There was likely a lot of hand-wringing and finger pointing in Hollywood this week in the wake of Academy Award nominations that were labeled #OscarsSoWhite for the second year in a row.
After a slate of successful, critically acclaimed performances by people of color, and a very public effort from black Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs to address the lack of diversity of Oscar voters, film fans were stunned to see all 20 actors honored on Thursday were white. Even Boone Isaacs, who read the names of many of the nominees early on Thursday, conceded that she was “disappointed” by the results. “This has been a great year in film, it really has across the board. You are never going to know what is going to appear on the sheet of paper until you see it,” she told Deadline in a statement, adding that when it comes to tackling the Academy’s make-up, “We have got to speed it up.”
But how did this happen – for the third time in just a decade? And is it the overwhelmingly white and elderly Oscar voting pool that is to blame? Awards Circuit editor Clayton Davis told MSNBC on Friday that studios often don’t promote awards contenders of color to prediction sites like his or Oscar voters, presuming bias will doom their chances for a nomination, and that can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. “If the studios aren’t pushing you out there, they will never know you exist,” he said.
According to Davis, up-and-coming actors like “Creed” star Michael B. Jordan and “Beasts of No Nation” actor Abraham Attah are still relatively unknown to most Oscar voters, who view someone like best actor nominee Leonardo DiCaprio as a peer. “Jason Mitchell [who played the late Eazy-E in ‘Straight Outta Compton’] is a nobody to all these people, and in my opinion he gave the performance of any person in 2015,” said Davis. He also thinks so-so reviews sidetracked Will Smith’s campaign for “Concussion” and an anti-Netflix bias may have hurt Idris Elba’s chances of breaking into the best supporting actor race for “Beasts of No Nation.”
Davis said he “doesn’t think Oscar voters are consciously passing over black movies,” but like many industry watchers of color, he was frustrated to see that the only nominees from predominately black productions like “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton” were white and that he never received emails from studios promoting Jordan or “Creed’s” African-American director Ryan Coogler for Oscar buzz. He did, however, see a push for eventual nominee Sylvester Stallone, who co-stars in the film.
“It does make you raise an eyebrow, but ultimately you throw up your hands. It is a weird and very awkward place to be in,” GIl Robertson, the president of the African-American Film Critics Association, told MSNBC on Friday. While Robertson doesn’t believe in disparaging any of the current crop of all-white nominees, he also believes that “without a doubt” worthy actors of color were overlooked. “At the AAFCA we don’t have a problem embracing diversity and inclusion and we hope the Oscars catch up,” he added.
According to Robertson, the DNA of AAFCA’s critic’s awards can be traced back to the so-called “Black Oscars,” an underground awards show held by performers of color starting in the 1970s (a decade where no African-American won an Oscar) to honor actors who were routinely being overlooked by the Academy Awards. Over the years, stars like James Earl Jones, Whitney Houston and Samuel L. Jackson gathered to pay tribute to one another at the unofficial ceremony. The show was disbanded in 2007 after a series of victories for African-Americans suggested a turning of the tide, but in the 80-plus year history of the Oscars, only 15 black performers have won in the four acting categories, including just one best actress winner.
“I think the Academy has the potential to lose [in the aftermath of #OscarsSoWhite] to be viewed as [a] relic” Robertson said, and he believes that’s unfortunate because the awards have been a reflection of where American is culturally for decades. And while he hails the fact that steps are being taken and that there are encouraging signs the the entertainment industry is starting to move in the right direction, some of the onus is on black audiences who he said need to keep investing in films produced by people of color.
“If this industry was serious about diversity we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” said Robertson. “You don’t have to force anyone to do anything they want to do.”
Joseph Anthony, CEO of the marketing agency Hero Group, thinks there needs to be more pressure put on the Academy than there already has been. “Whether it’s box office numbers or capitalizing on the public’s infatuation with certain A-listers, the hidden motivations guiding the Academy’s selection process are doing a disservice to the arts world. The Academy continues to be plagued by accusations of internal politics running the nominations process. Perceptions are everything, and the current perception is that cronyism is no longer limited to Wall Street or Washington, DC but is alive and rampant in artistic institutions,” he told MSNBC in a statement on Friday. “
“This week, the message sent to young Americans of color is that the Oscars are ‘not for you.’ And if they still decide to tune in on February 28th, they will be doing so as outsiders,” he added. And he predicted that the millennial generation, which he believes places special value on diversity, will not take that message lying down.
“What began as a series of jokes on Twitter using #OscarsSoWhite will soon become a call for boycotts,” Anthony said. “If the Academy continues to pay only lip service to this problem, it is only a matter of time until prominent brands start feeling the pressure to pull out of the Oscars.”