Despite a year that boasted big critical and commercial hit films with black leads like “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton,” the Academy Awards may be bashed with the #OscarsSoWhite hastag for the second year in a row when the nominations are announced on Thursday.
It would be a nightmare scenario for the academy, which has taken great pains to champion diversity and a broadening of their infamously old and white voting bloc. Last year, when no performers of color were nominated in the four major acting categories, there were widespread calls for change. But this time around, if many Oscar pundits are to be believed, only “Beasts of No Nation” star Idris Elba has a near lock on a slot this year — and he may be in the awards’ most competitive race.
“There are a dozen, literally 12 guys, competing for five spots right now,” Awards Circuit editor Clayton Davis told MSNBC on Tuesday. Davis notes that Elba fans should take heart that the popular black British actor has been included in nearly every precursor awards campaign, but the fact remains that “ ‘Beasts of No Nation’ has to show strength outside of supporting actor” categories for Elba to have a shot at a winning an Oscar himself. Meanwhile, Elba will also have to overcome pesky Oscar campaign “narratives” that are buttressing other potential nominees, like they’re “due” (Mark Ruffalo), or a “sentimental story” (Sylvester Stallone). According to Davis, these kinds of storylines almost never benefit performers of color. “They’re always fighting the uphill battle,” he said.
“If it’s all-white again, nobody’s going to be happy and there might be a growing perception that the academy is out of touch,” University of Southern California history professor Steve Ross, who has written extensively about the politics of the industry, recently told The Los Angeles Times.
This wasn’t supposed to happen again. Last June, in the aftermath of an Oscars widely criticized for whitewashing, academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an African-American, invited 322 new members into the roughly 8,000 strong voting pool, with an emphasis on promoting the excellence and talent, regardless of race. ”It’s very gratifying to see the big increase in gender and people of color, in age and national origin. It’s a testament to the extraordinary breadth of talent in our industry,” Boone Isaacs told The Hollywood Reporter at the time. That year, “Selma,” an acclaimed drama which recreated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voting rights crusade in the 1960s, was snubbed in the best actor and best director categories, although a Latino director, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, triumphed on Oscar night with a best picture win for “Birdman.”
It’s not as if there isn’t enough quality work from people of color to choose from this year. In addition to Michael B. Jordan’s lead turn in “Creed,” Will Smith has earned strong reviews for his work in the NFL-focused medical drama “Concussion,” Samuel L. Jackson has earned praise for his role in Quentin Tarantino’s western “The Hateful Eight,” as has Benicio Del Toro for his brooding performance in the drug war thriller “Sicario.” The two trans women stars of the indie film “Tangerine” — Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez — are considered longshot contenders, too.
But Davis argues that great work is often not the only factor at play. “It’s like prom king and queen,” he joked. The most popular people, the performers who fit into the overwhelmingly white elite Hollywood establishment often have a leg up on their competition. He cited Lupita Nyong’o’s victory for “12 Years a Slave” in 2014 as an outlier where voters “went with quality and they went with their heart” instead of bowing to preconceived notions, like the conception that 2016 is “Leonardo DiCaprio’s year.”
Jackson spoke candidly during a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter about the double standards he’s encountered in what he describes as the “whole Academy Awards milieu.” In 1991, when he was snubbed for his widely hailed supporting performance in “Jungle Fever,” he recalled seeing the all-white gangster film “Bugsy” get two actors recognized from its cast in the nominations the following year. When Jackson finally did get his first — and so far only — nomination for “Pulp Fiction” three years later, he claims he was told by industry insiders, “You were amazing in that movie and I’d really like to vote for you, but [‘Ed Wood’s] Martin Landau’s been nominated, like, four times, and this might be the last time he has a chance.”
“I say, ‘Oh, so it’s an age thing?’ And they go, ‘What?’ And I go, ‘Well, Morgan Freeman’s old, too. Is he gonna win?’ And they go, ‘What?!’ I was already cynical about it at that point, so the more things I went to that I didn’t win, the more I got it,” Jackson added.
One film that could buck the trends this year might be “Straight Outta Compton,” the NWA biopic that became a surprise summer blockbuster and won critical praise for its potency amid the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as for highlighting national conversations about excessive force and racially biased policing. “It resonates. It tells a great story about one of the most influential groups in music history and it speaks volumes about what’s going on today,” said Davis. “Hands down one of the best films of the year.”
Davis added that many academy members “go on and on about ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and how great it is” and that, although the film’s raw language and subject matter may turn off some stodgier Oscar voters, its strong showing with the major guilds prior to the Academy Awards suggest that it has a real shot of breaking into the potentially 10-movie wide best picture race. According to Davis, a film like “Her” breaking into the big race two years ago, while not a triumph for diversity, is a sign that younger Oscar voters are starting to have an influence on the selections. But that still may not help veteran “Straight Outta Compton” director F. Gary Gray earn a seat among the five filmmakers nominated for best director.
There are approximately 300 directors who select the nominee and according to Davis, “they tend to go for their buddies,” hence snubs of established filmmakers like Spike Lee, who has never been nominated for best director despite being in the business for 30 years and boasting an iconic body of work. Once a nominee gets through, the entire academy voting population gets to have a say and perhaps more diversity can get rewarded. Still, Davis said, the Academy Awards “are gonna have this problem for some time.”