The first African-American president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn't think the Oscars have diversity problem, despite widespread backlash to the exclusion of actors of color from this year's nominees.
Many black movie fans found it ironic that Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who took over leadership of the Academy in 2013, read the nominations on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday Thursday which largely excluded the critically acclaimed MLK biopic "Selma" from several major categories. In fact, 2015 marked just the second time in nearly twenty years that there were no black nominees for acting or directing. Still, when asked by New York magazine's Vulture blog if the Oscars have a diversity problem, Isaacs balked.
"Not at all. Not at all," she said. "The good news is that the wealth of talent is there, and it's being discussed, and it's helpful so much for talent — whether in front of the camera or behind the camera — to have this recognition, to have this period of time where there is a lot of publicity, a lot of chitter-chatter."
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When asked about "Selma" specifically, Issacs said, "Well, it's a terrific motion picture, and that we can never and should not take away from it, the fact that it is a terrific motion picture."
"Selma" was widely seen as the best hope for representation of minority performers in front of and behind the camera at the Academy Awards. Its star, David Oyelowo, was viewed by many as a lock to score a Best Actor nomination for his uncanny portrayal of Dr. King and Ava DuVernay was expected to make history as the first non-white woman to be nominated as Best Director, and only the fifth woman overall.
In the aftermath of the perceived "Selma" snub, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite picked up steam and was trending topic on social media for several hours Thursday. There was considerable frustration among movie critics and fans that a film widely hailed as one of the best of the year (and also one of the most relevant) only scored a Best Song and Best Picture nomination.
"I am angry. I am angry because she deserved a nomination. I am angry because if the legacy of DuVernay’s Selma becomes shaped by its Oscar-season controversy, I fear that it will affect the artistic opportunities afforded to its African-American female director in a manner different than if Selma would have come under fire under the directorial lens of a white male filmmaker," wrote Forbes contributor Scott Mendelson,
Director Spike Lee, no stranger to being overlooked by Oscar, was even more terse with his reaction to the nominations. “That doesn’t diminish the film," he told the Daily Beast. "Nobody’s talking about motherf--kin’ 'Driving Miss Daisy.' That film is not being taught in film schools all across the world like "Do the Right Thing" is. Nobody’s discussing Driving Miss Motherf--kin’ Daisy. So if I saw Ava today I’d say, ‘You know what? F--k ‘em. You made a very good film, so feel good about that and start working on the next one.’”
In an impassioned speech at the Critic's Choice Awards on Thursday, actress Jessica Chastain (also snubbed for her well-reviewed supporting performance in "A Most Violent Year") called on her industry to address the lack of diversity in their midst.
"Today is Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. It got me thinking about our need to build the strength of diversity in our industry," Chastain said while accepting a 2014 MVP award. "To stand together against homophobic, sexist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic and racist agendas. I'm an optimist and I can't help but feel hopeful about the future of film -- especially looking at all the beautiful people in this room. Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.' I would like to encourage everyone in this room to please speak up."
The Academy voters are reportedly 94% white, 77% male and their average age is 63 years old. Some have cited these demographics as the reason "Selma" under-performed in the Oscar race. While others have pointed to a botched Oscar campaign by film studio Paramount (screeners were allegedly delivered to voters late, or in some cases, not at all) and controversy over the film's historical accuracy. Isaacs however, has another theory.
"There are a lot of terrific motion pictures, it's a very competitive time, and there's a lot of great work that has been done," she told Vulture. "I am very happy that 'Selma' is included in our eight terrific motion-picture [nominations]."
President Obama is scheduled to host a White House screening of "Selma" on Friday, with the cast and crew of the movie expected to attend.