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The Academy’s Diversity Problem Is Complicated

The Academy's Diversity Problem Is Complicated

There are many issues swirling in this Oscar diversity debate.

At the heart of it is how much the Oscars reflect the way that the Academy likes to see itself. That’s one reason why I believed that "The King’s Speech," "The Hurt Locker" and "12 Years a Slave" would win Best Picture. I was surprised by "Driving Miss Daisy"’s win, as well as the one for "Crash." Remember, even if they are mostly white, male and senior, and many have not actively worked on a movie in years, the 6000-strong voting Academy members consider themselves to be industry professionals capable of judging good work. They are mostly liberal. They tend to like well-made, high-minded movies that make them feel proud to be coming from Hollywood.

So why no people of color in the key races this year? Consider the candidates. There are reasons why each of them did not make the cut.

"Beasts of No Nation." The movie debuted to rapturous response at Telluride before its day-and-date release on Netflix and via distributor Bleecker Street and indie exhibitor chain Landmark Theatres in 19 markets on 31 screens. The movie failed at the box office, because Netflix was invested in streaming it online (claiming 3 million streams in 10 days), not making it work in theaters. They knew they’d lose money on theatrical, but wanted to qualify the movie for the Oscars. While there was an awards campaign, Netflix is far more savvy about how to work their documentary division at this stage — and landed two Oscar contenders, even though some complained they overspent (’twas ever thus). Cary Fukunaga, while hugely admired by critics and indie circles, is not well-known by the Academy directors branch; he’s never had a film in Oscar contention, and his biggest hit was the first season of HBO’s "True Detective." Part of the problem: Many of Hollywood’s best and brightest are working in television and the Academy can be snobby about that. 

Even though unknown Abraham Attah and better known British star Idris Elba (best known for TV’s "Luther" and studio action fare) were widely praised, they did not land Oscar nods. Arguably, it wasn’t just a question of whether or not Academy members saw the movie, whether on Netflix, in theaters, or on a screener. (It was a stunning cinematic experience on the big screen.) It’s more that the movie wasn’t deemed a hit. It stayed small. Also, the supporting actor category was the most competitive in years. SAG nominee Michael Shannon didn’t make it either, nor did last year’s Oscar contender Michael Keaton, splitting the vote with "Spotlight" costar Mark Ruffalo, nor widely praised Paul Dano ("Love & Mercy").

"Straight Outta Compton." In this case Universal took the movie out in the summer and turned it into a commercial breakout. They did not play it in festivals to give it extra cred, but gave it a full court press for Oscar consideration. They did not stint on spending. Its strongest assets? F. Gary Gray’s direction, the screenwriters who landed the film’s only Oscar nom (and happened to be white), the score (mostly not original), editing and sound. The media is at fault here: Why weren’t Coogler and Gray in the The Hollywood Reporter director’s roundtable, which reflected less the actual contenders than the Oscar perennials — Quentin Tarantino, Tom Hooper, Danny Boyle, Ridley Scott and David O. Russell, none of whom landed nominations — who would play best on their TV show? (THR apologized for the all-white actresses group, and made up for it with the actors, which included Samuel L. Jackson of "The Hateful Eight" and "Concussion" star Will Smith.) The more mainstream PGA went for "Compton" with a field of ten. The Academy may vote to go back to ten as well, on the basis that "Straight Outta Compton" would have made it.

"Selma" made that cut last year because it was an Academy movie: A reverent biopic of a great slain Civil Rights leader, directed by rising star Ava DuVernay, who delivered a powerful dramatic movie (while dinged by some of the experts of the period). "Straight Outta Compton" was a hip hop musical aimed at a younger male demographic, totally different from the Academy’s. I talked to lots of voters who loved it, and I thought it would get in. It’s those preferential ballots. With a lot of competition the consensus rules.

"Creed." From the beginning, supporting actor nominee Sylvester Stallone’s narrative dominated this Oscar campaign. Writer-director Ryan Coogler’s debut "Fruitvale" was picked up by the Weinsteins and became a festival darling, playing Sundance and Cannes, and was an indie hit, but with this MGM/New Line/Warner Bros. sequel, Coogler carefully fashioned an accessible, entertaining, dramatic narrative. He wrote a script that was strong enough to lure Stallone and let his stars — Stallone and Michael B. Jordan — shine. Both should have been nominated. Why wasn’t Jordan taken more seriously? That is a deep and disturbing question. He is relatively young and largely not established with the Academy electorate, many of whom dodged "Creed" thinking it was just another "Rocky" sequel. Best Picture voters tend to ignore sequels, as they did "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," with certain exceptions like "Mad Max: Fury Road" or the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

"Concussion." Look at the reviews. They were ok but not great. Laudable as his mission was to raise consciousness about the dangers of head injuries in football, Peter Landesman was more agit-prop journalist than compelling filmmaker. Will Smith did a solid job embodying a Nigerian neurologist trying to make his mark in America. But the movie needed to be stronger, and did not catch fire at the box office. SAG didn’t go for him either. Smith is more global movie star than respected master thespian, partly due to his own eagerness to please within the studio system with mixed resuts. He’s been nominated twice, for Michael Mann’s "Ali" and Gabriele Muccino’s "The Pursuit of Happyness."

The Academy wants to make changes, and they have been aggressively inviting a younger, more diverse membership ever since CEO Dawn Hudson and president Cheryl Boone Isaacs have been in charge. They know the problem. They want to move the needle but it’s going slowly. The Governors meeting this coming Tuesday will bring a wide-ranging discussion of what they can do to improve the situation. Some people want to limit voters to people who have worked in the last ten years. Indiewire’s box office pundit Tom Brueggemann suggests a point system with more points for Academy winners and active members and fewer for inactive members. This won’t fly. Most people in the movie business don’t work a lot of the time. These professionals are experienced, knowledgeable and worthy of respect. Agism isn’t the solution.

They just don’t tend to like hip hop movies, necessarily, or follow small-scale festival hits that haven’t penetrated their consciousness. Part of the fault is within the Academy screening committee, which chooses the movies that show to the membership over the course of the year. Many worthy and diverse films do not get picked. 

My modest proposal for modernizing and winnowing down the Academy voters? If they can’t figure out how to vote online, even with coaching from the Academy, maybe they aren’t cogent enough pick the Oscars. 

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Or could be traced back to the fact that SOC wasn’t THAT good nor did it really deserve a bunch of nominations anyways. Its a typical biopic only distinguished by the fact that it’s rap instead of other musical genres and just had great timing. I don’t even think it deserved the screenplay nomination but whatever. Thing is, every year is competitive, every movie is different, and people get snubbed every year. I thought Idris Alba was snubbed but I don’t think the whole thing is a conspiracy

Michael Scott

This is getting frustrating. Why, for heaven’s name, are all articles about the lack of color nominees REFUSING to even mention Samuel L. Jackson, who carried a 3 hour western on his back?



Right on, the fact will smith wasn’t nominated is a travesty, probably a good thing he has his 2.5 million dollar trailer to sit in between takes otherwise i’d be really angry.

I swear that trailer is probably bigger then the orphanage i’m currently residing in, actually i bet it’s probably bigger then your house but the dude earned it, the fresh prince of bel air, independence day and i robot are some of the finest acting performances of all time, i love his kid who is in everything today as well. Personally i think this guy should be and deserves to be acknowledged by his peers and the people who pay his enormous wages, he should be rewarded. Bryan cranston (i think he’s that dude who has spent most of his life on tv) can go and taking a running jump, smith deserved another oscar nomination even if it meant costing cranston his first.

Rock on sister and keep on fighting the good fight, these ultra rich celebrities are not going to win awards without our help. Hopefully j law wins her third oscar and then i can die a happy person. Peace out, and keep up the oscars website, hopefully you and your readers can change the world, i know the yazidi women in syria often read your blogs (when they still had electricity) and found them to be very enlightening.


I agree with will smith, if he doesn’t make a stand now then how else will his talentless son get a nomination one day?

Solid E

There’s more here than meets the eye. Even if they were to add blacks to the nominee list the question is will this fix the problem? I don’t think so. The next thing will be how come blacks don’t win as much as whites and then the whites will scream bloody murder because the blacks are in a better position than they are. What I want to know is why did the voters make the choices they made? This is not public knowledge. People are in the dark about this and therefore they think the worse. Choosing the best of in art has always been a absurd but when you mix race into the equation you now have a big fat mess. Goodbye cinema hello racial equality?

Miles Ridding

Get over it! Aside from Idris Elba there have not been any other Black performances that have come close to deserving a nomination. The fact that he didn’t get one is, as one other blogger on another site pertinently put it, due to something called voting! I don’t remember a huge fuss erupting when Hot favourite Emma Thompson failed to be nominated for Saving Mr Banks a couple of years ago. Also let’s remember there have been numerous black Oscar winners:- Sidney Poitier; Denzel Washington (twice!); Whoopi Goldberg; Octavia Spencer; Halle Berry (Shamelessly robbing Sissy Spacek).The list goes on. As I said Get over it and grow up. Whilst I’m on my soap box I would also like to add that Jennifer Lawrence should stop whining about equal pay. About 5-6 years ago she was no one. Now she is paid a hell of a lot. Many people are not as lucky. Get over yourself! She has been quoted in magazines as saying as about how lucky she is. I’m sure a lot of people would love your wage packet just for play acting. Appreciate what you have. There are millions with NOTHING!!!


"Part of the fault is within the Academy screening committee, which chooses the movies that show to the membership over the course of the year. Many worthy and diverse films do not get picked." This is not true. Screeners are sent to every member. What is sent is decided not by the Academy, but by the distributors. Academy members get most films anyone would consider a reasonable contender and many that seem complete long shots. Creed was one of them. Anyway, not sure why Anne Thompson thinks that voters are not seeing a wide selection of films.


Great analysis Anne (Holly — try reading the whole piece; leon — you’re a moron; J Russ– artistic achievement is exactly what Black people are ecluded from. It’s hard not to see "Ride Along 2" as a form of minstrelsy). kept fromhard to accomplish if you;re not allowed on the it’s hard to ). I would feel more confident if


Anne Thompson​ your article on the Academy’s diversity problem is a poor attempt to excuse the embedded racism that exists within an industry that is always falsely accused of being "too liberal."

1) You state that "Beasts of No Nation" wasn’t nominated because it wasn’t "deemed a hit." Compare the number of Woody Allen movies that were box-office blockbusters to the number of nominations he’s received and then come back and tell me why "Beasts" was shut out.

2) You say that "’Straight Outta Compton’ was a hip hop musical aimed at a younger male demographic, totally different from the Academy’s." But I though Eminem opened this door for the hip-hop community with his historic nomination and win for "Lose Yourself" from "8-Mile?"

3) You carefully skirted over the "Creed" debacle by saying that the star, Michael B. Jordan was too young for the Academy to know him. Jordan (28) has already been in the acclaimed "Fruitvale Station", the successful "Chronicle", and the controversial-because-a-Black man-was cast as Johnny Storm, "Fantastic Four" reboot. A relatively unknown Jennifer Lawrence was 20 when she received her first nomination for her 4th film, so try again.

4) You said that "Concussion" was not a box office success. See the reference to Woody Allen again.

There is no a criticism you used to excuse this year’s Oscar "White-out" that could not also apply to any of the nominees. But rather than acknowledge the problem and in order to maintain the status quo, you’d rather bury your head in the sand.


@J Russ It’s obvious that you are speaking from pent-up emotions of hatred towards Black people, so I will grant you a pass on your spelling. I would bet my last dollar that you would not be as adamant defending the Oscar’s voting process if all of the acting nominees were people of color.

Paulina Plazas

Instead of using this as an opportunity to address discrimination in the film industry as a serious issue Ann Thomson feels compelled to make excuses for the Academy and explain to us imbeciles why each actor didn’t get nominated. Go figure. Thank you Ann I feel so much better! Now I know discrimination does not exist and we work in an industry that would not dare to deny employment / opportunity or recognition to someone on the basis of race or genre!


A near perfect analysis. Ms. Thompson is the most cogent when divisive issues arise. Thank God (or Santa, Trump, Buddha, Tooth Fairy, Jerry Farewell, Goddess, Easter Bunny, Zeus, Sally Struthers, and Leatherface). Keep it real, Anne. It’s what makes you the best!

P.S. You may have not seen my previous question (which encompasses the current nominee exclusion scenario), but I see no harm in asking again. Here it is because I am genuinely interested in your response: How is it that the Canadian Producers of Room (David Gross) and Brooklyn (Pierre Even, Marie-Claude Poulin) get nominated at the Canadian Screen Awards but not at the Oscars? Much thanks for your reply, if you deem my question valid. As always, you remain the best in most Torontonians eyes. And I, personally, have every North American edition of Premiere Magazine since its inception and demise, each of which were a monthly water cooler spike in conversation largely because of you. Your presence at TIFF only makes you more dear to us attendees (which is no secret because it is always a full house). So cheers and good health to you, Anne!


Okay, but didn’t Joy also get bad reviews? So why was Jennifer Lawrence nominated? Like I get what your trying to say but it’s still annoying that the same boring (*and white) actors get nominated every year even though there were far better performances by non-white people.

Filmmaker N

Albeit this is a very astute analysis, it has to be said, and embarrassingly so, that Samuel L. Jackson, not Idris Elba took part in the Hollywood Roundtable. And Will Smith played a NIGERIAN neurologist, not a SOUTH AFRICAN one – precisely will he never deserved a nomination anyway.

Ken C

Now, do you want to take on the question of #OscarsSoStraight? CAROL was easily one of the most acclaimed films of the year. (95/100 on Metacritic; NY Film Critics Best Film; BAFTA, Globes & Indie Spirit Noms; Indiewire’s own poll; etc., etc.) Yet, though its actresses received nominations, the picture itself and openly-gay director Todd Haynes did not. It’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN all over again.


I agree with Sasha as well, I’m a huge Lawrence fan but Joy was panned by critics and the only nomination for the movie so your argument is that Concussion just wasn’t a good enough movie for Smith to be nominated, what makes Lawrence and Smiths situation any different. Will Smith gave a great performance and the movie did lag a little but so did Joy.


Idk Anne some points were very strong but stallones slot belonged to Idris or Dano hands down and I understand the Michael B Jordan snub it was either him or Matt Damon in the blockbuster lead actor slot this year and of course they gave it to Damon. When you think of the art of acting it is not about politics or popularity, it is about the art and a lot of these actors that we’re nominated are taking great risks in they’re art so how can one blame the Academy for recognizing that. My only issue is when they deny stories that are from a "hip hop" or black perspective that is respectable to us in our community but deemed not important enough to most of these out of touch Academy voters


Would it be a solution, not to change academy membership drastically, but install a rotating voting system. Every year say 1000 DIVERSE members (who were THAT YEAR active in the film industry) get to vote for the nominations. Maybe afterwards, open up the vote for the entire academy. That way there might be less ressistance from old white dudes..

Sasha Stone

We dropped the ball because many of us believed Idris Elba was a done deal. Tom Hardy pushed him out. This isn’t something they’re going to do willingly. They have to be forced by critics, pundits and bloggers. And publicists and studios. Better roles for black actors – still, I can’t believe Rachel McAdams got in for Spotlight in what I think is the weakest performance in the entire race. I look at Bryan Cranston and think — that performance could have been bumped for Will Smith. The bottom line is that the complaints are good. The protests are good. The noise is good. It’s the only thing that will make everyone think differently to avoid something like this happening again.

J Russ

It’s not at all complicated. You have a few self important jerks that like small children want desperately be noticed by holding their breath, stomping their feet and throwing a hissy fit because they don’t get their way. News flash nitwits, the Oacare are and always have been an award for artistic achievement. They are not to promote some ones personal political aganda in this case diversity. So children turn blue and roll on the floor, the adults are going to enjoy the show and you and yor tantrums won’t be missed.


You left out Will Smith – does that mean you don’t think he should even be considered in the ‘snub’ category? I wrote a very similar analysis of the 4 main ‘snubs’ of contention (including Will Smith).


No its not conplicated. Hollywood gates black people. Plain and simple. Look what they did to star wars. White women infront minorites in back. Total BS this article.

HeathCliff Rothman

Brilliant. Best analysis of anyone

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