Thursday, January 15, 2015

diversity and the Academy Awards

So the nominees for the Academy Awards were announced today, and unsurprisingly, a lot of people are upset by the overwhelmingly white and male makeup of the contenders for the film industry's greatest honors.

Confession: I haven't seen most of these movies. It's been a busy time.

Double confession: I am not what you would call a sophisticated film watcher. I love the greats along with the Grease 2s, if you know what I am saying.

Triple confession: Nothing icks me out more than white people who want back-pats for bemoaning the lack of diversity in pop culture, which is why I generally try to avoid these sort of conversations.

That being said, I figured I'd offer up my opinions (it is the Internet, after all.)

Some background facts:
  • Of the 8 films currently nominated for Best Pictures, 7 feature male leading characters.
  • Of the 8 films currently nominated, 7 are about white men.
  • To date, only four women have ever even been nominated for Best Director. More women have been launched into space than have been nominated for Best Director. The one movie nominated for Best Picture (Selma) that was directed by a woman did not get a Best Director nomination.
  • There are no non-white people nominated for any acting awards this year. 
So what does this all mean?

Well, first of all, it doesn't mean that the nominated films, directors, actors, and actresses don't deserve their nominations. They very much do, and on top of that, there are a lot of folks who were snubbed when those nominations were announced, and some of them were also white men. (Sorry Christopher Nolan. It will happen for you someday.)

It also doesn't mean that the Academy Awards are per se racist. Cheryl Boone, the female, African-American president of the Academy, apparently doesn't think the Academy has a diversity problem. And for the purposes of this blog post, I am going to go with her on that.

So the Academy doesn't have a diversity problem, but the Academy's nominees are unarguably not at all diverse. What are we to make of these two contradictory statements?

Let me suggest what I think the real problem is:

The issue isn't that David Oyelowo (star of Selma) and Ava DuVernay (director of Selma) deserved to be nominated and were not. The issue is that 2014 featured a METRIC CRAPTON of movies about white dudes, and the one movie that did not (Selma) was nearly shut-out despite overwhelmingly good reviews.

In the grand scheme of things, it probably doesn't matter that two talented people did not get recognized for their talent like we think they should. It does matter that they are part of a greater trend.

What good movies came out this year? Turning to my beloved Rotten Tomatoes, we see that the following well-reviewed movies hit the silver screen in 2014:

The Imitation Game
Big Hero 6
The Theory of Everything
Top Five
Gone Girl
Mr. Turner
The Book of Life
A Most Violent Year
St. Vincent
Guardians of the Galaxy
Force Majeure
The Babadook
Two Days, One Night
The Homesman
John Wick
Beyond the Lights
Dear White People
The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Under the Sea
Born To Be Wild

"Best of" lists that I found after an extensive (read: not terribly extensive) Google search include additional films like Interstellar, Snowpiercer, Grand Budapest Hotel, Under the Skin, The Lego Movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Unbroken.

Based solely on my memory of various posters and trailers I saw over the last year, of the 35 movies listed above ... four feature black people in leading roles? Eight have a female main character? Three feature significant roles for Asian actors -- and I had to count two animated features for that?

I mean, I'm pretty sure two of those aforementioned movies are actually documentaries about animals, folks.

These are not good numbers. And when I say that, I am not saying American Sniper is a bad movie (I'm sure it's great!) or that Reese Witherspoon is a bad actress (I love her!) I'm saying ... these are not good numbers.

Movies, taken as a whole, should not be mostly about men and mostly about white men at that. The people who buy movie tickets are not mostly white men. And white men can be expected to understand and enjoy stories about people who are not exactly like them. I mean, the most loveable characters of 2014 were a foul-mouthed racoon and a giant tree with a limited vocabulary, so I think we are all pretty capable of being lost in a great story regardless, okay?

If there had been 20 great movies that came out this year with leading roles for women and minorities and directed by women and minorities, it would be annoying but not that annoying that David Oyelowo and Ava DuVernay were snubbed in the Oscar race. Hey, they'd be in the same boat with Jennifer Aniston and Clint Eastwood right now! (And I bet that's a SUPER fancy boat.)

But there were not 20 great movies that came out this year with leading roles for women and minorities. There were a mere handful. And somehow, I don't think it's because women and minorities just aren't writing scripts, pitching projects, attending auditions, looking for investors.

When there is one movie (Selma) featuring award-worthy acting from a black actor, and that lone black actor has to compete against ...

Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher”
Bradley Cooper, “American Sniper”
Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”
Michael Keaton, “Birdman”
Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything”
Jake Gyllenhall, "Nightcrawler"
Brad Pitt, "Fury"
Jack O'Connell, "Unbroken"
Ben Affleck, "Gone Girl"
Ralph Fiennes, "Grand Budapest Hotel
Bill Murray, "St. Vincent"
Christoph Waltz, "Big Eyes"
Joaquin Phoenix, "Inherent Vice"
and whoever else I am missing ...

... simple statistics tell us that chances aren't good.

But why was there only one black actor in the mix in the first place?

American cinema doesn't have a diversity problem. It has an inability to imagine a world that reflects reality problem.


  1. Wonderful post! I agree with everything you said. As a POC I have no problem relating to characters who are white, whether on screen or in books, so why would someone white have a hard time relating to someone who is black, asian, hispanic, etc...I'm hoping change is coming sooner rather than later now that people are being more vocal about how unbalanced things are.

    1. Thanks! I was pretty nervous about hitting publish because I don't love weighing in on topics like this in general, but the whole thing is just super frustrating. And I agree, I hope change is coming soon.

  2. I always love your perspective on hot button issues like this--it never fails to surprise me and make me think.

    1. This is Sandy, btw. Not sure why I couldn't comment using my name.

    2. Sandy -- thanks! Ha, weirdly, I already knew "forcause" was you, I think that was the first way you ever commented on here :)