Oscar nominations’ lack of diversity reflects Hollywood status quo

This year’s white-washed Oscar nominations mirror Hollywood’s everyday business practices

Oscars nominations were announced earlier this week and for many were an embarrassment than a celebration of filmmaking achievements over the past year.  Looking at the list of nominees it would appear that congressional Republicans have taken over the Academy too. While the list of films nominated for Best Picture seems worthy enough, when looking at the rest of the field, it becomes a shocking display of homogeneity.  Diversity among the nominees non-existent and it’s certainly not for lack of deserving talent.  Social media even responded to the nominations with a trending #OscarsSoWhite hashtag.

Selma PosterFor many, the most egregious oversight was that neither “Selma” director Ava DuVernay  nor British actor David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King, Jr received nominations in their respective categories. “Selma has been universally acclaimed by critics (and audiences) alike. Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle describes Oyelowo’s performance this way:

There are times when watching David Oyelowo in “Selma” that it’s really easy to believe you’re looking at Martin Luther King Jr. Aside from the accidents of age, size and appearance, Oyelowo has studied King’s gestures, not only his public manner — his dramatic use of his arms and hands — but his more private side, the weary yet determined quality he had in one-on-one interviews.

In the movie’s more private moments, Oyelowo even sounds like King…this is a remarkable performance, remarkable not only in its force, but in its strength and precision. Oyelowo is reason alone to see “Selma,”

Had she received a nomination for Best Director Duvernay would have been the first African-American woman to be so honored.  Of course, Best Director is a category that over the years has become the poster child for snubbing worthy female candidates.

In the 87 year history of the Oscars only 4 women have ever been nominated for Best Director.

Yes, you read that correctly–only 4 out of 435 nominees for Best Director have been women and only one, Katheryn Bigelow, director of the Oscar-winning Best Picture film Hurt Locker , has ever won.

The Imitation GameWith regard to Selma having been limited to only two nominations, Best Picture and Best Song, some have pointed to controversy over inaccuracies in the portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the film as a possible reason.  However, if we’re playing the accuracy card, one could easily make similar criticisms about the Oscar nominated film “The Imitation Game.” Films depicting historical events routinely stretch and shape the truth to make for a more compelling and efficient story. As L.V. Anderson noted in Slate:

The Imitation Game takes major liberties with its source material, injecting conflict where none existed, inventing entirely fictional characters, rearranging the chronology of events, and misrepresenting the very nature of Turing’s work at Bletchley Park. At the same time, the film might paint Turing as being more unlovable than he actually was.

It annoys me to no end when films fudge with historical facts.  Rewriting history should not be viewed as a laudable storytelling technique, but in terms of the Oscars,  the “The Imitation Game” didn’t seem to suffer any consequences by doing so.  In fact the film received 8 nominations overall and acting nods for both lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley in a supporting role.

The Academy’s persistent tunnel vision with regard to issues involving race and gender is not all that surprising given its makeup.  A 2012 LA Times piece described its demographics this way:

Oscar voters are nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male, The Times found. Blacks are about 2% of the academy, and Latinos are less than 2%.

Oscar voters have a median age of 62, the study showed. People younger than 50 constitute just 14% of the membership.

In 2013 the Academy attempted to address the fact that its membership is overwhelmingly white and male by naming Hollywood marketing executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs as its first African-American president and only the third woman to hold the position.  Friday, responding to the backlash to this week’s nominations, she told the AP;

In the last two years, we’ve made greater strides than we ever have in the past toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization through admitting new members and more inclusive classes of members…And, personally, I would love to see and look forward to see a greater cultural diversity among all our nominees in all of our categories.

Truth is, the lack of diversity reflected in this year’s Oscar nominations is a natural by-product of Hollywood’s entrenched homogenous business culture. In order to make true progress on this front, those who operate Hollywood studios must reexamine how they do business at every level.   There needs to be a commitment to creating a culture of inclusiveness and opportunity, from hiring production assistants to filling vacancies at the executive level.

For those interested in actual data, I recommend reading the 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report-Making Sense of the Disconnect  published by UCLA’s Bunche Center for African-American Studies. Through its Race and Hollywood Project the Bunche Center has taken a leading role in researching the ramifications of Hollywood’s less-than-inclusive business practices through its Race and Hollywood Project.   In the 2014 report’s conclusion, its authors, Dr. Darnell Hunt, Dr. Ana-Christina Ramon, and Dr. Zachary Price, make this observation:

When confronted with abysmal diversity numbers, industry decision makers often resort to the “small pool” argument as justification for the situation: “There is a shortage of diverse talent out there.” Meanwhile, the lack of diversity in how the industry celebrates excellence works to reinforce this idea.

Behind the scenes, the decision makers responsible for the high-stakes productions that constitute Hollywood routinely surround themselves with people with whom they feel comfortable–people who think (and often look) like them.  The combination of these factors creates a vicious cycle that virtually guarantees the marginalization of diverse talent in the industry.

graph-Celluloid Ceiling Project

graph-Celluloid Ceiling Project

The Celluloid Ceiling Project, sponsored by San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, also provides discouraging evidence of Hollywood’s repeated failures. Researchers there have found that the numbers of women working as directors, writers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers has actually declined in the period from 1998 to 2013.  Women are losing ground in Hollywood, not gaining.

It’s a vicious cycle, where progress seems to be virtually non-existent.  Academy president Boone Isaacs appears more upbeat, assuring the A.P. that Academy is, “committed to seeking out diversity of voice and opinion.”  Despite her optimism, evidence shows that so far, it’s commitment that rings hollow.


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