The Academy Awards ceremony has honored achievements in film since 1929 and since then has seemingly been improving in terms of minority representation. In 2013, Cheryl Boone Isaacs was elected as the first African-American president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). In 2014, the film “12 Years A Slave” received nine Oscar nominations and won three awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress for newcomer Lupita Nyong’o — a Mexican-Kenyan actress — and Best Adapted Screenplay for John Ridley. Ridley is the second African-American in history to receive this award.
However, though the Academy Awards seems to have taken a few steps forward in terms of diversity, it has actually taken a huge leap back due to its nominations for the upcoming 87th Academy Awards. For the first time since 1995, all 20 acting nominees in the top categories are white. Furthermore, for the first time since 1999, all five director nominees and all 15 screenwriter nominees are male. It is also worth mentioning that all of the screenwriter nominees are also white, aside from the director and screenwriters of the film Birdman.
After the nominations were announced on Jan. 15, news outlets and social media were abuzz, criticizing the lack of diversity as well as some of the films nominated for the awards. Twitter began trending the hashtag “#OscarsSoWhite,” in which Twitter users provided commentary such as “#OscarsSoWhite they don’t see race.”
“Selma” seems to be the main film that people have mentioned when discussing this year’s Oscar snubs, and it makes sense. The film is a historical drama focused on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as Hosea Williams, James Bevel and John Lewis. “Selma” matters because it is a film in which black people are not on the sidelines of the plot; rather, without them, there would be no plot at all. “Selma” matters because it gives black people voices during a time in our current history when they are striving to do just that, as shown by the civil rights movement set off by the events in Ferguson.
“Selma” is not only a good film, but was also well-received by critics; it has a 99 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes; in other words, out of 160 critic reviews of the film, only two were negative.
Why, then, did “Selma” only receive nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Song, when it could’ve just as easily been nominated for a number of acting awards? David Oyelowo gave an outstanding performance as Dr. King, as does Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. Where are their nominations?
Ava Duvernay, who directed “Selma,” is an African-American female. She spent hours listening to Dr. King’s speeches and then co-writing alternative speeches for the screenplay in a manner that would evoke King’s own writing and speech patterns so as to not violate copyright. Her thorough research and attention to detail certainly merits a nod from the Academy. Where is her nomination?
Meanwhile, films such as Boyhood and American Sniper received six nominations each; the former featured white actors and white actors only, and the latter celebrated the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, Chris Kyle. “I hate the damn savages and I’ve been fighting and always will,” and “I love killing bad guys,” Kyle said about Iraqis.
Since the nominations have been released, I have been told that films are just entertainment and that we should be focusing on “things that matter” instead, such as “real” social justice. I have been told that ultimately, awards don’t matter in the long run.
However, film not only impacts but also reflects how society, individuals and cultures think, and that goes for all types of media.
So what does it mean when women and people of color are underrepresented in this year’s Academy Awards? What does it mean when, for months, people have been chanting and hashtagging “#BlackLivesMatter,” but mainstream recognition of film doesn’t seem to think so?
The United States is known as a melting pot, a country with the ultimate face of diversity. On the other hand, the AMPAS is 93 percent white and 76 percent male. The average age of its members is 63. It is imperative that we evaluate the lack of minority representation not only in film but in all media. The voices of women and people of color are already politically and socially silenced in numerous ways; why must they be artistically silenced as well?