Another year of Academy Award nominees, another year of controversy in the film community. Pretty much par for the course at this point. The Academy has long received criticism for appearing to shun quality in favor of flair or in favor of a small elite club of eligibles clearly led into battle by Meryl Streep. Selma, The Lego Movie, and Nightcrawler all top the list of the year’s movies that really have not received a fair representation in nominations, but it’s that first one that is causing a particularly big splash that reaches far past the arguments of an internet comments section. You see, the big ticket item this year is one of diversity or, rather, the lack thereof.
All 20 of the nominated actors and actress are white; all 10 screenplay writing nominees are male; all 5 director nominees also male. This is in direct contrast to 2014’s 3 black acting nominees, a Best Picture win for 12 Years A Slave, and a Best Director win for Steve McQueen. Maybe not the best PR move in a year full of racially fueled conflicts plastered across news outlets. All this on top of the 2013 LA Times survey revealing that of the 6,000 active members in the Academy, 93% are white, 76% are male, and the median age is 63. At face value that’s appalling and perfectly explains the lack of black or female nominees. But is this really a 1:1 cause and effect?
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (ADMAS) claims it is “dedicated to the advancement of the arts and sciences in motion pictures” but upon first glance it looks like they’re still stuck in Selma‘s 1965 Alabama. To their credit, though, they’ve taken steps in recent years to remedy this. The focus on adding more diversity to Academy membership, the 2013 election of Cheryl Boone Isaacs as the first African American and third female ADMAS president, and the large boost in the number of African American nominees since the turn of the century all stand as testament to that.
Those may seem like small steps under the shadow of membership statistics and 2015 nominees, but diversification will take time. For one thing, memberships aren’t exactly easy to come by. Eligibility either comes from an Oscar nomination or an endorsement from two existing members. At that point, candidates must also be approved by two separate ADMAS boards in an annual Membership Review. The other (more relevant) roadblock? Lifetime memberships. If members aren’t leaving, you aren’t going to change such skewed statistics in the matter of a couple years.
The thing is, though, I’m not convinced that this is the cultural issue that it’s being made out to be. Let’s look at the list of the individuals that are most widely regarded to be the victims of this bias: director Ava DuVernay for Selma, director Angelina Jolie for Unbroken, director Laura Poitras for Citizenfour, and actor David Oyelowo for Selma. Creatively speaking, the Selma nominations are the only real contender on that list. Unbroken is widely regarded as overly melodramatic, trying too desperately for the meatier nominations. Citizenfour has been very well-received, but documentaries are traditionally overshadowed – a different issue than the one in question. Unbroken and Citizenfour may rank favorably among 2014 releases, but are they truly contenders for best direction? Nominations certainly should not be withheld based on race or gender, but they also should not be given based on those criteria either. Nominations, and ultimately the Oscars, should be given to those who successfully advance and innovate the medium.
Why then, if not for race or gender, did DuVernay and Oyelowo get snubbed this year? One could argue that lesser, flashier nominees caught the eye of Academy members taking the valuable spots that could have gone to these deserving individuals. Boyhood‘s 12-year filming duration and Birdman‘s continuous shot editing could each be viewed as gimmicks, but the truth is that those techniques were each used to better enhance the atmosphere of their respective movies. In the wrong hands, those films could have been utter disasters. Was Steve Carell nominated because of his unrecognizable makeup, Eddie Redmayne because he can look like Stephen Hawking, and Bradley Cooper because those old, white men of the Academy love American Sniper? I don’t think so. Those movies hung on the thread of those performances. As a whole American Sniper is a bit of a mess, but the main thing holding that movie together is Bradley Cooper’s withdrawn performance. All tension in Foxcatcher would be lost if Steve Carell kept his typical nice-guy persona – something that isn’t just washed away with a prosthetic nose and dentures.
It’s easy to get caught up in emotion, to say that those behind the success of Selma are under the same persecution that the movie depicts, but there may be other forces at work here. Besides the strong contention this year, it’s been well documented – and relatively ignored seemingly for the sake of a headline – that the fault for Selma‘s Oscar snubs could lie with the producers. Selma finished post-production very late in the year, so time was of the essence to get exposure to Academy members before their early votes were cast. Paramount fumbled the opportunity and didn’t order enough DVD screeners to blanket the voting members, limiting the exposure of the movie and, ultimately, limiting the number of votes that Selma could receive. It really could just be that not enough members saw Selma before they cast their votes.
There are too many factual explanations for me to accept that race and gender factored so heavily into this year’s Academy nominations, so my problem here comes primarily from an artistic standpoint. Ava DuVernay did a fine job crafting a film that avoids the typical pitfalls of lesser biopics. She smartly drove creative narration, a focused story, and tangible characters in a Best Picture-worthy film that is equal parts historical depiction and current social commentary. All of this was enhanced by David Oyelowo’s incredible performance bringing a larger than life icon to a very human and relatable level.
True talent should not be overlooked and I can’t wait to see more projects from either of these two individuals – but is a golden statue really needed to validate talent? Just look to Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, Saving Private Ryan, and really any movie you love and I think you’ll find your answer.
Featured Image Courtesy of: http://www.oscars.org/