What is going on with this year’s Academy Awards?
Since the Oscar nominees were announced two weeks ago (nominees that, for the second year running, did not include a single actor or actress of color) there has been a passionate conversation on the awards, and the lack of diversity therein, in the film industry. There have been boycotts and backlashes to the boycotts; a revival of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, created by April Reign; a pledge by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to change the way it selects its members and chooses nominees; and support for and criticism of said pledge, with some applauding the action as overdue and vital and others claiming that the current AMPAS practices are sacrosanct and any amendment with the goal of increasing diversity is “racist to Whites.”
This year, the Best Actor nominees are Bryan Cranston (Trumbo), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs), Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl), and Matt Damon (The Martian). The Best Actress nominees are Cate Blanchett (Carol), Brie Larson (Room), Jennifer Lawrence (Joy), Charlotte Rampling (45 Years), and Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn).
In the supporting categories, Best Supporting Actor nominees are Christian Bale (The Big Short), Tom Hardy (The Revenant), Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), Sylvester Stallone (Creed), and Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight). The Best Supporting Actress nominees are Rooney Mara (Carol), Rachel McAdams (Spotlight), Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl), Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs), Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight).
Almost immediately following the announcement, #OscarsSoWhite started trending on Twitter, a re-up of Reign’s protest. Her hashtag has become internet shorthand for dismay at the lack of diversity among Academy Award nominees.
Dissenters of note include Spike Lee, who directed 2015’s Chi-Raq, which did not receive any Oscar nominations, who announced on Instagram that he will be boycotting the Academy Awards. (Lee won an honorary Oscar last fall and has been nominated previously, for Do the Right Thing and 4 Little Girls.) In his post, Lee wrote that he and his wife “cannot support” the awards. “How is it possible for the second consecutive year all 20 contenders under the Actor category are White?” He quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. (on the national holiday in King’s honor) and the musical Hamilton (‘I Wanna Be In the Room Where It Happens’) to say “The truth is we ain’t in those rooms and until minorities are, the Oscar nominees will remain lily white.”
Another well known dissenter is Jada Pinkett Smith who posted a video on Facebook announcing that she would boycott the year’s festivities. “The Academy has the right to acknowledge whomever they choose, to invite whomever they choose,” she said. “Begging for acknowledgment, or even asking, diminishes dignity and diminishes power. And we are a dignified people. And we are powerful.”
At the King Legacy Awards, where Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs was being honored, actor David Oyelowo (who played Martin Luther King, Jr. in last year’s Selma but did not receive an Oscar nomination for his performance) spoke about his Selma experience and why the Oscars matter for artists. After the 2015 Academy Awards, Oyelowo said, he met with Isaacs and “had a deep and meaningful [conversation]. For 20 opportunities to celebrate actors of color, actresses of color, to be missed last year is one thing. For that to happen again this year is unforgivable.” Brushing off the Oscars as frivolous is not an option, he said: “The reason why the Oscars are so important is because it is the zenith, it is the epitome, it is the height of celebration of artistic endeavor within the filmmaking community. I would like to walk away and say it doesn’t matter, but it does, because that acknowledgement changes the trajectory of your life, your career, and the culture of the world we live in.”
In the evening, Isaacs issued a statement. She wrote: “I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes. The change is not coming as fast as we would like. We need to do more, and better and more quickly.”
Conversely, in an interview with French radio network Europe 1, nominee Charlotte Rampling said that the backlash to the all-White acting nominees is “is racist to Whites.” She said: “One can never really know, but perhaps the Black actors did not deserve to make the final list.”
During a radio interview, rapper, record producer, actor, and filmmaker Ice Cube was asked if he believes he hurt Straight Outta Compton‘s Oscar chances by not “playing the Hollywood game.” He replied: “I do what I’m supposed to do to promote the project. I ain’t gonna kiss no ass for nothing. Maybe that is the problem, or maybe we should have put a slave in Straight Outta Compton. I think that’s where we messed up.” The Academy, though, “does not define us. That award is cool. It’s cool to be recognized, but people recognized this movie back in August when it did $200 million at the box office.”
(For context: In 2013, 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture at the Oscars, and Lupita Nyong’o, who played a slave in the film, took home Best Supporting Actress.)