If it’s January in Beverly Hills inevitably someone somewhere is complaining about the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards. And while this year’s crop of nominees is particularly, well, white (for the first time since 2011 all twenty of the acting nominees announced this week are caucasian) and the omission of African American director Ava DuVerny’s name in the Best Director category seems especially glaring considering the fact that her film Selma snared a Best Picture nod, the truth is, the nominations are just another example of how completely tone deaf the Academy has become of late.
While I totally understand the frustration that film fans the world over are feeling right now – Hell, I’m still fuming about the lack of little plastic LEGO-Americans in the Best Animated Feature category! – when dealing with anything Academy-related, it’s important to keep things in perspective.
Sure, DuVerny was robbed, but, it could have just as much to do with her gender as her race. In the 86 year history of the Academy Awards only four women have been nominated for Best Director (Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, and Kathryn Bigelow) and only one has ever taken home the Oscar — Bigelow for 2008’s The Hurt Locker. The odds are even worse for African American and black directors, with only three nominees in that same time period for John Singleton, Lee Daniels and Steve McQueen. In fact, the English-born McQueen — who memorably took home the gold for producing last year’s 12 Years A Slave — is the only black person to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Like, ever.
And while Academy members point to the recent Best Director wins by Mexican writer/director Alfonso Cuarón (who took Best Directing and Editing honors for last year’s Gravity) and Taiwanese-born director/producer Ang Lee — who is the only Asian to win Best Director honors, for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain and 2012’s Life of Pi — as signs of an uptick in diversity, bestowing awards upon people of color and actively seeking them out and welcoming them into your academy as voting members are two very different things.
Now, I’m not saying the membership of the Academy is the problem, because, quite honestly, most people don’t even know who all of the voting members of the Academy are. But what we do know about them isn’t exactly encouraging.
A 2012 study by the Los Angeles Times determined that Oscar voters are 94% white and 77% male with an average age of 62 years old. Statistically speaking the newly-minted, GOP-controlled 114th U.S. Congress is more diverse. Seriously, look it up.
And despite the efforts of newly-re-elected Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs (who is only the third woman, and the fist African American woman to serve as Academy President) to inject diversity into the Academy mix, the nominations prove that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Another issue facing new and emerging filmmakers of every ilk is the fact that, with few exceptions, it takes years for the work of truly innovative filmmakers to even register with Academy voters. The fact that groundbreaking filmmakers from the so-called “Class of 1999” – writer/directors like David Fincher, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell and fellow ’90’s iconoclasts Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater – have only recently started to garner serious Oscar consideration speaks volumes about how long it actually takes to get noticed by Academy members. So although this might be DuVerny’s first award season go-around, traditional wisdom says it definitely won’t be her last.
And finally, perhaps the biggest stumbling block in the long road to diversity is the Academy’s very specific tastes in films.
I’m not saying they don’t make some daring choices from time to time, but, broadly speaking, the movies and roles that win Academy Awards are polite, soul-stirring period pieces featuring characters with one or more afflictions that are generally played by white actors with accents. Sure, the occasional genre pic slips away with Best Picture from time to time – The Departed, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King are but three recent examples – but for every Argo or No Country for Old Men, there is a tasteful, impeccably-produced “serious film” like The Artist or The King’s Speech just waiting to take the top prize.
I know it’s scant comfort, but, at the end of the day, any or all of these factors could have had a hand in determining the lily white field of Academy Award nominees. So, to Ava DuVerny, Selma lead David Oyelowo, Cake Supporting Actress also-ran Adriana Barraza, Unbroken’s Takamasa Ishihara and anyone else who didn’t make the cut, don’t feel too bad about being overlooked by a bunch of old white guys. Historically speaking, you’re in excellent company.
We very much look forward to seeing these movies on inflight entertainment!