Friday, January 16, 2015

Diversity at the Oscars: It’s All How You Look at It

Now that the Oscar nominations are out, all the professional prognosticators are having their say. The main comment I’ve heard is that this will be the whitest Academy Awards ceremony in quite some time. This marks a big change from last year, when the winner was 12 Years a Slave.  Lupita Nyong’o received the Best Supporting Actress award for that film, while its star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, was also nominated.  Other nominees of color in 2014 included Barkhad Abdi for his memorable supporting role in Captain Phillips. Back in 2013, two Best Picture nominees--Django Unchained and Beasts of the Southern Wild—both focused on aspects of the African-American experience, and Denzel Washington was in the running for Best Actor. A major nominee in 2012 was The Help.

So, yes, this year’s ceremony will be notable for shying away from African-American stories. And I’m as surprised as anyone that the star and director of Selma (which I have not yet seen) have been overlooked. The film deals with a subject—the birth of the Civil Rights movement—of which the film industry can be proud. And it would have been nice, in the light of past inequities, to welcome a Best Director nominee who is both black and female.

Still, filmmaking is an art, not a science, and I don’t think the Academy is required to honor specific segments of our population, no matter how worthy their stories or how large their demographic share. The idea that racial diversity among nominees is obligatory is one that rubs me the wrong way. And leads me in some rather weird mental directions.

Let’s see whether this year’s slate can be considered in any way “diverse.” Looking at the glamour categories, I notice immediately that some minority groups have actually had a banner year. Take performers who are British subjects. Two of them (Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch) are up for Best Actor, and two more (Felicity Jones and Rosamund Pike) for  Best Actress. (The latter even had the nerve to play, convincingly, an All-American femme fatale.) Let’s add Keira Knightley for her supporting role in The Imitation Game and it’s clear that this year’s American party could well have a English accent.  

Then let’s think about old guys. We know Hollywood is a town that favors youth. But both Michael Keaton and J.K. Simmons are in their sixties, while Robert Duvall is a sprightly 84. We also know it’s rare for beloved comic actors to be honored for playing deadly serious dramatic roles: hello, Steve Carell!  And check out the Best Director category, which boasts not one but two Texans: Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson. Not to mention one Norwegian, surely a first.

Along with ethnic minorities, other groups can complain that they’ve been overlooked this year. Like little girls. Leaving out Quvenzhané Wallis (Annie) means neglecting an African-American but also a child actor. And there’s been no Oscar love this time around for performers who starved off a lot of weight for their art. So Shailene Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler) will not be following Matthew McConaughey’s path to glory. Motion-capture star Andy Serkis (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) was also ignored once again. And though Foxcatcher nabbed several big nominations, none went to a hunk who was once a male stripper (Channing Tatum).   

I can understand the bitter gripes of African-Americans, though. Why are they only cast in stories in which racial tension plays a central role? Why can’t they, for instance, go Into the Woods? Quvenzhané Wallis as Little Red Riding Hood, anyone? 


  1. I'm all for it. I like hearing production stories where roles in scripts not cited as one race or another are cast with a color blind eye - which is how it should be. If you're creating a fictional story that isn't about racial issues - you should be able to cast anyone of any race or ethnicity in any role.