By Sonali Kolhatkar
The short answer to the headline question is yes and no. It matters because the prestige that Academy Award nominations lend to filmmakers and actors can pressure major studios to insist on greater diversity in films. But Hollywood and its award institutions are so far behind in representing the modern demographic shift in the U.S. that filmmakers of color and audiences who want diversity are creating their own content, buzz and accolades. And so, it doesn’t matter as much if the Oscars are overwhelmingly white because, well, the Oscars themselves matter less and less.
In examining the most important categories of this year’s Academy Award nominations, there are a handful of actors and filmmakers of color who were recognized. Mexico’s Alfonso Cuarón (“Gravity”) and Britain’s Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) are notably up for best director. Britain’s Chiwetel Ejiofor (best actor, “12 Years a Slave”), Kenya’s Lupita Nyong’o (best supporting actress, “12 Years a Slave”) and Somalia’s Barkhad Abdi (best supporting actor, “Captain Phillips”), are all deservedly up for awards for their spectacular performances. Veteran Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s latest (and likely final) endeavor, “The Wind Rises,” easily made it into the category of best animated feature.
But not a single one of these nominees is a person of color from the United States. And that is perhaps because films featuring Americans of color are likely to touch on issues that make the Academy uncomfortable. The voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, according to an analysis in 2012 by the Los Angeles Times, are overwhelmingly white men. Blacks and Latinos are together less than 5 percent of voters.
The Oscars’ biggest snub was “Fruitvale Station” by first time Oakland-based filmmaker Ryan Coogler. Coogler’s deft storytelling and heartbreakingly honest portrayal of Oscar Grant’s final day before he was gunned down by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle was a critics’ favorite when released last summer.
The film opened just as the trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin was making headlines. There was a palpable national outrage over the unjust killing of yet another young black man. I recall my feelings sitting in a dark theater at the end of the film, my tears rolling faster than the credits, having just experienced the visceral grief of watching Oscar Grant’s humanity being eviscerated, albeit in a fictional re-enactment. All around me were other viewers also quietly sobbing. I was convinced that Coogler, who had just won the prestigious Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for dramatic films at the 2013 Sundance festival, would be recognized by the Academy Awards too. But he wasn’t.
Coogler explained to me in an interview that he made the film because “so often in the media young African-American males are shown in very shallow ways. They’re shown in ways that aren’t 360 degrees, rarely shown in domestic situations, rarely shown doing things that are outside of being criminals.”
To help understand why the Oscars snubbed Coogler and other films dominated by people of color, I turned to Courtney Morris, assistant professor of African American and women’s studies at Penn State University and a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Rice University. According to Morris, “Young black men in particular, and people of color generally, continue to be vilified, they’re criminalized, and there’s a lot of fear around those people. And so there’s a sense that those kinds of people don’t get to have their stories told, to be humanized, and to be seen as sympathetic people.” She added, “If we were going to have a real conversation about who Oscar Grant was, that would also prompt us to have a conversation in this country about how it is that killers of young black men can continue to be exonerated and given a slap on the wrist.”
Morris boiled it down by saying, “The shunning of the ‘Fruitvale Station’ film was really about not wanting to have to trouble our own narratives around police violence and how it is that young black and brown men continue to end up dead at the hands of the police and they don’t get to tell their stories. Period.”
Still, “12 Years a Slave,” despite being the lone “black” film, did get multiple nominations from the mostly white male Academy. Mikki Kendall, a writer for The Guardian newspaper, pop culture analyst, blogger and creator of the popular Twitter feed #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, explained to me, “It’s easier to think about the oppression of black people in terms of slavery because that was then and this is now. For the Academy it is very difficult for African-Americans to be telling a story about what African-Americans experience in America right now.” And that means that a film like “Fruitvale Station” is ignored because it is “a hard look at what mainstream America likes to pretend doesn’t matter.”
Five years ago, the Academy expanded its pool of nominations for best picture from five to as many as 10. In spite of this, films featuring almost all-white casts captured eight of the nine slots in the highly desirable category this year. Kendall unhesitatingly listed those films dominated by white actors that she believed did not deserve nominations at all. On “Wolf of Wall Street” she lamented, “I don’t know how many more times we can examine New York stockbroker greed.” “Philomena” came recommended to her by a friend whom Kendall now wryly blames for wasting two hours of her life. “Dallas Buyers Club,” according to Kendall, was also problematic because it was yet again about “a relatively privileged white guy who has money and connections.” But worse, the film uses a straight man, Jared Leto, to play the role of a trans woman. Kendall likened Leto’s performance, nominated for best supporting actor, to “blackface.” She said, “You can get an Oscar nom playing certain kinds of roles, but we’re only going to hire certain kinds of people to play those roles.”
If the Academy is failing people of color, what about women? Several films with strong female lead roles, such as “Gravity” and “Blue Jasmine,” were recognized with nominations. But, as Kendall pointed out to me, issues of race and gender cannot be separated. After all, not a single woman of color was among those nominated for best actress.
And it’s not just the Academy, but also casting directors and the studios they work for that are falling short of reflecting the modern American demographic in films. Sandra Bullock’s role in “Gravity” was especially powerful. But media reports reveal that while a parade of actresses were considered for the role, every single one was white: Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Blake Lively, Naomi Watts and even the French actress Marion Cotillard, as though the idea of an American actress of color was unfathomable in the role of a modern-day astronaut.
Kendall told me, “Gender hasn’t been quite the problem [in Hollywood] for some of us as it has been for others. I can find you a white romantic lead, a white action lead, a white drama lead, all female. [But] ask me how many black, Asian, Latino, South East Asian women of color are in lead roles.”
Morris agreed that it is not just the Academy, but those who decide which films get made and distributed who are unrepresentative. “Why some films make it and others don’t,” she said, “is because there is a system in place that allows certain films to have very wide distribution and access and others where they don’t have any at all. And the people who continue to make those decisions are by and large white men. No matter who is the person behind the camera or the actors in front of the camera, the people who are pulling the strings and who control the pocketbook remain white men.”
It appears likely that the Academy’s ongoing reluctance to embrace films by people of color will make it less and less relevant. Morris suggested that “people of color who are working in the film industry, what they’re going to have to continue to do and what they have always done is to create alternative institutions where the kind of stories that we want to see being told are able to circulate and will reach audiences who will benefit from them the most. With or without the support of the Academy, I believe that these filmmakers are going to continue to do their work and will continue to find audiences who are responsive to the kinds of stories that they are telling.”
And so while we must criticize this year’s mostly monochromatic lineup at the Oscars, we can take comfort in the certainty that it is only a matter of time before the Academy either faces the reality that people of color represent the nation’s future, or risk utter irrelevance.