Why #OscarsSoWhite may have it wrong about racism and the academy

The controversy over this year's failure by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to nominate any black actors continues to gather steam. But there are many factors that determine whether an actor, director or film will get a nomination.

Some argue this year is highly competitive

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith have said they will not attend the Academy Awards on Feb. 28 in protest against two straight years of all-white acting nominees. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/Associated Press)

The controversy over this year's failure by the 6,000 member Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to nominate any black actors continues to gather steam, with suggestions that their exclusion is indicative of systemic racism among those selecting the nominees.

But as most industry observers note, the snubbing of well-received performances is a time-honoured academy tradition. Indeed, the idea that the Oscars has ever been a meritocracy is absurd as there are many factors — including who are the better schmoozers — that often determine whether an actor, director or film will get a nomination.

"To imply that this is because all of us are racists is extremely offensive," actress Penelope Ann Miller, a member of the actors branch of the academy, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Actress Penelope Ann Miller, a member of the academy, is defending the organization against accusations of racism. (Vince Bucci/Invision/Associated Press)

"I don't want to be lumped into a category of being a racist because I'm certainly not, and because I support and benefit from the talent of black people in this business. It was just an incredibly competitive year." 

To date, actor Will Smith, who had a starring role in the well-reviewed film Concussion, his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, director Spike Lee and documentarian Michael Moore have all said they will sit out the show.

Meanwhile, #OscarsSoWhite has become a popular twitter meme. There have also been calls for African-American host Chris Rock to back out, while activists such as Rev. Al Sharpton are promising to lead a campaign encouraging people not to watch the Feb. 28 telecast.

"Hollywood is like the Rocky Mountains, the higher up you get, the whiter it gets," Sharpton said. "And this year's Academy Awards will be yet another Rocky Mountain Oscars."

On Friday, reacting to the backlash, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it would double its invitation-only membership of women and minorities by 2020.

Though Hollywood veteran Sylvester Stallone earned an Academy Award nomination (supporting actor) for Creed, the film's star Michael B. Jordan and its director Ryan Coogler -- two young black men -- were snubbed by the academy. (Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Pictures/Associated Press)

The current controversy stems not only from the slate of all-white actor nominations this year, for the second year in a row, but for its overlooking of such critically acclaimed work as that performed by Will Smith, Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation and the black stars and directors of films like Creed and Straight Outta Compton.

Other works snubbed

Defenders of the nominations, however, note that the work of a number of other artists who critics said were deserving of nominations was also excluded. They included Michael Keaton for his supporting actor role in Spotlight, Ridley Scott for directing The Martian and Todd Haynes who directed Carol, a film many critics felt was deserving of a best picture nomination.

Scott Feinberg, an awards analyst and writer for the Hollywood Reporter, said that none of this year's excluded films either starring or directed by blacks were thought to be slam-dunks going into the nominations.

"None of the people who were nominated instead of them were indefensible selections. It's a tough pill to swallow, but it was just a terrific year for actors, lead and supporting."

Kyle Smith, movie critic for the New York Post, was more sneering in his defence of the academy, chiding actors like George Clooney for suggesting that racism may have played a role in the selection process.

Academy pretending 'not to be racist'?

"No blacks were nominated for acting Oscars this year, or last year. But the membership of the AMPAS doesn't change much from year to year," Smith wrote.

"Is Clooney saying that the same people who were not racist when they gave the Best Picture Oscar to 12 Years a Slave turned racist 10 months later for some reason when they 'snubbed' Ava DuVernay by not nominating her for Best Director for Selma?

"Were they racist the whole time but decided to pretend not to be racist in March of 2014, only to stop pretending in January of 2015?"

Actor Idris Elba failed to garner a nomination for his role in Beasts of No Nation." (Jordan Strauss/Invision/Associated Press)

While the competition is tough, so too can it be a challenge to ensure a film is actually seen. 

It's not exactly a secret that members of the academy do not watch every single film in contention, meaning when movies like Beasts of No Nation are released on an untraditional platform like Netflix, it's unlikely it had a widespread viewing.

That's why lobbying by studios are seen to play a big role in the nominations and winners.

 For example, the tireless schmoozing efforts of producer Harvey Weinstein to ensure his films are seen by academy members has been followed by scores of Oscar nods and wins for his films, including the surprise victory of the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love over the heavily favoured Saving Private Ryan.

And as Feinberg pointed out, the distributor of Creed didn't realize it was an awards contender and  may have been too late to mobilize a fully-effective campaign.

Sentimentality is also a significant factor in the decision-making process. Senior actors or acclaimed actors who have been repeatedly snubbed over the years are sometimes rewarded more for their body of work than the performance they actually get an Oscar for.

No one really believed that Al Pacino was at his best when he won the best actor award for Scent of a Woman.  While critics are hailing Sylvester Stallone in Creed, he is certainly the sentimental favourite, in part by giving a nuanced performance so at odds with his usual bombastic roles in action films.

Wrong target of boycott campaign

Some critics, such as Feinberg, say the Academy is the wrong target in this boycott campaign, and that blame should fall on the studios who hire relatively few African-Americans to direct or star in major U.S. movies. 

As the Economist points out, blacks are 12.6 per cent of the American population, and 10 per cent of Oscar nominations since 2000 have gone to black actors. 

But blacks are under-represented in the roles that count for the Oscars, getting just nine per cent of the top roles since 2000, according to the Economist's analysis. 

"The numbers indicate that, whereas the film industry most certainly fails to represent America's diversity, the whitewashing occurs not behind the closed doors of the Academy, but in drama schools (shown in the SAG membership) and casting offices."

with files from the Associated Press


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