Today I want to share my thoughts on the controversy surrounding the all-white Academy Award acting nominees. (For those expecting my “breaking in” story, I’ll do that next week.)
The Academy has made changes to its rules and policies to try to increase diversity in its membership, which is overwhelmingly white, male, and old. I think this is great. I also think it’s not going to make much difference in future nominations.
Why? Because I don’t think the Academy membership composition is really the reason the acting nominees the last two years have been entirely white. There are plenty of reasons unrelated to race that many of the allegedly “snubbed” actors might not have been nominated this year. Let’s briefly look at them in turn:
Will Smith in “Concussion” – The big problem here is that this movie was released late and didn’t send out screeners widely. I was having dinner with a group of screenwriters a couple days before the nominations and the conversation turned to award season movies, as it tends to do in such groups this time of year. Someone brought up “Concussion” and not one person had seen it (and before you accuse us of bias in our viewing choices, almost everyone had seen “Straight Outta Compton”). There are a lot of movies to see this time of year and many voters are still very busy working professionals. If the studios don’t make it easy to see the movies, they don’t get seen (“Selma” had this problem last year). It’s also worth noting that neither the white writer-director nor any of the white supporting cast nor any of the crew got nominations for "Concussion." And Smith has been nominated twice before, so the Academy is clearly willing to nominate him – when they’ve seen and liked his performance.
“Straight Outta Compton” – This is a different case because it was widely seen and widely liked. And it looks bad that the only nomination was for the screenplay, which was written by white writers (it may be worth noting that nominations are voted on by the individual branches, so the people selecting screenplay nominees are completely different than the people selecting acting nominees). However, this is an ensemble film and it's difficult for ensemble films to get acting awards. “Spotlight” is one of the Best Picture favorites and its only acting nom is for the sole female character – all of its incredibly talented cast of male actors got nothing. The other ensemble Best Picture nominee, “The Big Short,” also only had one acting nomination.
Samuel L. Jackson for “Hateful Eight” – This, too, is an ensemble movie. Yes, Jennifer Jason Leigh was nominated, but she had the only major female role in a large male cast. This looks an awful lot like “Spotlight” – too many good male performances to choose from for the movie’s fans in the Academy. And Jackson has also been nominated before, so it’s hard to make the case he was snubbed because of race.
Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation” – This one’s tricky. On the one hand, it made less than $100,000 at the box office, so it might not have been seen by many voters. (Of course it was also available on Netflix, but Netflix doesn’t release viewing figures, so we don't know how many people saw it there.) On the other hand, Idris Elba got a SAG nomination, so he was hardly under the radar. The subject matter is a hard sell, and there may also have been a resistance to nominate a movie that was widely seen as non-theatrical. It’s worth noting the film was not nominated in any other category either. Let's call this a possible snub.
Michael B. Jordan in “Creed” – This would certainly be a potential snub. The movie was widely seen and liked and Sylvester Stallone got nominated. But the film got few other nominations, suggesting it was considered a good movie, not a great movie.
So maybe a case could be made that if the Academy was more diverse, Michael B. Jordan or Idris Elba might have gotten nominated. I still have my doubts. White actors Robert Redford, Michael Keaton, Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Bradley Cooper, Johnny Depp, Michael Caine, Michael Shannon, Paul Dano, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Jake Gyllenhal, Nick Nolte, and Ryan Gosling all did excellent performances in well regarded movies and were not nominated. Five nominations are not many, so plenty of worthy performances get left out every year. The preferential balloting system also complicates any discussion of who “deserved” to get nominated.
If I’m right that racial bias didn’t play much role in the alleged snubs, it means all of the changes the Academy is making in response to this crisis will do nothing to solve the problem that the nominees do not reflect the diversity of America. But if the problem is not with the Academy voters, where is it?
It’s with the people who greenlight movies.
The Academy can only nominate performances from movies that get made. In my list of white actors who didn’t get nominations, I could have included Emily Blunt, Lily Tomlin, and Helen Mirren, but they aren’t competing for the same awards as the allegedly snubbed actors. There are no actresses of color that people are claiming were snubbed. That’s because there were no major roles in prestige films for actresses of color this year.
There will be more diverse nominees when there is more diversity in casting in prestige movies. The big question is how to achieve that. The solutions are not going to be easy and the changes will not come quickly.
There are many things needed to improve diversity in Hollywood. I teach at a film school where applicants from American students trend overwhelmingly white and male. I suspect this is true at most film schools. Academic institutions need to make an effort not just to bring in diverse students, but to support them with scholarships and job placement. And many colleges, including mine, are doing just that. I also think the industry needs some more diverse role models to inspire minority kids to look to film as a viable dream.
But ultimately the only change that will really transform the business needs to come within the ranks of the executives who choose what films get made. And these executives are overwhelmingly white and male. According to the Bunch Report on Diversity in Hollywood, film CEOs are 94% white (and 100% male). Senior management at studios is 92% white (and 83% male). Unit heads at studios are 96% white (and 61% male). When we talk about movies not reflecting the world around us, we should understand that for these executives, all-white casts DO reflect the world around them!
Of course it’s not as easy as simply plugging minorities into executive jobs. Those jobs are complicated and challenging and rely a lot on talent relationships. The only way to be successful is to work your way up through the ranks, building knowledge, experience, and relationships along the way. So it’s important to have strong programs to recruit diverse talent into entry-level studio positions, but it’s probably going to take years before meaningful change hits the executive levels. Hopefully, though, if current executives are surrounded by more diverse employees, the executives’ world view will expand accordingly.
What’s particularly annoying about all this is that all evidence points to diversity in casting being good for the business. According to the Bunch Report, 51% of frequent moviegoers are minorities. And many of the box office hits from last year – movies like “Straight Outta Compton,” “Furious 7,” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” – show that diverse casts won’t hold a good movie back.
But Hollywood is a place ruled by fear. Executive turnover is high and there are many uncontrollable variables to success. Risk taking is not rewarded. So executives rely on “conventional wisdom” that is decades old. Conventional wisdom like: women will go see a movie with a male lead, but men won’t go see a movie with a female lead – a piece of “wisdom” blown out of the water by The Hunger Games movies, yet still clung to by many executives because it’s safer than suggesting a new way of thinking.
What will it take to break executives out of their entrenched misconceptions? That’s a good question. I don’t know if I have a good answer.
I am not an Academy member and don’t vote for the Oscars. I do vote for the WGA Awards and Spirit Awards. Over the holidays, I watched several screeners with my family. My Mom asked me how I judged screenplays. I said I considered many things – my enjoyment of the movie, the craft elements like structure and dialogue, how much the scripting contributed to the movie’s success, and the degree of difficulty the screenwriter faced from the subject matter.
In the future, I think I will also pay more attention to how well the film reflects the reality of the world it portrays. This doesn’t mean I’ll reject a film with all white characters – if you’re doing a story about the 15th century British monarchy, naturally all of the characters will be white. But if I’m watching a movie set in a contemporary American city and all the characters are white men, well, that’s just not good writing.
EDITED: In my initial post I had overlooked Christian Bale's supporting actor nomination from "The Big Short." I corrected that above.
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