Disclaimer: There are too many issues regarding diversity and representation for one article, and the following therefore focuses primarily on the representation of people of color, specifically African-Americans, in the major categories of the Academy Awards.
People are outraged at the Academy, and for good reason. For the second year in a row, the world’s single most prestigious film organization has failed to recognize a single actor of color. Nominations across the various categories have demonstrated a disturbing lack of diversity in terms of both filmmakers and content. Though we have seen a rise in coverage of the issue this year, the situation remains more disastrous than many people think.
Not only do people of color get an atrociously small amount of recognition at the Oscars, but in the rare case that they do, it is usually for works that are associated with negative stereotypes of their respective groups and communities. This trend is not merely offensive; it is one of the biggest sources of racism in the industry, because it encourages studios to make exclusively tragic and historically themed pictures about people of color. It is atrocious that deserving filmmakers and actors are not being recognized. However, the larger issue at hand is access.
Despite the often arbitrary nature of the awards, one cannot ignore the sheer power of an Oscar. In light of Spike Lee’s decision to avoid this year’s ceremony, many artists and activists inside and outside the industry have argued that the best response to the Academy’s failures is simply to boycott the Oscars. At the moment, this unfortunately will not have a huge impact due to the Academy’s global and instant influence. An Oscar does not merely boost a film’s reputation; it has the potential to completely change the careers of its recipients.
In many ways, the Oscar has come to resemble a prestigious degree. Both are often awarded haphazardly and yet immediately give the impression of pure merit. Just as getting into an Ivy League school is not always a reflection of one’s academic ability, snagging the coveted statue is not always about cinematic achievement. Yet an Oscar, like a degree from a reputable school listed on one’s resume, automatically gives its recipient a career boost. And it does so like no other award in the international film industry.
In a market where fast-paced franchise blockbusters dominate, the mainstream viewer usually has neither much time nor patience for the more artistic films that often receive limited releases. Typically, the easiest way to determine which films are important to see boils down to the recognition they have received, primarily from the Academy. Simply being able to state on your trailer that your director or actor has previously won an Oscar automatically makes your film appear more praiseworthy.
It is in this way that the lack of diversity in the Oscars directly harms the state of people of color in the industry. By not recognizing the incredible films made by filmmakers of color, starring actors of color, or focused on people of color, the Academy makes it more difficult for these accomplished professionals to advance in the industry and simultaneously perpetuates the notion that these films and stories have no respectable place in the contemporary film industry. Fewer awards or nominations for filmmakers and actors of color means fewer opportunities for advancement in the industry, and in turn, fewer films made by or starring them.
That said, the lack of diversity in the Oscars is not only concerning from a social justice point of view. It calls the tastes of the Academy into dire question. As many are aware at this point, the demographics of this elite group break down to 94 percent white and 77 percent male, with an average age of 63. Naturally, this tends to skew the nominations toward films that revolve around issues of direct interest or concern to this vanguard American demographic. Hence, the Academy is in desperate need of more diverse membership. Humans instinctively gravitate toward stories that reflect their experiences and world views. But when a group is supposedly representing the crème de la crème of an artistic medium, what does its attachment to its narrow worldview say about its commitment to the medium at hand?
This year presented an excellent variety of films made by and/or starring people of color (“Creed,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Dope,” “Tangerine,” “Beasts of No Nation,” etc.), all of which were overlooked for the Academy’s nominations. Worse still, the two films of this (admittedly very limited) list received nominations exclusively acknowledging the white artists involved: Sylvester Stallone for Best Supporting Actor in “Creed” and Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff for Best Original Screenplay of “Straight Outta Compton.” The five aforementioned films are brilliant and were widely acclaimed and supported. These are by all means some of the best cinematic endeavors of the last year, and all of them were tragically ignored by their industry’s leaders.
These snubs are even more offensive when we consider which works and performances got nominated in their place. Neither “Creed” nor “Straight Outta Compton” received Best Picture nominations, yet “Bridge of Spies” and “The Martian” did. Michael B. Jordan, Mya Taylor and Idris Elba were all denied acting nominations, but Matt Damon, Jennifer Lawrence, and Rachel McAdams were not. This is not to say that any of these films or performances were particularly bad, but that they were laughably underwhelming for the supposed weight of these categories. “Bridge of Spies” and “The Martian” are both solid films, but given the oeuvres of their directors (Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott, respectively), they present nothing new or particularly stellar. The same issue applies with Damon, Lawrence, and McAdams. Their performances were strong, but by no means memorable or even widely lauded. They were simply not worthy of these nominations, especially in comparison to the breathtaking work of the aforementioned actors of color.
The Oscars are one of the most critical pillars of the international film industry. Their lack of diversity is not only offensive, but it also limits the opportunities and positions of filmmakers and actors of color in the industry. Though the Academy certainly needs to radically change its demographics, as it has recently promised to do, it also needs to revise its membership’s limited perspective on what constitutes an achievement in filmmaking. If your appreciation of cinema is limited by how much a film speaks to your own experience, your very commitment to the medium is, at the very least, questionable.