On February 23, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doled out its coveted statuettes to filmmakers in celebration of their achievements in the cinematic arts. But this year, the Oscars’ golden glow was tarnished by what many internet commentators have labeled a racist snub: the exclusion of Selma’s director Ava DuVernay and leading actor David Oyelowo from this year’s Academy Award ballot. Racism is a weighty accusation that is perhaps not entirely deserved. However, the fact that of no person of color was nominated in any of the acting categories this year does give one pause. A look at Academy history furthers suspicion: only about 4% of the acting awards have gone to people of color, according to an LA Times study in 2012.
Both the New York Times’ David Carr and Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson do not believe that Selma’s exclusion was fueled by overt racism. Writing for Variety, Mr. Levinson argues that though America is still a “racist country,” as a whole, things are getting better and that the controversy surrounding Ms. DuVernay and Mr. Oyelowo has been blown out of proportion. In his article, he offers three reasons why the Selma snub was likely not due to racial bias: 1. The academy does not have a track record of picking the best nominees, 2. White people get overlooked for Oscars too (example: Clint Eastwood didn’t get nominated for American Sniper) and 3. Since 12 Years a Slave won so many accolades last year, the academy cannot be racist this year.
Mr. Levinson concludes by arguing that “Race issues in America are significant and need to be addressed. The lack of diversity in Hollywood is valid, but change begins with education, not the Oscar ballots…Without that support, too many lost voices can’t join tomorrow’s screenwriters, or directors, or actors, or production designers, or cinematographers, or editors.” Though I appreciate Mr. Levinson’s call for social change, ending on this note subtly excuses the academy from having any responsibility in developing new artistic voices (or recognizing the diversity of existing ones). He essentially claims that if other societal systems were better combating racism, then there would be greater diversity in the industry (and the unstated implication: more black people may be more able to win Oscars). This argument feels like a cop-out, because it pushes responsibility onto other societal institutions, even though the academy purports to represent an industry that is hugely influential in shaping the cultural landscape.
The New York Times’ David Carr also believes that the Selma snub was not an “overt racist conspiracy,” but his assessment of the situation strikes me as much more nuanced than Mr. Levinson’s. Mr. Carr argues that
“…in general the Academy and the industry it mirrors manage diversity the same way that corporate America does, by ticking off boxes. That means that after Kathryn Bigelow won as best director in 2010 for ‘The Hurt Locker’—the only female director to have won in the award’s 87 years—there was no reason to even nominate her again from the extraordinary ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ The ‘woman thing’ had been checked off already. And it also means that though ’12 Years a Slave’ won best picture, its director, Steve McQueen, did not receive similar acclaim because that win took care of ‘the black thing.'”
Oscar observer Sasha Stone (quoted in Mr. Carr’s article) reports that “The Academy’s vote for ‘12 Years a Slave’ was like pulling teeth…To this day, I don’t think many members even saw it and now that it won, the academy has snapped back, like a rubber band, to what they know, to films that are made in their own image.’ If this is true, then we should not be surprised to see a lack of diversity in the Oscar nominees this year: the Academy is about 93% white, 76% male and an average of 63 years old.
One complicating factor seems to be that the Academy’s membership is also the reflection of the demographic breakdown of the film industry; therefore Oscar snubs may be related to the complex relationship between institutional politics, economics and racial/gender bias. An undercover report by the L.A Times in 2012 revealed that
Independent studies of some film crafts show that the academy’s demographics mirror the industry’s. Women make up 19% of the academy’s screenwriting branch, and a 2011 analysis by the Writers Guild of America, West found that women accounted for 17% of film writers employment. The academy’s producers branch is about 18% female, and the directors branch is 9% female, figures comparable to those in a study by San Diego State University’s Martha Lauzen. She examined the 250 top-grossing movies of 2011 and found that women accounted for 25% of all of the films’ producers, and 5% of all their directors.
Of course there are notable exceptions to these statistics. The current academy president, Cheryl Boothe Isaacs, is a black woman. When she was serving on the academy’s board of governors in 2012, she was one of 6 women and the only person of color.
Some argue that the Academy Awards are not obligated to reflect cultural diversity and they are not intended to make a political statement. Carr states that the awards “convey recognition at the highest level of a craft”, and are meant to recognize extraordinary careers in the motion picture industry.
In the L.A. Times report, Frank Pierson, former director of the academy and Oscar winner, is quoted as saying “I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population. That’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for…We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”
Though I understand Mr. Pierson and others’ desires to judge works of art for their aesthetic qualities and craftsmanship without considering politics or demographics, I am not convinced that the academy engages in that kind of objective judgment. Much of the commentary and journalism on the Academy Awards confirms that Oscar decisions have a political component. Although I agree with Mr. Levinson that institutional racism and sexism undoubtedly affect who has access to the resources to make a movie “worthy” of Oscar status, I see the academy—which has been “limiting membership growth for the last decade” according to the L.A. Times—as one of the institutions contributing to these inequities.
Because the Academy Awards are such a highly public spectacle, the Oscars make a political statement by choosing a “canon” of sanctioned artists. My concern is that at the core of these Oscar nomination controversies is the academy’s resistance towards developing a film canon that includes narratives that do not center on the white, middle-class, middle-aged male experience.
I can’t remember when I personally stopped trusting the academy to award Oscars to the most deserving films or artists each year. It was sometime between my birth and the moment that I realized the academy was not going to award The Lord of the Rings trilogy much of anything until the final installment came out…and then it gave The Return of the King basically every award a self-respecting fantasy movie could hope to receive from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This struck me as false and political.
But despite my mistrust, I (like many skeptic film buffs) watch the awards every year and behave like a devoted sports fan, constantly yelling at the TV when the refs make a bad call as winners are announced. I feel vindicated when the academy and I agree on who should win Best Director and then immediately feel betrayed when it gives the award to someone I deemed undeserving, or it fails to nominate a film or artist I believe should be recognized—this betrayal happens almost every year, in one category or another. For me, it’s the nomination that matters—not the eventual winner. The exclusion of deserving candidates from the final voting ballots (see N.B.) does, in part, diminish the prestige of the Academy Awards. The high status that accompanies the taking home a golden statuette depends almost entirely on people believing that an Oscar actually represents the highest level of craftsmanship and artistry in film.
Even if an Academy Award is a false signifier, the heavy media coverage, star-studded red carpet specials, and historical prestige make the Academy Awards relevant because they have the power to compel people to watch certain movies, to engage with certain narratives. And nominations—and exclusions—make political statements about the voices that are valued in this community of filmmakers. And, in the words of Uncle Ben/Voltaire: with great power comes great responsibility.
Yes, the Oscars are over for this year and the time to speculate on who should have won is certainly up. However, it is never too late to insist that our cultural institutions recognize artists who create films that document experiences divergent from those of the academy’s largest demographic
N.B. on academy voting: According to the academy’s website, films are nominated by “the members of the corresponding branch—actors nominate actors, film editors nominate film editors, etc.” After films are nominated, the respective divisions vote on the nominees to determine the final ballot (which is the ballot that is presented as a given year’s class of nominees). All academy members—regardless of their division—are allowed to vote on the final ballot and the winners are revealed on live TV. This suggests to me that individual divisions—and individual members—have a lot of agency when selecting both nominees, and award recipients.