The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences recently announced the nominees for the 2016 Academy Awards. I have always loved the Oscars, but before I even had a chance to look at the list, I was tagged in a friend's Facebook post:
"#OscarsSoWhiteNatalia I need you to get into screenwriting stat. LOL!"
#OscarsSoWhite was a social media hashtag that became viral last year, after no minority actors were nominated in the four acting categories. That year, "Selma" was predicted to have a handful of nominations, Best Director and Best Actor included. But it ended up with two, one of which was Best Picture.
This year, all 20 nominated actors are white, again, and no films with minority leads sit in the Best Film category either. This was to some even more of a snub, since this year a few films were passed over. "Straight Outta Compton," the excellent Netflix film "Beasts of No Nation," "Concussion" and "Creed" seemed to be strong Oscar contenders starring minority actors. But the only nominations from that group are for the writers of "Straight Outta Compton," who all happen to be white, and for Sylvester Stallone for his performance in "Creed."
The one person of color in the big categories of the night is Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director, writer and producer of the film "The Revenant." He is up for Best Director and Best Picture for "The Revenant." González Iñárritu is Mexican and has had a very acclaimed career to date. His
films "Babel" and "Birdman" were nominated for Best Picture and Best Director in past Oscars. "Birdman" won both last year. And it was indeed a great film.
But besides being great films, what "Babel," "Birdman" and "The Revenant" have in common are white leads. "Babel" and "The Revenant" feature supporting performances from minority actors, but the point of entry, the protagonist, is never a minority.
I figure this must explain something. The Academy is made up of selected professionals in the film industry. I've worked for one of them, and he, like most of the Academy, is a white man over the age of 60. As of 2014, it was reported that the Academy is 93 percent white and 76 percent male, with an average age of 63.
Naturally, it's easy for a viewer to identify with a character or story that is familiar to him or her. So films with white protagonists or "mainstream" storylines are instinctively more attractive to the average Academy voter than say "Straight Outta Compton," a biopic about '80s rap group N.W.A.
Perhaps the viral hashtag should have read #AcademySoWhite or #AcademySoMale or #AcademySoSexagenarian.
Outside of the Oscars, critically acclaimed minority films are being produced and the box office is supporting them. And to be fair, the Oscars need not mirror the box office, since moviegoers are vastly more diverse than the Academy.
My cinematic tastes haven't lined up with the Academy's for years now. I wasn't surprised at the list of nominees. But I will take my Facebook friend up on her offer and write a screenplay. Not for the Academy's sake, but for my own.
Natalia Naman Temesgen is an independent contractor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org