In the wake of yesterday’s Oscar nominations, which bypassed Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” in all but two categories and featured not a single person of color among the 20 acting nominees, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began to trend on Twitter. A 5×2 grid of the Best Actor and Best Actress candidates also made the rounds, a damning grid of beaming all-white faces that looks like those oft-retweeted matrices of Fox News contributed. Many, including me, observed that the pattern of nominated films and individuals closely tracks the make of the Academy itself, which 94 percent white, 77 percent male, and 86 percent above the age of 50.
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But though the Oscar nominations are a concise and glaring demonstration of the movie industry’s lack of diversity, they are not its cause, or they are at worst a small part of the unvarying cycle that ensures Hollywood largely continues to make the movies they always had. Yes, it’s unfortunate that Ava DuVernay was overlooked by the Academy’s directors branch, ensuring that for the 87th Academy Awards, the slate of Best Directors will be exclusively male and largely if not entirely white. (You may argue among yourselves as to whether Mexican Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu counts.) But the more profound issue, and the reason this has been the case for more than 80 of the Oscars’ 87 years, is the films they’re choosing from in the first place.
Let’s assume for a moment that, mishandled Oscar campaign aside, a good percentage of Academy voters actually saw “Selma” and, though they liked it as a whole enough to make the film one of eight Best Picture nominees, didn’t find its direction or its actors exceptional. (Remember that most categories are nominated by the corresponding branch of the Academy — actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors, etc. — but everyone casts a ballot for Best Picture.) What choices did that leave them with? Apart from DuVernay and “Selma’s” David Oyelowo, Movie City News’ Gurus o’ Gold, which aggregates the predictions of over a dozen Oscar prognosticators, listed not a single person of color — and, apart from “Selma,” only one movie that did not focus on a white man or men — among its potential nominees in the major categories. That, of course, is a problem with the Academy, and perhaps as well with the pundits who both predict and reinforce the Academy’s historic biases. There’s no way of knowing, but would, say “The Theory of Everything’s” Eddie Redmayne have been a Best Actor lock if the pundits hadn’t proclaimed him such from the moment they laid eyes on the film?
There were other choices, of course: There always are. But no realistic ones. Whatever the fervent critical support for Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Beyond the Lights,” the movie barely made a dent at the box office, and its distributor lacked the funds to press up DVDs for Academy voters, without which a nomination is, at this point, effectively impossible. And why is that? Because the movie, which Prince-Bythewood spent years trying to get made, was considered such a marginal financial proposition that wound up on the very edge of the industry, and it was considered a marginal proposition because it has two black protagonists and neither of them is played by an established movie star. It’s a shame that DuVernay was passed over by the director’s branch, but it’s worse still that after looking past DuVernay and Angelina Jolie — whose “Unbroken” was, let’s face it, just not very good — the likelihood of a female nominee essentially dropped to zero. If the Academy is going to nominate more female directors, it needs more female directors to choose from.
There’s a chicken-and-egg aspect here, of course. The Oscars influence which movies get made in the first place; if movies made by and about women and people of color aren’t perceived as “awards material” — which, while offensive, is also, strictly speaking, historically accurate — it’s one less item on the plus side of the ledger. But I’d argue that the Oscars are more a symptom than a cause: The Academy may be complacent and predictable, but it is at least capable of rewarding a “12 Years a Slave” when it comes along. (Think of it as the “Some of my best pictures are black” defense.) The furor over the unbearable whiteness of Oscar is certainly justified, but it will go to waste unless it’s channeled towards the realization that the problem isn’t that the Oscars are so white, but that movies are.