Before this year’s Academy Award nominees were announced, it seemed reasonable to think that Straight Outta Compton, the bravura, socially relevant account of hip-hop group N.W.A.’s rise and struggles against racial prejudice, would be included in the Best Picture category. A lot of pundits certainly did, because of one key metric: The film had already been nominated in the Screen Actors Guild’s best motion picture ensemble category, and by the Producers Guild of America for outstanding film of the year. Historically, when a movie is recognized by both of those industry organizations, many of whose members are also voting members of the Academy, it means an Oscar nomination for Best Picture is practically guaranteed.
Key word there is “practically”: This morning, when the names of the eight films that made the Academy’s best picture cut were revealed, Straight Outta Compton was not among them. The Big Short and Spotlight, the only other two movies this year that received those approval stamps from SAG and the PGA, were both there. But Straight Outta Compton, an award-buzzy film with a largely black ensemble cast and an African-American director in F. Gary Gray, was absent. It did receive a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, though. If it wins that Oscar, the award will be shared among four writers and story developers, all of whom are white.
After an Academy Awards last year where the lack of people of color actor nominees and the omission of Ava DuVernay in the directing category sparked an #OscarsSoWhite Twitter hashtag, the 2016 Oscars hasn’t fared any better. In addition to the Straight Outta Compton miss, Creed — another impeccably executed story with a largely black cast, directed by a black man — was completely ignored, save for one nomination for supporting actor Sylvester Stallone, who, you may have noticed, is white, as is every other actor nominated this year in lead or supporting roles. Idris Elba, who the members of SAG nominated for best supporting actor for his ferocious yet deftly controlled performance in Beasts of No Nation, was overlooked. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the kind of rare phenomenal success that Hollywood would seemingly want to celebrate, especially because its two leads are a young woman and a young black man, was not nominated for Best Picture. If you look at the eight films that did make that list — The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Room, and Spotlight — every single one stars white actors in stories that, for the most part, focus on white people. (In Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, and The Revenant, black, Asian and Native American characters are notably present, but their roles are definitely more of the supporting variety.)
I don’t point this out to diminish the worthiness of the eight movies nominated. I like and admire every one of them, and am especially heartened that three out of this octet — Brooklyn, Mad Max and Room — center around the experiences of women. Still, foolhardy as it might be, many people expect the Academy Awards to reflect current American culture and judge the nominations each year on how effectively they’ve done that. On that front, there’s no question that the 2016 Oscars are an inaccurate mirror of who we are as a country and, by extension, who the moviegoing public is. And it’s not because there were no great movies about the non-white experience in 2015, which makes the situation that much more frustrating.
It’s tempting to consider all this and conclude that a majority of the Academy’s members are flat-out racists. I don’t think that’s true because I think the reality is more complicated. As of 2013, according to the Los Angeles Times, the Academy membership was 93% white and 76% male, with an average age of 63. Lately, the Academy leadership has been attempting to diversify that mix, and to be more transparent about who’s being asked to join the group. The publicly shared rundown of who was invited into the Academy in 2015 indicates a real effort to add more people of color and more women to that mix. But progress is slow and it will take some time for those percentages to significantly shift.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that some of those white, old men can’t vote for a movie like Straight Outta Compton or Beasts of No Nation or Chi-raq. But if people tend to respond more deeply to stories about experiences to which they can directly relate — and generally speaking, they do — the make-up of the Academy will continue to be a hindrance toward embracing more diverse storytelling until that make-up changes. What Mark Harris, who wrote a fine Oscar column for the late, great Grantland, said about this on Twitter this morning rings true:
In other words, the Academy is biased, either consciously or unconsciously, which is not quite the same thing as racist. You might ask: Well, what difference does it make when the end-result is a whitewash, which feels racist whether it is or not? You got me there. It feels bad regardless, especially if you’re an aspiring actor or filmmaker of color actively looking for role models who are breaking through in the industry.
Remember when I said earlier that if a movie gets both a SAG and a PGA nomination, it usually gets an Oscar nod for Best Picture? There are three instances in the past decade where that math hasn’t worked out: this year, for Straight Outta Compton; in 2012, for Bridesmaids, which is part of a genre (comedy) that tends to (unfairly) be marginalized by the Academy; and in 2007, for Dreamgirls, another film featuring an African-American ensemble and focused on the struggles of African-Americans attempting to make popular music.
To borrow liberally from the words in Jennifer Hudson’s signature number in that film: All of this is telling us this issue is not going away. As worthy as many of the nominees are this year, when it comes to diversity, there needs to be an awakening in the Academy.