter). This year, there were more opportunities, including “Creed,” “Straight Outta Compton” and “Chi-raq,” as well as “Beasts of No Nation” (directed by Cary Fukunaga). As with last year, the Hispanic/Latino filmmakers were represented only by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his team in the “money” categories.
Some may conclude that the nominations reflect institutional bias against minorities and women within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, but the problem is with Hollywood’s major studios and agencies. There were 305 films eligible this year. If hiring reflected the U.S. population, Oscar voters would have weighed 150-plus films directed by women, 45 directed by blacks, 50 by Hispanics, and dozens of movies by directors who are Asian-American, LGBT individuals, people with disabilities and members of other minorities. Of course, the actual tallies were a fraction of those numbers.
Surprising omissions from the actor race this year included Idris Elba for “Beasts of No Nation,” Will Smith for “Concussion,” Michael B. Jordan from “Creed” and the many young actors in “Compton.”
Last year, #OscarSoWhite lit up the Twitter-sphere, generally focused on the acting and directing categories, mostly due to omission of actor David Oyelowo and director Ava DuVernay from “Selma.” But in fact, the imbalance carries into the majority of categories due to lack of opportunity.
In the Jan. 14 announcement, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences listed 23 total producers for the eight movies picked in the best-pic race; seven were women. For the two screenplay races, 17 individuals are nominated, with four women and no racial minorities. The sole nom for “Straight Outta Compton” went to a self-described “white Jewish gay guy from Connecticut” and his white writing partners, Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff.)
Several Oscar categories traditionally offer a mix of gender, race and sexual orientation among nominees, including documentaries, shorts, feature-animation, costume design, hair/makeup and editing. That’s true this year too. But in many of the artisan races, it’s an almost all-male list (e.g., cinematography, sound editing, sound mixing). One breakthrough this year: Sara Bennett joined two colleagues in the visual effects category, grabbing a nom for “Ex Machina.” That makes one woman of the 19 total nominees (for five films) in that category.
The guilds don’t keep records on the racial breakdown of their membership. But most have training programs designed to help foster more career advancement opportunities for minorities and women. But so far, hiring in Hollywood is still overwhelmingly dominated by white men.
For optimists, change is in motion. At the Governors Awards in November, AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is African-American, announced the formation of A2020, a five-year plan in which the Academy and the studios will work on programs to ensure that top executives expand their thinking when hiring, mentoring and encouraging new talent.
For pessimists, a five-year plan is too slow. But the harsh reality is that the film industry works at a glacial pace, locking in stars, writers and directors several years in advance. So even though studios and agencies may say they want immediate change, it’s a question-mark how realistic that is; an overhaul was not evident in this year’s nominations, and it may not be apparent next year either.
Awareness of the problem isn’t new in the film industry; various solutions have been proposed, only to fade away.
In 1956, Variety ran a series of articles asking why there aren’t better roles for black actors. Three decades later, the situation hadn’t improved. On Feb. 19, 1982, Variety carried the front-page banner “NAACP faults film employment.” At a press conference, the group released a “white list,” naming 43 films “in which the organization says blacks have been excluded from significant roles in front of and behind the cameras.” The story added that every major studio was represented on the list of movies.
Similarly, on Feb. 12, 1991, Variety ran a front-page story about the findings of the DGA Women’s Steering Committee: Of 207 feature-film assignments, 11 went to women. That’s 5.3%. Nearly 25 years later, the number had barely moved: Women comprised 9% of directors on the top 250 domestic grossing films and 12% of directors on the top 500 domestic grossing films, according to a new report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.
The few 2015 Hollywood films from women directors included “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “The Intern,” “Suffragette,” “The 33,” “By the Sea” and “Pitch Perfect 2.” Films directed by blacks, Asian-Americans and Hispanics included “Straight Outta Compton,” “Creed,” “Beasts of No Nation,” “The Revenant” and “Chi-raq.” They got some Oscar attention, but the diversity factor overall is still low.
The Academy in June invited a record 322 new members, with many reflecting the Academy’s push for greater diversity among its membership. But the current membership — overwhelmingly Caucasian and over-50 — won’t see a fast overhaul soon, due to membership rules. The Academy is an honor society, in which industry experience is the primary consideration to join. Hollywood history has been filled with those demographics, and AMPAS is not about to kick out its current members.
The film industry is about two decades behind television. The boom in cable channels means more risks and more diversity, in terms of gender, race and sexual orientation. This year’s Emmy Awards marked a milestone as Viola Davis became the first African-American to win for lead actress in a drama for ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder.” The success of shows that run the gamut of “Scandal” and “Empire to “Key & Peele,” “Black-ish,” “Orange is the New Black” and “Transparent” offer a reminder that diversity is good for showbiz, in front of and behind the camera.
UPDATE: Gil Robertson, president of the African-American Film Critics Association, told Variety that he was “shocked but not entirely surprised” over the lack of diversity in nominations Thursday.
“I think there’s an ongoing disconnect with the Academy members,” he said. “We have to re-double our efforts to convince them that diversity is important and that they should be open to the stories of other people.”
The AAFCA recently named Universal’s N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton” the best film of the year, with runner-up going to Ryan Coogler’s “Creed.”
Robertson admitted that he was perplexed that “Straight Outta Compton” had not received more traction among Academy members. The film landed a single nomination for screenwriting.
“Even the oldest Academy members have been exposed to hip-hop culture becoming part of the mainstream,” he said. “So this makes them look totally out of step.”
Robertson expressed disappointment over the exclusions of Idris Elba for “Beasts of No Nation” and Will Smith for “Concussion” and noted that Oscarcast host Chris Rock is likely to highlight the lack of diversity during the ceremonies.
Joe Hall, founder and president of The Ghetto Film Schools in New York and Los Angeles, said he was unsurprised by the exclusions due to the lack of effort at public high schools to train minority students in filmmaking.
“The nominations are actually a distraction from the question of why we are not building a pipeline to generate diverse candidates,” Hall said.
Jeff Friday, founder of the American Black Film Festival, said the lack of diversity in nominations stems from the lack of diversity in the Academy membership.
“The composition of the membership is very homogeneous and that’s going to be reflected in their choices,” he added. “I know the issue is close to the heart for Cheryl Boone Isaacs but it’s also not something that will change right away.”
(Pictured, left to right: “Concussion,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Creed,” “Beasts of No Nation”)