DISCLAIMER: Some of you may wonder about the lateness of this blog. True, I could have posted this around the time of the nominations or around the time the winners were announced. However I was busy enough with watching and reviewing films around Oscar time. Also I was tired of blogging for a long time after the Oscars were awarded. This is something long-time subscribers of mine are familiar with where I take time out from blogging after the Awards. Nevertheless this is a subject that is relevant any time and is worth posting even now.
When the Oscar nominations came out Thursday January 15th, with it came the ranting and complaining from people. The Hollywood Reporter is right that if there’s one thing we love more than watching the Oscars, it’s complaining about them. Every year, there are complaints from people about nominations that deserved to happen but didn’t. The biggest example for this year would be The LEGO Movie snubbed in the Best Animated Feature category. There’s also the possible complaint from people, especially Republicans, that none of the eight Best Picture nominees had grossed even $60 million at that time. One such to raise eyebrows, especially at Box Office Mojo. However the biggest noise came over the lack of racial diversity among the nominees, especially the acting nominees. It was all over social media. It even appeared in a speech by Jessica Chastain at this year’s Critics Choice awards. The question being how legitimate is this claim? And what does this say of the film industry.
How The Oscar Race Works
One thing I’ve been doing in my fifteen years of paying close attention to the Oscar race is learning how nominations are won. One thing I already know that having a phenomenal performance or effort in a critically-renowned film is good to get the buzz started. Then it involves having it taken to all those Critics Circle awards, film body awards, Top 10 films of the year charts from critics, the Hollywood Foreign Press, the respective various guilds and members of the Academy through various DVDs with ‘for your consideration’ stamped all over it and even ‘for your consideration’ posters. Even things of merit like Oscar nominations require marketing to success in this lovely industry called showbiz.
Then it’s up for the Academy members to vote. How does one become a member? The easiest way– or should I say the most guaranteed way as nothing’s easy in showbiz– is be nominated for an Oscar. That’s the sure-fire method. The harder method is to earn consistent acclaim over the years with your efforts and performances. There are a lot of members that were never nominated for an Oscar so there must be some merit system towards achieving Academy membership. Performances and efforts get a lot of Oscar buzz and a load of acclaim from critics, critics’ boards and awards juries. It’s now up for the members of the Academy to vote for the nominees. One thing we need to remember is that nominating operates branch-by-branch. Actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors, scriptwriters nominate scripts, documentarians nominate documentaries, and so forth. One thing’s that’s certain is all members vote for Best Picture.
The funny thing is how many performances and efforts each year that are labeled Oscar-worthy. It’s like I always describe the nominations race: “Lots of performances deserving of the win. Only room for five nominees.” You can tell how hard it is to be among what should be called the ‘elite of the year.’ I even describe that by saying “Sometimes even excellent isn’t good enough.” It’s obvious why a lot of actors and other people in film rely on such buzz and advertising to get a nomination because they can’t rely on just their performance as-is. This is showbiz and it’s about that push and about politicking and advertising and cash pumping that lead to all these nominations and nothing is completely guaranteed. Even The LEGO Movie looked like a sure bet for the Best Animated Feature nomination but it didn’t get it. That to me was the biggest snub this year.
Then the nominations came. Selma was among the eight films to earn nominations for Best Picture. However the big shock came in the latter categories. Selma also had its best hopes in earning nominations in the Best Actor category for David Oyelowo and the Best Director category for Ava DuVernay. Both were already Golden Globe nominees and Critics Choice award nominees. However neither of the nominations happened. The only other nomination that Selma received was in the Best Original Song category for ‘Glory’ which had already won the Golden Globe.
The snubs bit. Ava’s bit especially since this would have made her the fourth black director and the fifth female director to clinch a Best Director nomination. Just as irritating is who was nominated in their place. For Best Actor, Redmayne, Keaton, Cumberbatch and Carell had enough buzz to sit pretty. David Oyelowo and Jake Gyllenhall of Nightcrawler looked like to be the tightest race for the fifth spot. For Best Director, Inarritu, Tyldum, Linklater and Anderson had the biggest buzz while DuVernay appeared to have her biggest competition for the fifth sport from Clint Eastwood for American Sniper. As what should have been expected for Best Actor, it went to a peer: Bradley Cooper for American Sniper. This was the third year in a row he was nominated for an Oscar. Unexpectedly in Best Director, the directors went for a lesser-celebrated peer: Bennett Miller for Foxcatcher. This is his second nomination, first being for Capote in 2005.
As much as the snubs bit, it’s not that unusual for more celebrated performances to be snubbed out in favor of lesser-hailed performances and efforts by Academy ‘peers.’ I first learned that in 2000, the very first year I paid serious attention to the Oscar race, when after I saw Billy Elliot, I was rooting for young Jamie Bell to get a Best Actor nomination. I even said: “If Billy Elliot gets a Best Picture nomination, then Jamie better get a Best Actor nomination.” The Academy granted my wish by making neither nomination happen. Favored over Jamie in the Best Actor category was the performance of Ed Harris, who had two previous Oscar nominations, in his self-directed Pollock: a movie and performance whose buzz either slipped under the radar or was kept low key because it wasn’t as heralded by previous awards. I saw it repeated in 2004 in the Best Actor category when Clint Eastwood was nominated for Million Dollar Baby. Sure his directing work was hugely heralded and his Best Director nomination was expected but his Best Actor nomination was completely out of the blue as it neither won nor was nominated for any other awards, major or minor. I continue to see it on a yearly basis in the Best Original Score category. It’s a given that whenever John Williams composes a score for a film, he’s guaranteed to get nominated. Even if it’s mostly unnoticed, it will find itself on the nominees lists even over more lauded scores by lesser known composers. Surprise nominees have happened in other categories over the years too. Rarely but often enough to take notice.
You can bet the outrage would start after the snubbing of Selma. All the acting and directing nominees were white. All the directing and writing nominees were white males. Additional irritation came when the script of Gone Girl was not nominated. This would have made Gillian Flynn the lone female writer among screenplay nominees. The anger came fast. Sasha Stone at the Awards Daily website was fuming. Bill Maher lampooned it. Jessica Chastain talked about the importance of diversity among Oscar nominees in her Critics Choice award acceptance speech. There was even the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. The craziest news came from the Rev. Al Sharpton and his plan to start up a diversity task force on the Academy. Actually Al’s remarks were the least of my concern. Al Sharpton is less of a civil rights leader than he is a drama queen.
However it was later exposed in an Entertainment Weekly article where DuVernay herself was personally interviewed by the magazine the real facts. It wasn’t racism as so many want to believe. It wasn’t even the controversy of her portrayal of LBJ. Nor was it even her involvement in raising activism over the not-guilty verdict over the shooting of Michael Brown or her promotion of the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ campaign. It was however marketing. Even though she had a Golden Globe nomination as did Oyelowo, the film was shunned out of the Screen Actors Guild awards, Directors Guild awards and the Producers Guild’s Golden Laurel awards, weakening Selma‘s chances for Oscar nominations. Even her own late distribution of the promotional DVD to Academy members, meaning members wouldn’t get it until later-December with little time to spare for nomination voting, decreased Selma‘s chances even further. Who you know doesn’t just involve getting acting jobs. It can even involve awards nominations too. In the end, Selma was nominated for Best Picture but its only other nomination was for Best Original Song for ‘Glory,’ which would go on to win the Oscar. However Selma became the first Best Picture nominee since 2002’s Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers without additional nominations in acting, directing or scriptwriting.
Whatever happened, it did expose a lot of holes in the Academy. Having a group of peers declaring nominees does leave for a lot of subjectivity in its choices. You can describe a lot of performances as ‘deserving’ of an Oscar win or even a nomination but the reality is this is showbiz. As much as there are a lot of performances and efforts deserving of nominations, I’m also well aware that showbiz is one domain where you won’t get what you deserve no matter how hard you work. Being able to command at least $1,000,000 per film, getting the big break of a lifetime and even getting an Oscar nomination are all as much about luck as even making it as an actor, especially in Hollywood. And it’s not uncommon to see peer favoritism in terms of Oscar nominations and seeing a deserving performance from an up-and-comer snubbed out.
Such snubs especially bite when it happens to a minority. People magazine even did a 1996 cover article entitled ‘Hollywood Black-Out’ about how black actors and other blacks in the film industry are shunned out. It’s not just blacks. Seeing the rare times when an actor/actress of a different race is nominated brings up reminders how their race is also given too little acclaim from the Academy. Having black celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and Chris Rock host the Oscars has done little to quell this controversy. The fact that the AMPAS Academy is headed by a black woman, Cheryl Boone-Isaacs, still did little to ease whatever tensions over diversity pop up. Even the awarding of Best Picture to Twelve Years A Slave last year was instantly forgotten. Even though I’ve faced the fact that this is showbiz and there’s really no such thing as unfair, I too would like to see more diversity happen.
Diversity Not Just Black And White
It’s not just a case of black actors or directors or other African-American filmworkers of various trades. We should also remember about Latin Americans. The last fifteen years has seen a good number of nominations going to actors from the Latin American countries or Americans of Latin American ancestry but even those are very rare as are the wins. I think Benicio del Toro is the only winner for this century. Just as excluded are Asian actors. I remember there wasn’t a single acting nomination for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon despite its many nominations. There have only been two winners in the history of the Oscars: Miyoshi Umeki and Haing Ngor. Even actors of other races have been shunned aside or given limited acclaim.
Even gender is a diversity issue. Four women have been nominated for Best Director. The first being Lina Wertmuller in 1975. The fourth and most recent being Kathryn Bigelow in 2009 who became the first woman to win the Oscar in that category for The Hurt Locker. Scriptwriting has been more friendly with more female nominees but still predominantly male. Nevertheless this year bit when the script from the hugely successful Gone Girl which was adapted to film by the novel’s own author Gillian Flynn was shunned out of the nominations. Gender diversity is more active in the technical nominations like Best Costume Design or Best Film Editing and even in the short film categories. Nevertheless seeing missing nominations in the higher categories does cause one to notice the exclusivity.
New Century, Bigger Diversity
The biggest surprise of it all is that the 21st century has either equaled, or has come close to equaling, the diversity numbers of the 20th century. On the subject of black actors and actresses, they have achieved five wins and thirty-one total nominations in the whole 20th century and amassed a total of nine wins and twenty-nine nominations in the 21st century. The 21st century has also included breakthroughs like Halle Berry being the first to win Best Actress and Denzel Washington becoming the first ever to win two Oscars. Even in the Best Director category there was only one black director ever nominated in the 20th century: John Singleton for Boyz ‘N Tha Hood. This century there were two: Lee Daniels for Precious and Steve McQueen for 12 Years A Slave. It’s not just African-Americans getting nominations and wins but black actors from many countries being nominated in this century like Djimon Hounsou from Benin, Sophie Okonedo and Chitewel Ejiofor from the UK and Mexican-born Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o.
On the subject of other races, one bright light was that 2003 had the most racially diverse set of acting nominees with nine non-white actors nominated including New Zealand Maori Keshia Castle-Hughes, Iranian Shohreh Aghdashloo, half-Indian British actor Ben Kingsley and Japanese actor Ken Watanabe among the many.
Some of you may be shocked to know that 2014 is only the second year in the 21st century that the acting nominations went all to white actors. Makes you wonder what’s more shocking? The fact that all were white or the fact that this is only the second year in the 21st century to do such? The only other year that this has been the case was 2010. Only back then there were no performances by racial minorities that garnered significant buzz to stimulate Oscar buzz. Not like this year where efforts from Selma achieved noticeable buzz.
Diversity is slowly but surely opening up in the directing categories. The last three Best Director wins have been won by racial minorities: Ang Lee, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. The 21st century may have had only two female Best Director nominees including one winner but there were only two in the whole 20th century. The 21st century has also opened up to female writers more. I even noticed in 2007 that three of the five scripts nominated for Best Original Screenplay were written by women including the winning script from Juno by Diablo Cody.
The Future Of Diversity In Hollywood
Despite the improvement in diversity over the last few decades, we have to look at the big picture of diversity not just in the Academy but Hollywood as a whole. I will admit that minorities are underserved in terms of box office fare. It’s not like the 90’s or the noughts where there were bigger box office stars of different races. Actually this last century has been an enigma in terms of defining a movie star’s success altogether. However I will say there was noticeably more movies back during those decades where a minority was the main star. We all remember a lot of those hip hop movies from long ago? Or even rappers taking on acting roles? Sometimes you wonder if we should blame Hollywood or the movie-going public? Like why does it seem the most racial diversity we see in terms of blockbuster fare nowadays are Tyler Perry movies?
Back on the topic of the Oscars, I wanted to delay my blog about this because I wanted the firestorm after the nominations to die down. Yes, there were a lot of people angry about the lack of diversity this year. There even some angry enough to dismiss past diversity of Oscar nominees, including AwardsDaily’s Sasha Stone dismissing it as an “Illusion of inclusion,” which is typical of Sasha’s ranting. There were some critics however who pointed out there were a lot of other snubs from deserving efforts from non-minorities reminding us how chancy it is to get nominated. Even one anonymous blogger said “You can’t simply give a nomination to them because they’re a minority. You should nominate them because you feel their performance deserves it.” It is true. Even though I would love to see diversity happen amongst Oscar nominees, I am aware of the harsh realities of showbiz including that of the Academy. In actual fact, the Academy actually does not owe anyone diversity. Same as Hollywood doesn’t really owe anybody anything. The only thing the Academy really owes on ‘Nomination Day’ are nominations to the five best performances and efforts of the year.
One thing I do feel the Academy should do is reorganize itself. It should especially reorganize its ability in selecting members of the Academy. It’s not clear how members of the Academy outside of past Oscar nominees are selected. One thing it should do is allow for more fair rules for allowing for diversity. Whatever panel that selects Academy members should go to more film events like the various film festivals for selecting new members including those with focus on minorities. It should go to more media events as well. I’m even tempted to suggest the Academy should expand its nominees per category from five to seven but that’s up for the Academy to decide.
Since I mentioned film festivals, this is my next focus on how to increase opportunities for minorities, and this isn’t simply for Oscar nominations. Film festivals have to be the most minority-friendly of opportunities. I know because I’ve attended the Vancouver Film festival for many years. I’ve seen films from various countries directed by a diverse variety of people including many films directed by women. Minorities of both race and gender should seize every channel they can to get their works out into the public eye and film festivals are their best bet. There are even ‘specific’ film festivals dedicated to race and ethnicity and even women’s film festivals including one festival that advertises ‘by women for everyone.’ That’s why I said after the Oscar nominations: “You want diversity? Go to a film festival. There you’ll get diversity in film making.”
Since I’m on the topic, that’s another thing I feel minorities should overcome: beating out false stigmas associated with their works. I know I’ve talked a lot about changes and improvements certain professionals should make. I can’t really say the same about minority actors and directors because they’re not really doing anything wrong. They should all keep doing what they’re doing and follow their dreams. Even David and Ava did nothing wrong really and they should keep on chasing their dreams. However they are sometimes given a stigma with their works and efforts that’s not entirely true in which they should fight off. I often feel that most of the film world thinks of black directors to be like Spike Lee who always has an angry view of white people. It’s not 100% true as Selma showed the white supporters of the Selma marches in a positive light. As for female directors, I feel there’s a bit of a myth that sometimes female directors can either direct ‘chick movies’ or be the type that mocks men just like Roseanne Barr used to. It’s not true as I’ve seen films directed by women at the VIFF that depicted men in a fair light. Plus I never saw Ava try to give a negative impression of men in Selma. Yes, these stigmas are an undeserved burden for them but they should fight it by letting their works speak for themselves.
In conclusion, the lack of diversity among the 2014 Oscar nominees not only exposed a big hole in the Academy but also in Hollywood. As if showbiz isn’t unfair enough. 2015 is only three months old. The 2014 Oscars were decided a month ago and the nominations for 2015 are 9 1/2 months away. There have already been film festivals like Sundance, SXSW and Berlin showcasing films for this year. There will be more film festivals this year like Cannes, Venice and Toronto and even smaller film festivals showcasing a multitude of films locally and around the world. Time will tell which will receive Oscar buzz. Time will also pay close attention to potential nominees. However tracing improvements or declines in diversity can’t be traced in a single year. This is something that will have to take at least a decade or two to see if progress in terms of diversity has been achieved. Even though Hollywood and the Academy is as much of a clique as any other channel of showbiz and even smaller film communities, barriers still should be broken and diversity of newcomers should still be welcomed.
2014 was definitely a year when minorities of both race and gender were overlooked in terms of Oscar acclaim. Despite the Academy being more open in the last two decades, most people were left with the common impression: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Only time will tell if improvements in diversity within the Academy and film making as a whole have been made.
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