Controversy followed the recent Oscar nominations, as an almost all white slate of nominees were announced, once again providing a glaring problem in the Academy’s membership. The Academy quickly moved to ameliorate the problem, promising to select far more female and minority members by 2020, and slowly but surely phasing out the predominately white male membership that’s dominated the Academy since its foundation. However, fixing the Academy doesn’t fix a bigger problem: people of color still do not have the opportunities to star or make some of the biggest films every year.
Let’s look at the top-10 highest grossing films of all time. Only Furious 7 was directed by a non-white male. The other nine were directed by white men. Two of the bigger pictures of the year–albeit not in the top-10–were directed by African-Americans. F. Gary Gray directed Straight Outta Compton, both critically-acclaimed and a box office hit and Ryan Coogler directed Creed, which helped pump fresh blood into the sagging Rocky franchise. Coogler’s success with Creed landed him the job directing Marvel’s Black Panther movie, due out in 2018.
However, when you scroll through some of the bigger films of the year, you realize that Gray and Coogler are joined by few other directors of color. If the Oscars have a color problem, Hollywood does even more so. Yes, the Oscars need to be more inclusive and must broaden its membership to ensure that the entire spectrum of film each year is considered for awards, but the film industry itself must do a better job to ensure minorities have opportunities to direct big, prestige films, you know, the ones that tend to be nominated for Oscars.
The Oscar-nominated Selma was directed by Ava DuVernay, a black woman, and the film was nominated for Best Picture and won the Oscar for Best Original Song, but it failed to receive any other nominations. Aside from Selma, I dare you to name another film (OFF THE TOP OF YOUR HEAD!!) directed by a woman of color and nominated for major awards, like Best Picture. I doubt you can.
The nominations and wins bestowed upon 12 Years a Slave two years ago were a high-water mark, as the film won three Oscars (Picture, Supporting Actress, and Adapted Screenplay), but director Steve McQueen–while winning for Best Picture–failed to win for Director. However, for a fleeting moment, we saw what could happen if minority filmmakers get opportunities to direct major, prestige pictures like 12 Years a Slave or Selma.
Then the nominations for last year’s films were announced.
Now, it is worth mentioning that the winners of Best Picture over the last two years were directed by minorities (12 Years a Slave by Steve McQueen and Birdman by Alejandro Gonzalez Inurritu) and one of the leading contenders for both Picture and Director this year (The Revenant) was also directed by Mexican filmmaker Inurritu. Does this mean Oscar and by extension, Hollywood, has solved its minority problem? Not in the least.
As mentioned earlier, the nominations certainly highlighted a major problem with the Academy, but failed to address the larger problems of minority filmmakers and actors receiving opportunities to work on significant films, whether they be prestige pictures (generally the ones winning awards) or box office hits. This is where we have a predicament. Changing Academy membership will surely broaden the films considered for awards, but if minorities are not getting opportunities to make big movies, will we see much of a difference when nominations are announced? Again, only two of the top-grossing and critically acclaimed films of 2015 were directed by African-Americans (Straight Outta Compton and Creed). Will the Academy have to scrounge around to nominate films made by people of color simply for the sake of inclusivity or does the film industry need to recognize that few talented filmmakers of color are not getting the opportunities to direct major motion pictures?
No matter what changes the Academy makes, Hollywood must realize filmmakers (including directors, writers, actors, editors, costume designers, and every conceivable job within in the industry) of color are not getting the same opportunities as their white counterparts.
Coogler is a big hope for the future, having two genuine critical hits under his belt (Fruitvale Station and Creed) by 29 (an incredibly young age for any filmmaker these days) and is now the first minority director to tackle one of Disney’s incredibly successful Marvel films. However, it’s simply a baby step and one that needs to change. Thus far, all of the announced Star Wars films will be or were directed by white men (no minorities or women), including the core sequel trilogy films. Few highly anticipated blockbusters this year were helmed by minority filmmakers, save for Taiwanese-American director Justin Lin‘s upcoming Star Trek sequel, and with changes to the Academy still several years away, we can probably expect awards’ nominations to once again lack diversity come 2017. Again, this is an Academy problem, but it’s also a movie industry problem. Yes, Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inurritu could win and unheralded Best Picture and Director for the second year in a row, but Oscar and Hollywood should not pat themselves on the backs if this feat is accomplished. Inurritu is a rarity, both in terms of skill and the fact that he’s a minority from a different country succeeding at the highest levels of American filmmaking.
With all of that said, this doesn’t even begin to encompass the lack of diversity in the nominations for acting. Supposed shoe-ins like Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation were left out, as was Will Smith for Concussion. Both actors received Golden Globe nominations for their performances, but nothing for the Oscars. However, once again we are talking about just two actors in just two movies, and unfortunately, some of the most critically acclaimed films of 2015 did not feature actors of color in lead or significant supporting roles. Perusing Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the top-100 critically acclaimed movies of 2015, you have to go all the way to number 17 (Creed) to find a film starring a person of color (this discounts Selma, which Rotten Tomatoes lists at number 3, but was actually released in 2014. I have no idea why this is listed with 2015 films). Will Smith’s Concussion did not make the list. Using Metacritic’s data, the numbers remain nearly as bleak. Creed once again came in at number 17 and legendary filmmaker Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq landed at number 27, which did not even appear on Rotten Tomatoes’ list. Creed’s nominated for one Oscar (Sylvester Stallone for Best Supporting Actor) and Chi-Raq received zero nominations.
Certainly critical views of an overall film should not discount an actor’s performance, but it once again demonstrates that like minority directors, actors of color are not starring in what critics consider the best films of the year. Must of this can be ameliorated with a focus on diversity not only within the Academy, but also within the movie industry. A lot of James Bond fans are pushing for Idris Elba to follow Daniel Craig as the next 007 (Elba would own the role, by the way), and hearing rumblings like that is a step in the right direction, but only a small step. All was not bleak, especially in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Not only did the film destroy box-office records, but two of its stars are minorities (John Boyega and Oscar Issac). Along with the rest of the new cast, Boyega earned praise for his acting, winning over fans and critics alike with his performance as Finn. It’s something, but certainly not enough. Sure, a black man as 007 and leading the charge in Star Wars are great, but the movie business has a long way to go before #Oscarsowhite is no longer an issue.