The L.A. arm of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network will protest this Sunday’s Academy Awards because of the lack of diversity among the major nominees.
Although “Selma” is in the running for best picture, and “Birdman” filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu is up for best director and screenplay, critics are outraged that most of the current Oscar hopefuls – including all of the acting nominees – are white.
The fact that “Selma” star David Oyelowo and director Ava DuVernay were omitted from the Oscar nods is seen by many as evidence of racial bias in the Academy Awards. But recent history proves that this is not the case.
It is the nature of the Academy Awards that artistic excellence sometimes goes unrecognized. The fires of controversy flare up every spring as deserving films, filmmakers and performers are denied nominations for the movie industry’s most prestigious awards. The stars of “Selma” weren’t the only performers ignored by Oscar.
After Jennifer Aniston and Jessica Chastain landed Golden Globe nominations for their work in “Cake” and “A Most Violent Year,” a lot of people figured they were a lock for Oscar nods. But the Academy bypassed both actresses.
Some of the movie world’s most honored artists have gotten the cold shoulder from Oscar despite multiple nominations. Although he was nominated five times Alfred Hitchcock, one of the most innovative and acclaimed filmmakers of the twentieth century, was never granted a best director Oscar. (His 1940 thriller, “Rebecca,” was named best picture but that award goes to the producer, not the director.) The celebrated and versatile actor Peter O’Toole was nominated eight times as best actor (making him the most-nominated performer in Academy Awards history) and he lost all eight times. His last shot at Oscar gold came in 2006 when O’Toole (then 74 years-old and in challenged health) lost to Forest Whitaker who channeled Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.”
So, the same Academy which is being accused of anti-black bias actually bypassed one of Hollywood’s most revered white actors (O’Toole) in order to honor a brother (Whitaker).
It’s worth nothing that 2006 was also the year that Will Smith received his second Academy Award nomination, for “The Pursuit of Happyness.” His first was for “Ali” in 2001.
Much has been made of the absence of racial diversity in the ranks of the Motion Picture Academy. According to The Los Angeles Times, Academy membership is 94% white and 77% male. Many critics charge that this skewed demographic puts people of color at a disadvantage. Despite its overwhelmingly white membership, the Academy has done a pretty thorough job of recognizing black excellence in Hollywood. A glance at the list of African-American Oscar nominees over the decades reveals that when African-Americans have done top level work in the movies they’ve often gotten the nod from Oscar. This includes black actors and actresses who appeared in movies that were not mainstream studio hits and that did not get a lot of love from black folks at the box office.
Be honest family, how many of us actually went to the multiplex to see Dexter Gordon in “’Round Midnight” (1986), Marianne Jean-Baptiste in “Secrets and Lies” (1996) or Quvenzhane Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012)?
In recent years, African-American Oscar nominees have actually become commonplace. Ten of the fourteen years between 2000 and 2014 had at least one African-American nominated in the acting or directing categories. There were multiple black nominees in seven of those ten years. Four years saw three or four African-Americans receive major Oscar nods. Looking at the number and consistency of black Academy Award nominees over the past decade-and-a-half, one can see that the “Selma” omissions are actually an anomaly, an exception rather than the rule.
Of course, the movie industry as a whole still has a diversity problem. African-Americans star in and create a wide variety of studio films but still face challenges. Meanwhile, Latinos and Asians are still fighting the same, old uphill battle to land major roles and to tell their stories onscreen. The extraordinary success of “The Joy Luck Club” (1993) did not lead to a flood of films about Asian families. And, unless the movie is a martial arts actioner (a genre that has largely dried up), Asian performers are still largely relegated to secondary roles which are few and far between. Latinos remain similarly limited, with their lack of opportunities compounded by Hollywood’s casual and longstanding habit of casting whites as Latinos lead characters (i.e.: Ben Affleck in “Argo”), thereby denying Latinos the chance to move onto Tinsel Town’s A-list.
This systemic unfairness is a major problem that must be continually attacked. However, it is a separate issue from allegations of racial bias within the Academy Awards. Such bias, the record shows, is not truly at work in the Oscars.
Thanks for listening. I’m Cameron Turner and that’s my two cents.