Last year the Oscars were overshadowed by a controversy so big it even had its own hashtag: #OscarsSoWhite. While it was reported that celebrities such as Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee threatened to boycott the ceremony (I have no idea if they attended or not), one man spoke sense. British actor Idris Elba gave a speech bemoaning the lack of opportunities for black people in the British film and TV industry.
This is the real point. Oscar, or the Academy to be more precise, isn’t a sinister group of people who get together in a dark and smoky room to decide who is going to win the awards based on the current zeitgeist, a desire to snub a group of people or honour someone based on past glory! The academy is a group of disparate individuals (most of whom are old white men) voting for films they probably haven’t seen. The hashtag campaign was bore out of a lack of diversity. In the acting categories, all twenty nominations last year were white:
- Leonardo DiCaprio, Bryan Cranston, Michael Fassbender, Eddie Redmayne, Matt Damon
- Brie Larson, Cate Blanchett, Saoirse Ronan, Jennifer Lawrence, Charlotte Rampling
- Mark Rylance, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Hardy, Mark Ruffalo, Christian Bale
- Alicia Vikander, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kate Winslet, Rachel McAdams, Rooney Mara
But a little like Idris Elba suggested, the problem isn’t with the academy, the problem is with the industry and with the audience, us! Last year’s Oscars may be remembered for the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, but will it be remembered for the snub of numerous black actors? I would say probably not. I only saw just over 100 Oscar eligible movie so probably missed a few smaller gems. Of what I saw, the only black actor who I can think of who should be disappointed is Michael B. Jordan for Creed.
But things are very different this year, the nominations are:
- Casey Affleck, Andrew Garfield, Ryan Gosling, Viggo Mortensen, Denzel Washington
- Isabelle Huppert, Ruth Negga, Natalie Portman, Emma Stone, Meryl Streep
- Mahershala Ali, Jeff Bridges, Lucas Hedges, Dev Patel, Michael Shannon
- Viola Davis, Naomie Harris, Nicole Kidman, Octavia Spencer, Michelle Williams
Seven of the twenty acting nominations are for none white actors. The most notable film is Hidden Figures for several reasons. Octavia Spencer is fantastic and well deserving of her nomination, but her co-stars Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe are both equally as good. Finally the film is doing surprisingly well. Viola Davis is probably the safest bet for a winner.
But should we be congratulating ourselves yet? Fences, Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Loving are all films about black people or black issues. When the awards are colour-blind, that’s when we have made progress and can celebrate. A recent example of this would have been Denzel Washington’s best actor nomination for Flight (2012). He was playing a character who could have been any race (or either sex). But even this idea is diluted a little by the fact that it is Denzel, not Denzel Washington, just Denzel! You say the name Denzel and everyone knows you are talking about Denzel Washington. He is such a megastar and so beloved that he does transcend race to a certain degree. Furthermore the nomination came after he had already won two Oscars and nominated for a further three, every one (with the possible exception of Training Day) playing characters whose race was significant to the plot or their character. It would have been more telling had he been nominated for his supporting in Philadelphia (1993), a film where his performance was at least as good as best actor winner Tom Hanks. This was at a time before he had taken on legendary status.
Ultimately, awards are bullshit, it would be far more significant if we had a black James Bond, Superman or Batman. This then brings us onto a different problem of diversity. During the recent explosion of comic book movies we are yet to see one with a female lead, the first Wonder Woman later this year. But then we have made some progress, that part of Finn (John Boyega) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2105) would surely have gone to a white actor a generation ago. The diversity we see in this year’s awards season is certainly not a bad thing, let’s not get to excited about it, the battle will truly be won when we don’t have to talk about Oscar being black or white.