There were two Academy Awards in a row in which all twenty nominated performances were by white actors. The most recent had seven nominated performances by actors of color, two of whom ended up winning. Best Picture was won by a film where all the major characters were minorities. So, what the hell happened?
There are several factors that contributed to the white nominating slate in the preceding two academy awards. Several biases hurt Straight From Compton and Creed, two well-regarded films shut out in the acting and directing categories. The Oscars tend to nominate slightly older actors (the ten acting nominees in 2016 includes one guy in his early 30s, two men in their late 30s, five men in their 40s, two men in their 50s and one man in his 60s; it wasn’t much different last year) which disadvantages films with younger male leads. The Oscar voters don’t seem to care about “urban” culture, which excludes films about rappers and contemporary African-American athletes.
One conversation that seems mostly under the surface is whether the Academy should be shamed into considering certain subject matter to be Oscarbait in the way that films like Carol (period forbidden romance), Spotlight (reporters investigating institutional cover-up) are. One reform might be eliminating the concept of Oscarbait, and encouraging wider recognition for good work in its varied forms, which might help with the ratings problems. There’s also a preference by Academy voters for films that don’t make a lot of money as there’s the perception that those films don’t need support getting made, which could end up hurting blockbusters with African-American cast and crew.
Then there’s the peculiarities of the Oscar campaigns, where so much depends on the support and resources of the studio. That probably screwed over Beasts of No Nation, Netflix’s first effort. Selma didn’t finish production until relatively late in the process, missing several of the early fall festivals that help build buzz for similar films. When Bennett Miller was unable to finish Foxcatcher in time for the festivals, Fox delayed its release by an year. It was rewarded with nominations for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay, which Selma was shut out of (although strangely not Best Picture, which suggests Channing Tatum really had to suck.)
There was some criticism of how white people got nominations for some of these films anyway. Sylvester Stallone was the one nominated actor in Creed, although there is a lot of precedent for it. He was the mentor with cancer. Father figures with health issues do get nominated often enough (Christopher Plummer in Beginners, Nick Nolte in Warrior, Robert Duvall in The Judge, Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton.) Writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff were nominated for Straight Outta Compton, although the numbers were more favorable for them than any other category. Ten films will nominated for screenplays every year in contrast to other categories, where there are greater limits, and where the actors might be competing against one another. It was telling that people arguing that Straight Outta Compton should have had a nomination for Best Supporting Actor were unable to single out any particular performance, and the most notable actor in the film was middle-aged white guy Paul Giamatti.)
After the controversy last year the Academy made some changes to membership, although it’s not absolutely clear that this helped. The whole point of the Oscars is that accomplished peers get to vote, except the peers are white and old (average age of 63.) Even if the new additions to the academy represent the diversity of the industry, there are still a lot of people who got in decades ago when things were even worse, and when talented minorities were prevented from getting the jobs that lead to membership in prestigious organizations. And the rules for getting rid of the old white people are pretty lax, as anyone with a credit in the last decade, or a nomination at any point in their career, gets to stay.
The first time around the Academy could pad its membership with the low hanging fruit of relatively qualified minorities, but it wasn’t clear who they would go after for the second round (after this year they might say mission accomplished, although they could also add any new actors from Moonlight and Lion.) It can take a while to be accomplished enough to be considered for membership, which otherwise prevents some of the younger people from getting in. Some of the rising stars aren’t spring chickens. Recent additions to the membership will include Mark Rylance, a British theater star in his mid-fifties whose film credits were relatively sparse. So one new guy is going to be part of the same demographic as someone who got in as a young actor in 1980.
The fact that some great black talents aren’t recognized until they’re middle-aged might also suggest a problem with how the film industry operates. By not recognizing Samuel L Jackson and Viola Davis until they were in their 40s, we missed out on all the films they could have done in his 30s. And it’s possible that there are similarly talented actors who gave up.
Some might think politics plays a factor, with many African-Americans from Hollywood involved with various activist groups, but Mark Ruffalo’s not hurt by his reputation for helping progressive political candidates (Zephyr Teachout, Bernie Sanders.)
One problem is the fragmentation of pop culture, which means that everyone has their own niche (IE- more people are watching TV but there are more options than ever, so no show penetrates the overall pop culture to the degree that MASH, I Love Lucy or Seinfeld did.) I think it may be a reason why there isn’t a film in the last twenty years with the reputation of Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, Pulp Fiction and Shawshank Redemption, a topic I pondered earlier. There is a question of what to do with the Oscars in this environment, with the Academy Awards as one of the last signifiers of quality in film that enough of the public pays attention to, even if they’re unlikely to go out and watch Birdman, Spotlight or Moonlight.
There’s a legitimate question of whether the #oscarsowhite years were primarily the result of bad luck, and that last year was the result of several lucky things happening at once. 2011-2013 were okay for black actors when it came for nominations. 2011 saw Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer nominated for The Help (Spencer won) along with Mexican actor Demian Birchir for Biutiful. 2012 saw Denzel Washington nominated for Flight, and Quvenzhané Wallis nominated for Beasts of the Southern Wild. 2013 saw nominations for Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o (who won) for 12 Years a Slave, along with writer John Ridley (who won) and director Steve McQueen, who lost to Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón. If Denzel Washington’s Fences adaptation, which he had been trying to make for years, came out a little sooner, it would likely have gotten the same nominations. This time, films that had been in production for some time were released to major recognition.