White, male field spurs Oscars diversity backlash
By Bryan Alexander, USA TODAY
One year ago, 12 Years A Slave triumphed as Oscars’ best picture — the first time the top prize went to a film directed by a black filmmaker, Steve McQueen.
It’s a stark contrast to Thursday’s 2015 Academy Awards nominations, which have come under fire for a glaring lack of diversity. Social media erupted after the slate revealed that the 20 contenders for lead and supporting actor and actress are all white for the first time since 1998.
“It was a total blow, it was like getting hit in the stomach,” says regional Fox network film critic Shawn Edwards, who runs the website ILoveBlackMovies.com. “It was like, ‘Here we go again.’”
Selma, centered around Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights struggle, received two nominations, for best picture and best song. The film’s Golden Globe-nominated director Ava DuVernay, who would have made history as the first female African-American director nominee, was notably shut out. So was her much-touted star David Oyelowo.
The director category is dominated by white men: Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher), along with Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (Birdman), who is a native Mexican. Angelina Jolie’s high-profile directing effort, for the epic Unbroken, went unnoticed. No women were nominated in the two screenwriting categories, including Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn.
DuVernay took the setback in stride, tweeting a “Happy Birthday” to Dr. King and urging her team to “march on.” But the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite took flight and voices such as actor Patton Oswalt expressed disdain.
“SELMA? One of the best pics of the year. But the directing, script, all the acting, & cinematography? Meh,” Oswalt tweeted. “Nice song, though.”
Edwards says he “was not surprised to see a complete shutout” of people of color in the major acting categories. “The writing was on the wall. I was disappointed but not shocked.”
He considers last year’s awards race, which included diverse films such as Mandela and Captain Phillips, a “once-in-a-lifetime fluke, the likes of which we will probably never see again.” He cites the voting body of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, made up of members of the film industry, as the issue: A 2012 Los Angeles Times report found that Oscar voters were 94% white and 77% male.
“You have to want to go out of your way to recognize quality cinema outside of your main scope,” Edwards says. “It’s an issue of understanding.”
The Academy’s first African-American woman president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, did not respond to USA TODAY’s request for comment, but told New York magazine’s Vulture blog that the organization doesn’t have a diversity problem “at all.” Last year, the academy inducted 271 new members, including 12 Years A Slave supporting-actress winner Lupita Nyong’o and comedian Chris Rock.
Still, coming off of last year’s nominations, which included a black best-director nominee and three acting nominees of color, “this year’s all-white lineup in the major categories seems like a bit of a step backward,” says Dave Karger, host of movie site Fandango.com’s awards show Frontrunners. “I don’t think anyone is saying that black filmmakers should be held to a different standard. But today’s nominations suggest that the academy should continue its efforts to bring more minority members into the fold.”
Pete Hammond, awards columnist for the industry website Deadline.com, addressed the outcry in a column titled “Oscar’s bumpy ride.” He blamed other factors, such as an overcrowded actors’ field, for any snubs.
“But people are talking about this,” he says. “And it’s significant that we are talking about this.”
There was a silver lining for Selma heading into the awards, which will be given out Feb. 22.
“It’s the first film directed by an African-American female to be nominated for best picture,” Karger says. “That’s a fantastic achievement.”
Contributing: Arienne Thompson and Brian Truitt