Despite being a banner year for black actors playing lead roles in acclaimed films (such as “Creed,’ “Beasts of No Nation,” “Tangerine” and “Straight Outta Compton”) and a push from African-American academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs for increased diversity in the infamously lily white Oscar voter pool, there were no actors of color included among the 2016 Academy Award nominations for the second year in a row.
Entering this awards season, several African-American contenders were poised to potentially break into the acting races, and in the case of Ryan Coogler and F. Gary Gray, potentially the directing category as well, but when nominations were announced Thursday morning, ironically delivered in part by Asian director Ang Lee, Latino director Guillermo Del Toro and Boone Isaacs herself, every contender was white.
This is now the third time this decade (all during President Obama’s racial barrier-breaking administration) where not a single minority performer broke into the major acting races. Last year, the phenomenon inspired an #OscarsSoWhite hashtag on social media, and a national conversation about how an industry perceived as liberal like Hollywood could still lack diversity when it comes to giving out its highest honors.
That year, the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic “Selma” was expected to be an awards favorite, and although it scored nominations for the Best Picture and Best Song categories, it was frozen out of Best Actor (for David Oyelowo) and Best Director (for Ava DuVernay). In the aftermath of the backlash to that snub, Boone Isaacs invited hundreds of new members into the Academy, with an emphasis on diversifying the voting pool. Still, as the Los Angeles Times predicted in 2013, when diversity efforts first began to pick up steam, that the voters would still be 89% white and 72% male by 2023, with a median age of 61.
Black British actor Idris Elba was widely expected to be the one bright spot for minority actors this year. His supporting turn as an African warlord in the powerful drama “Beasts of No Nation” was on many pundits’ lists as a Supporting Actor contender. But perhaps that film’s unconventional release – it was made available on Netflix’s streaming platform while simultaneously making a traditional theatrical run – or its gritty subject matter, may have turned off Oscar voters.
Now Hollywood will have yet another awkward problem on their hands, and surely this year’s Oscar host, comedian Chris Rock, will not treat the snubbing of actors of color lightly. Here are five other big takeaways from today’s nominations:
Sylvester Stallone, three-time Oscar nominee: That’s not a phrase many film fans would ever expect to utter, but remarkably (and, justifiably) Stallone has completed a perfect career arc here, getting nominated for his moving work as an aging Rocky Balboa in “Creed.” There are so many sentimental but also compelling aspects to this story. Stallone was nominated for Best Actor when he first played the role that made him a star 40 years ago. He was also nominated for writing the screenplay for the classic boxing drama. Now, at age 69, he could finally win for playing the same character albeit in a film about the son of his fictional rival conceived by the up-and-coming Coogler. Working against Sly is the fact that his hit film was blanked in every other category, which historically doesn’t bode well for acting nominees. Still, I wouldn’t ever count out this legendary action star who’s on yet another career comeback.
“Star Wars” snubbed: The biggest movie of the past year, and without taking inflation into account the most successful U.S. domestic release of all time, was not able to make it into a crowded Best Picture race, despite boasting across-the-board rave reviews. The film may have suffered from being kept under wraps until late into the awards season, and the fact that two other big, action crowdpleasers, “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Martian,” were already in the race. Still, for fans of this resurrected franchise the five nominations the movie did receive, mostly in technical categories, felt like a consolation prize. Sidebar: In a less competitive year, Harrison Ford would have and should have made it in the Best Supporting Actor race for his touching return to his signature role of Han Solo.
Lenny Abrahamson sneaks in: In one of the biggest surprises of the day, little known “Room” director Lenny Abrahamson was able to beat out some high profile competition, like veteran director of “The Martian” Ridley Scott, to enter the five-man Best Director race. It was a choice that many prognosticators did not see coming. In fact, had Scott made the cut, many believed he had a solid chance to win in a wide open year. Abramson’s inclusion is evidence that there is solid support behind the emotional and challenging Brie Larson film, which is an adaptation of a best-selling book.
“Straight Outta Compton” letdown: An audience favorite that could have provided the Best Picture and Best Director race with some much-needed diversity, but instead it only got nominated for white contributions through its screenplay. The NWA biopic was hailed as a timely commentary on the Black Lives Matter era in which we live, but apparently that message didn’t translate to Oscar voters, who overlooked every other aspect of the production. Curiously, the movie’s inclusion in the Original Screenplay category pushed out “The Hateful Eight” and its outspoken writer-director Quentin Tarantino. The polarizing filmmaker is a regular in that race, but apparently the Oscar voters failed to see his genius this time. Meanwhile, screenwriting superstar Aaron Sorkin also was passed over, despite rave reviews for his work on “Steve Jobs.”
Strength of “The Revenant”: Coming off a surprise Golden Globes win for Best Picture, “The Revenant” showed impressive strength again here with 12 nominations, more than any other film. In an Oscar race which has been hard to predict all year, this bleak revenge thriller may be emerging as the favorite. It certainly has a head of steam – terrific box office numbers, lots of free press generated by star Leonardo DiCaprio’s physical endurance on the set, and enough critical consensus to push it over the edge. That said, its director, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, just won last year, for his innovative character study “Birdman.” No filmmaker has directed two Best Picture winners in a row, but there is a first time for everything.