December 7, 2016

COLUMN: All-white Academy nominees reveal bigger industry problem

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed the nominees for the 88th Academy Awards, but the talk of who was not nominated grabbed headlines in the aftermath.

For the second year in a row, the four main acting categories (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress) contained all white actors. This year’s nominations announcement prompted critics to resurrect the trending Twitter topic from last year, #OscarsSoWhite.

Last year, the Oscar nominations received criticism when Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic Selma only received a Best Picture and Best Original Song nomination. David Oyelowo, who portrayed King, did not receive a Best Actor nomination.  More famously, Ava DuVernay, the African-American female director of the film, did not receive a Best Director nomination.

Last year’s ceremony was the first time since 1998 that the acting categories have been made up exclusively of white actors.

This backlash caught the attention of Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs (an African-American).  In an interview with the Associated Press, she said the Academy was working to diversify its organization.

In June 2015, the Academy announced several new members to the organization, which included people of color such as Kevin Hart, Common, Dev Patel, John Legend, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and even snubbed Selma actor Oyelowo himself.

With a more diversified organization, it looked as if people of different ethnicities would be duly represented on Hollywood’s biggest night.

That is, until Thursday’s nominations.

It is ironic that the Academy asked Hollywood giants such as Guillermo Del Toro, a Mexican director, and Ang Lee, a Taiwanese-born director, to help announce the nominees.  It is telling that the awards they announced did not include the acting categories.

Boone Isaacs even said she was disappointed by the fact there was very little representation for people of color when interviewed by Deadline.

So, what happened this year?  In 2014, a Los Angeles Times survey of the over 6,028 Academy voters revealed that nearly 94 percent of voters were white and 77 percent of them were male.  African-Americans made up about two percent of the organization, less than two percent were Latino and less than one-half percent were of Asian and Native descent.

The median age was 63.  While these percentages have changed over the years, it has not been enough to shift the patterns of the Academy drastically.

This year, Michael B. Jordan did not receive a Best Actor nomination for his critically acclaimed work in Creed.  The only nomination Creed received was Sylvester Stallone’s nod for Best Supporting Actor. The film’s African-American director, Ryan Coogler, also did not receive a Best Director nomination.

In another controversial decision, N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton received only a Best Original Screenplay nomination for Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus (all of whom are white), despite critical and commercial success.

Other “snubs” could include Benicio Del Toro for Sicario, Will Smith for Concussion and Mya Taylor for Tangerine.  There are, I am sure, many more we could make arguments for.

Is the Academy regressing back to the old days?  No.  If it were, Lupita Nyong’o, a Mexican-born Kenyan actress, would not have won for her performance in 12 Years a Slave, which also won Best Picture. There were also wins for Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Sidney Poitier, Whoopi Goldberg and Jennifer Hudson in previous years.

I do not believe that the organization on the whole is against people of color.  If that were the case, these actors would not have gotten these wins.

In fact, the first African- American to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel in 1940 for her role in Gone with the Wind.  She was required to sit at a segregated table for the ceremony, but despite the color of her skin, she still won her much-deserved award.

What is it about this and last year?  The Academy has some fixing to do.  I believe Boone Isaacs is on the right track with diversifying the organization and should keep on it.  Her priorities are certainly admirable.  The problem, though, goes far beyond the awards.

The problem is this: where are the roles for people of color?

Hollywood needs to stop thinking about casting people of color only when a real-life character needs to be portrayed.  There are great fictional characters out there, but most of them are going to white people. Yes, there are people of color in fictional roles, but most of them are supporting roles.  Where are the leads?

If one were to make a biopic about Martin Luther King, Jr., one would have to cast an African-American, like David Oyelowo.  If one were to make a biopic about Latino superstar Selena, you would have to cast someone of Latino descent, such as Jennifer Lopez.  To not do so would be an outright disrespectful way to represent the lives of these real-life figures.

What about the fictional roles? When J.J. Abrams cast African-American actor John Boyega as the male lead in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it was considered big news. Since fictional roles are mostly given to white people, many people of color are missing out.

It is at this point that studios should start to look to Abrams for inspiration.  Boyega did receive criticism for his casting because of the color of his skin, but Abrams defended his casting during an interview on The Howard Stern Show.

“I think the people who are complaining about that [Boyega’s casting] probably have bigger problems than ‘there’s a black stormtrooper,’” Abrams said.

Again this year, the Fantastic Four reboot cast Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch, a character that is white in the comic books. There is change happening, but not enough.

Even fictional characters of different ethnicity are given to white actors.  There were two instances of this in 2015 alone.  That year, Emma Stone was cast as a character of Hawaiian and Asian heritage in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, a problematic casting choice she herself has admitted was misguided.  Rooney Mara was cast as Tiger Lily in Pan, a fictional character typically portrayed as Native American. Mara is of European descent.

How are people of color suppose to be recognized at the Academy Awards if the roles are so few and far in between?

I suspect that there will be change in the Academy. It has happened before and it will happen again.  Before change can be made in the Academy, change has to happen in Hollywood in general.  Let us give people of color more fictional, developed characters to play.

In the meantime, we will have to wait and see what hilarious insight Chris Rock will give Feb. 28, when he hosts the Academy Awards, or, as he calls them, “the White BET Awards.”

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