Are the Oscars racist? White subjects ’98 per cent’ of the time, says one critic

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences attracted quite a bit of criticism this month when a lack of diversity was noticed in this year’s group of nominees for the 87th annual Academy Awards.

For the third time in 16 years the 20 acting nominees are all white, and females have been excluded from many of the major categories.

People began discussing the lack of diversity amongst the nominees and #OscarsSoWhite began trending on Twitter immediately following the nominations January 15th. One film in particular is garnering a lot of attention for it’s noticeable exclusion from all but two categories.

Historical drama Selma, based on the 1956 voting rights marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr., was praised by critics and expected to receive a handful of nominations. Critics and Twitter users alike were outraged when the Oprah Winfrey-produced film only managed to nab nominations for best original song and best picture.

David Oyelowo’s portrayal of King was the most buzzed about performance by an African-American actor of any gender this awards season. The performance earned him a Golden Globe nomination for best actor, so many thought he would be a shoo-in for an Oscar nod.

(Courtesy Cliff, Flickr)

A lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations has the Academy under fire. (Courtesy Cliff, Flickr)

But that wasn’t the case.

The lack of diversity amongst the nominees inspires the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, to accelerate the academy’s push to be more inclusive, she told The Associated Press. Boone Isaacs, who is the organization’s first black president, says people should be proud that Selma wasn’t left off the list for best picture.

“What is important not to lose sight of is that Selma, which is a fantastic motion picture, was nominated for best picture this year, and the best picture category is voted on by the entire membership of around 7,000 people,”  she says. “It’s an award that showcases the talent of everyone involved in the production of the movie.”

Just last year 12 Years a Slave took home top honours — the first time the award went to a film directed by an African-American. It also received eight other nominations in major categories, and went on to become the most talked-about film of the awards season.

This year’s nominations took heat from Twitter in response to the “white wash” criticism, with some users saying African-American films simply “had their turn.”

Ryerson professor and contributing editor for Cinema Scope, Adam Nayman, says that isn’t fair to say.

“If you go by taking turns, white people, white movie makers, white subjects have had their turn 98 per cent of the time – and I don’t just mean at the Oscars, I mean in everything,” he says.

“I think that the film industry is vulnerable and governed by the same things that the United States is vulnerable and governed by as well. On the one hand extreme sensitivity, on the other extreme obliviousness.”

According to a study conducted by the Los Angeles Times, academy voters are 94 per cent white, 77 per cent male and 86 per cent over the age of 50. While this is being blamed for the lack of diversity in the nominations, Nayman says the process doesn’t quite work the way many think.

“People have a very nebulous idea of what the academy is,” he says. “They think it’s a group of people who sit around a table in a room (and say) ‘we’re going to exclude this person’ or ‘we’re gonna make up for it because this person was passed on previously.’”

According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, each of the 24 categories are voted on by different branches of industry professionals. Directors vote for directors, writers vote for writers and actors vote for actors. Everyone votes for best picture.

Last weekend’s premiere of American Sniper also up for best picture — became the largest January opening ever with $90 million dollars in ticket sales. Many are questioning what this has to say about the state of America.

“It’s kinda funny to point out that American Sniper is being a hit on a weekend celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. (who was) assassinated by an American sniper,” says Nayman. “Celebrating that American commitment to gun culture on this particular weekend with these two movies in conflict is crazy suggestive.”

Women are also noticeably absent from the ballot this year. Out of more than 120 nominees only about 40 are women— none of whom are nominated for cinematography, screenwriting, composing or directing.

Critics expressed disappointment over Selma director Ava DuVernay’s exclusion, which could’ve been the Oscars’ first ever female African-American director nomination. Unbroken director Angelina Jolie and Gone Girl screenwriter Gillian Flynn, who were both predicted as front-runners by critics, also failed to receive nominations in their respective categories.

During her acceptance speech for best actress last year, Cate Blanchett critiqued the industry’s idea that female-centric films are niche experiences that don’t turn a profit. Since then, six of the top 25 grossing films (Frozen, Lucy, The Fault in Our Stars, Maleficent, Gone Girl, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1) have featured female protagonists.

This year’s nominations don’t reflect that.

Out of the eight films nominated for best picture this year, all are centred around male protagonists. Despite critical acclaim and acting nominations for films like Wild and Gone Girl — both featuring female protagonists —they still didn’t make the cut.

Boyhood, a film that follows the life of a white male through his journey into adulthood, is predicted by the majority of film critics to win the top prize. Nayman thinks this could spark an interesting debate.

“When Boyhood wins the Oscar, the narrative will get turned around,” he says. “People are going to say that Boyhood winning is the ultimate insult to women and people of colour this year.”

Winners will be announced during the live ceremony on February 22.


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