The Nod: The Oscar Nominations Got A Lot Wrong. Here Are Four Things They Got Right

In the week since the Academy Award nominations were announced, an already audible conversation about Oscar’s — and, by extension, Hollywood’s — lack of diversity has gotten louder and louder.

Numerous media outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and we at Uproxx, immediately criticized the nominations for turning into #OscarsSoWhitePartDeux, the second year in a row, in which the four acting categories, as well as other key ones, were devoid of people of color.

Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee, recent recipient of an honorary Academy Award, announced their plans to boycott the Feb. 28 ceremony. Al Sharpton is encouraging people to tune out the broadcast on ABC. David Oyelowo, an actor known for his onscreen portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr., criticized the Academy for its color blindness over the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday weekend, at an event honoring Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Even Isaacs weighed in, issuing an unprecedented statement in which she said she is “heartbroken” and “frustrated” by the nominations’ lack of inclusiveness and vowed to take more aggressive action to recruit a wider range of Academy members. While this is hardly the first time this type of controversy has arisen, there’s an urgency and outrage around it; the whole thing feels like an industry wake-up call that can’t be ignored, after decades of repeatedly hitting snooze.

It’s beyond appropriate that matters of race and diversity have so far dominated the 2016 Oscars conversation, a conversation that I suspect, contrary to Sharpton’s call for a tune-out, may make more people interested in hearing what host Chris Rock has to say on Oscar night. But it also means that there has been less chatter about the merits of the films nominated.

There is no question that this year’s Oscar nominees are too white, too male (especially on the filmmaking and special effects side) and not reflective of the ethnic and cultural diversity of the American population and its moviegoers, all of which speaks to a persistent Hollywood problem. But there are still a few heartening things to find when perusing this year’s contenders.

1. There are more Best Picture nominees this year that feature female protagonists.
Many were understandably disappointed that Carol, Todd Haynes’s artful and meticulously rendered ’50s-era lesbian love story, was left out of the Best Picture race. But compared to last year’s slate, which was dominated by birdmen, boyhood, American snipers, American drummers and not one, but two, male geniuses overcoming significant adversity, 2016’s is more gender-exclusive. Granted, the male-female split is hardly equal. Three of the nominated films — The Big Short, Bridge of Spies and The Revenant — are exceedingly male-driven, while two focus mainly on male characters but feature strong women as part of their ensembles (The Martian and Spotlight). Still, given that some Oscar handicappers’ picks suggested that Brooklyn and Room might not make the cut, it’s gratifying to see those two films honored for illuminating the experiences of young women grappling, in radically different ways, with isolation and grief. It’s just as gratifying that Mad Max: Fury Road, a female empowerment narrative dressed-up in metal and cranked up to 11, plants its flame-shooting-guitar flag on the Best Picture list, too, partly because it’s a film principally about women. But also for another reason.

2. The Best Picture nominees also include a pair of blockbusters, from genres the Academy tends to ignore.
When the Academy decided to expand the Best Picture field, it was partly in response to the outcry over The Dark Knight’s failure to earn a nomination in that category in 2009. By highlighting more movies — first the Academy widened the race to 10 nominees; now it’s anywhere from five to 10 — the hope was that overlooked genres like action and sci-fi had a better chance of being represented, thereby redefining the notion of the “prestige picture” to align more closely with the films mainstream audiences actually see.

That has happened to some extent over the six years since the race widened, allowing space for films like Avatar, Inception and Gravity to have seats at the table, although those three may have gotten reserved chairs even if the Best Picture opportunities had remained limited to five. Nevertheless, the perception persists that any popular movie that involves too many car chases and/or spaceships has no chance at being associated with the phrase “Best Picture.” Some would argue that’s exactly why Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a movie that seemingly everyone in the country saw and enjoyed immensely, isn’t on the short list this year. But the fact that Mad Max: Fury Road — which, for all its intellectual themes, is unquestionably an action flick — and The Martian, a sci-fi adventure that’s cerebral and also a crowd-pleaser, were nominated indicates that minds may be opening a bit.

Fury Road has made $153.6 million at the box office; The Martian earned $227 million and landed among the top 10 earners of 2015. Last year only one of the eight Best Picture nominees, American Sniper, brought in more than $100 million in movie ticket sales; virtually every other film on the list played strongly at the art house but not at the multiplex. Which is fine. But if the Academy wants average moviegoers to feel some connection to the Oscars, its voting members need to seriously consider the best of what the multiplex has to offer the same way they need to consider filmmakers and stories of greater diversity. This year they indicated a willingness to do take action and sci-fi seriously. Hopefully that’s progress and not an anomaly.

3. The screenplays nominated in the original and adapted categories are really on-point.
Deserving movies that can’t manage to wrestle into the six major categories often get at least some attention under the Best Screenplay banner. On one hand, that’s an indictment of the Academy for failing to recognize less conventional fare for best picture or director. On the other, it speaks highly of the members of the writers branch who, during the past decade, have shined lights on such varied Best Picture-overlooked gems as The Savages, In the Loop, Before Sunset, Bridesmaids and Nightcrawler.

This year, Ex Machina, Inside Out, Straight Outta Compton and Carol — all Best Picture-worthy but not best picture-nominated — will at least be recognized for their on-paper storytelling powers. Perhaps one of them will even come away a winner.

4. The animated feature category is a refreshing mix of mainstream and decidedly not.
It’s become an Oscar tradition: the nominees for the Best Animated Feature are announced and you go, “Oh, right, saw that one with my kids. And that. And that. And … wait, what the hell is Chico & Rita?” Or, in this year’s case, “What the hell are Boy and The World and When Marnie Was There?”

Those “What the hell?” moments are what make this category so interesting and, sometimes, such an intriguing mix of widely known mainstream work (like Inside Out), and not-at-all-for-the-kiddies boundary-pushers, (see Anomalisa or The Wind Rises, the Miyazaki swan song nominated two years ago). Sure, the animation branch sometimes screws up royally and neglects to nominate something that screams winner, like The Lego Movie. But their willingness to consider so many of the for-your-consideration options and spread the love from Pixar all the way to Brazil for Boy and the World sets an example that the rest of the Academy may want to emulate the next time they sit down to make their list of Best Picture nominees.