Diversity vs. Integrity: The 2016 Oscar Nominations

All white Oscars

When I began to watch the televised announcement of the Oscar nominations, I was prepared for a wave of minority nominations. After all, the Academy for Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was lambasted last year for the absence of African American nominees, and with the Academy stuffed with knee-jerk, left-wing, Democratic donors, I assumed that last year’s criticism would prompt the voters to place an affirmative action thumb hard on every scale. To my amazement, I was wrong! For the second year in a row, all 20 nominees in the acting category were white. The only  nonwhite nominee was for Best Director (Alejandro G. Iñárritu).

This tells me that the Academy Awards, though they may be influenced by so many biases that the final awards—except in rare cases where a performance was so outstanding that nobody could argue with the choice without looking silly—are meaningless as credible determinations of merit, have integrity. They are not “fixed.” The Academy, whose chair is a black woman, would have loved to have a large, or even a small group of black nominees to be able to show more  diversity. The awards, however, are supposed to be based on artistic merit, not EEOC targets. It looks like the Academy’s members voted that way. Good for them.

Oh, naturally, Chris Rock (the Oscar night host—do you really think the Academy would have engaged his services if it didn’t want and assume plenty of black nominees?) has been launching verbal grenades, and Al Sharpton, the renowned film auteur, is calling for a boycott (“when the only tool you have is a hammer…”).  In the end, however, the complaint of black activists is self-defeating and hypocritical.

Are they seriously arguing that the Academy is biased and insensitive to diversity perceptions, after Hollywood was a major contributor to Barack Obama, after it awarded “Twelve Years A Slave”a Best Picture Oscar as a capitulation to the campaign, “It’s time!” even though almost no one really thought that the film was in fact the best movie that year: after decades of the supporting actor Oscar nominations including every conceivable minority nominee, including 2014’s Barkhad Abdi, a Somalian chauffeur nominated for being a convincing Somalian in “Captain Phillips” ? That nomination should have been a warning that Hollywood didn’t have enough minority candidates or films to choose from, because it is the lack of diversity of Hollywood products and artists, not biased awards, that is the problem.

Do activists really want affirmative action awards, as in, “These actors were nominated because of their color or ethnicity, not because of the quality of their work, or because it was superior to that of other artists”? They might, even though the devaluation of the honor that accompanies all diversity-based hiring, school admissions, promotions, elections and awards will inevitably follow. There appears to be two primarily African-American themed films that critics argue were “snubbed,” “Creed” and “Straight Out Of Compton.” Two? There are dozens of movies every year that have a legitimate argument that they should have been recognized over the ones that were. Not nominating the “Star Wars” movie as Best Picture is just the luck of the game, but not nominating “Straight Out Of Compton” proves racial bias? I know this is how the civil rights industry is trained to think, but seriously?

What is the theory now, that at least one movie about minorities has to be honored as a “best,” or it’s proof of bigotry? How about this argument: proven and previously honored black Hollywood artists like Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Lupita Nyong’o, Eddie Murphy, Gabourey Sidibe and others should have turned in better, more substantial work in 2015. Studios should have developed more quality vehicles for them. Although some have argued that Jackson “deserved” a nomination for once again re-cycling old tricks in “The Hateful Eight” because he’s, you know, Samuel L. Jackson, that’s nonsense, and I bet even Jackson knows it. He’s been coasting. Denzel didn’t make a film in 2015. Halle’s doing TV science fiction; Sidibe is rather limited in range because she’s about 300 pounds. Spike Lee has apparently lost his touch, and Barkhad Abdi is back driving a limo in Somalia, for all I can tell. Is this the Academy voters’ fault?

There’s no ethical solution to the absence of minority nominees except to have a stronger and larger pool of candidates, unless activists want there to be a special “Best Movie with a Large Number of Black Artists” category, or a “Best Performance By A Minority Actress” Oscar.  No, obviously those send the wrong message. What they appear to want is for the “Best Movie with a Large Number of Black Artists” to be automatically included in nomination the Best Pictures category, but to pretend that the nomination was on pure merit, which is to say, color blind.

Ethically, you can’t get there from here. Either minorities want a thumb on the sales, and guaranteed nominations based on factors having nothing to do with merit, or they want a meaningful award with integrity, in which minority status played no role. Pick one. I can tell them which is the right choice, if it isn’t sufficiently obvious.

If Al and the gang want more Oscars, then they need to aim their complaints at black audiences and black artists. To the audiences: make hits out of movies featuring black artists by buying tickets, and the bottom-liners in Hollywood will make more of them. To the artists: stop cashing in, start taking chances, make movies, not TV zombie shows, and champion good writing, not big budgets.

The Oscar nominations will come when they are earned.

23 thoughts on “Diversity vs. Integrity: The 2016 Oscar Nominations

  1. Al Sharpton! There are Black professionals and then professional Black’s – which is the niche Sharpton clearly falls under. His only “job” in life is to be Black and become an arm of the outrage police. The reality is the Rev. manages to skewer facts, situations and opinions into a convoluted mess.

    Is Sharpton even remotely aware that Hollywood is the bastion of the liberal elite? That – if anything – their collective angst over any perceived racial or gender slight would make any aggrieved minority a slam dunk. Just maybe the collective wisdom has surfaced that just happened to actually realize that being color blind is an attribute.

    Just the mention of Sharpton in any situation just makes me reach for the industrial strength Xanax I keep handy.

  2. I was actually kind of amazed that Will Smith wasn’t nominated for Concussion. You’re right in that his snub doesn’t prove racial bias anymore than any of the snubs other non-minority actors received… But maybe it does prove that the nominations are almost meaningless. Nothing for the largest grossing movie of all time? How?

    • “Barkhad Abdi is back driving a limo in Somalia” . . . not quite . . .

      Abdi had top billing in The Wolf Who Cried Boy as, yes!, a limo driver! In Detroit. And he did go back to Africa after all (South, not Somalia, though) to play an undercover agent in Eye in the Sky. Both due for Spring 2016 releases. He went on to Honolulu, Puerto Rico, and exotic New Jersey to feature, severally, as a Congolese warlord in an Hawaii Five-0 episode in between two meaty roles, one in the upcoming Extortion (he’s the “opportunistic” fisherman), and the other, in The Toll (liable to have a title change before its 2017 release) about a middle-aged New Jersey tollbooth worker who must defend his bridge against terrorists …. I’m guessing Abdi is not playing the toll taker. Eye already has excellent press, and Barkhad is making a good badguy name for himself.

      Oh, and The Martian, has my vote for the wittiest as well as the funniest — a rare combination — film of the year. The laughs came from situational surprises and Matt Damon’s deadpan spot on-time punch-line delivery. It deserved to be where it was; there is no room for a hybrid like that at the Oscars. (Comedy in general is disrespected in Hollywood: it is rated almost exclusively by how coarse and how stupid it can get. I’m glad the Golden Globes are flexible enough to deal with brain-and-belly laughs, but I also think this was a one-off for invading an alien category.)

      As far as “black films” go, I thought the idea was to do away with affirmative action and separate-but-equal. There is plenty of black talent, expertise, reputation, and backing too for black movies — but as long as they’re made for black audiences exclusively, as good as they can be, they’re stuck in the same side-tunnel as films in foreign languages. It doesn’t have to be that way: think Sounder, The Great White Hope, Undefeated, Boyz n the Hood, What’s Love Got to Do With It, Round Midnight, Roots (it fits), Lady Sings the Blues, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Glory, Precious, The Color Purple, Dreamgirls, The Help . . . that’s what happens when black filmmakers set out to make movies instead of black movies.

      As they say in baseball: wait til next year!

      • sorry. that was this month’s technical error. the Barkhad Abdi post belongs at the end of the thread, not separating the “Concussion” comments.

      • Where did you find all that stuff about Abdi? The Internet movie database said he was an actor, but had nothing on him after Captain Phillips. I’m impressed. That’s also one more go0to reference I can’t trust any more.

        You may, however, be the only person in the world, other than the Golden Globe brass, who would call “The Martian” a comedy. Sure, there are some funny lines, but “A Man For All Seasons” and “The Longest Day” are funnier.

      • Are movies with mostly white people in it “white people movies” or just movies?

        I note that of your list of movies that you consider black filmmakers have done well: The Great White Hope, Undefeated, What’s Love Got to Do With It, Round Midnight, Roots, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Glory, The Color Purple, Dreamgirls, The Help while they have had majority black casts, they were not done by black filmmakers as such, either in direction or being produced by black people. Just Boyz in the Hood, Precious, and Lady Sings the Blues qualify off of that list. Which goes to show that the white like black movies just fine, as long as they are filtered through white people first.

        I don’t know what makes a movie “black” instead of just a movie, but I do think this year Michael B. Jordan should have been nominated, and Idris Elba as well. I understand why Elba was not (Netflix), but the Jordan thing is a travesty, as he had been turning in such consistently great performances with his roles.

        • Again, though, that’s just an actor argument, like “Richard Burton/Cary Grant/Peter O’Toole should have won an Academy Award. Just because the actor is black shouldn’t change the issue at all. Brad Dourif is a wonderful actor who has never sniffed a nomination, because he mostly does horror and is creepy. What’s his lobby? The small creepy actors association (SCAA)?

          • Oh, I agree. Just wanted to get my opinion out there. But it is hard to say that Creed was overlooked overall as movie by the Academy, since Stallone managed to squeeze a nod. And the actor category was not so jam-packed this year that leaving Jordan out made sense. I know that this is Leo’s year to win (“he’s due!”), but a nomination would not have hurt.

    • On “Concussion” — the movie got panned. Not Smith’s fault — it was a good story that wound up with a poor screenplay so he didn’t have the words to work with. The writer, Peter Landesman, was too leery of the NFL lawyers, so he wrote in the sentiment but left the heart out of it.

  3. I promise you that I will never see “Straight Outta Compton” and I’m happy that it got snubbed at the Oscars. The soundtrack is one reason: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3190113/Eminem-sparks-outrage-disturbing-rap-describes-raping-women-soundtrack-Straight-Outta-Compton.html
    As far as “Creed”, didn’t Sly Stallone get a nomination for best supporting actor? For what’s it’s worth, it portrays an angry young black guy redeemed by his mentoring from Rocky. I enjoyed the movie as there are really no villains in it.

  4. A very good discussion in NYT that touches on a lot of your points: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/24/movies/oscars-so-white-or-oscars-so-dumb-discuss.html?_r=0

    The shocking — or maybe not so shocking — whiteness of this year’s field of nominees exposes not only the myopia of the nominating body but also the deep structural biases of the industry that feeds it. The Oscars have, since the century began, done a reasonably good job of recognizing black talent, belatedly making up for decades of neglect. “12 Years a Slave” won best picture. Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Halle Berry, Forest Whitaker and Mo’Nique all collected statuettes for acting, as Geoffrey Fletcher (“Precious”) and John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) did for screenwriting. But somehow (and I hope we can shed some light on exactly how), these victories, in the larger context of Hollywood racial politics, can smack of tokenism rather than real change. Spike Lee’s lifetime achievement award feels like belated and inadequate compensation for a career’s worth of slights. At the movies, we may be in the age of “Chi-Raq” and “Straight Outta Compton,” but the Academy is still setting the table for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

    For the record, I don’t think the Oscars have integrity. It has always been a backscratching exercise, and genuine talent is beside the point. But a nomination and/or win does translate into money for the winners, so there are tangible stakes.

    • Well, integrity as far as award shows go. I should have been clear on that. The Golden Globes, which called “The Martian”, a laugh riot, a comedy, has no integrity. The Emmys, which have given the same awards to the same actors in the same roles year after year, which ignores shows and their entire casts that have lasted a decade, and sucks up to critics faves, are a disgrace. All awards are backscratching exercises and self-promotion, and any awards that, like Oscar, give top honors to crap like “Ghost” and somehow never honor directors like Orson Welles, Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Cecil B. DeMille are too fallible to be taken too seriously. But they TRY, and when they get it right—Jody Foster in “The Accused,” Brando in “The Godfather,” JK Simmons last year—it is career changing and deeply satisfying. I don’t know what “decades of neglect” means: there weren’t enough black roles to ignore before Sidney Poitier started getting leading man roles, and even after. Movies are mass entertainment, and a business; it is not strange that entertainment plays to the audience demographics.

      • Jack…i see a certain level on nonsense in the Tony Awards that is based on a much smaller sample size. Richard Burton a getting a Tony for Camelot? Average or below average musical performance. And let’s face it – Rex Harrison “talked” his way through the vocals in My Fair Lady. Both had tremendous stage/movie presence – but their musical stage ability was lacking. And a TV performer such as David Hyde Pierce getting a 2007 nod? He even seemed dismissive at the awards presentation. Many other examples. I will try not to comment on Hepburn in “Coco.”

        Then you can view a musical like “Purlie” with a minority cast. It was “good”, but (JMO) not great. I thought the book was rather weak. Clevon Little got a Tony with a decent performance and, let’s face it, the 1960s and early 1970s were sparse times on Broadway. The interesting thing about Purlie is it became a stepping stone for Black actors such as Robert Guillaume and Sherman Hemsley so the diversity element that may have influenced voters paid off by getting recognition and providing a career boost.

        With your background, I would love to read your opinions of the Broadway stage.

  5. I think your post from about this time last year hit the nail on the head – a lot institutions involved in developing and turning out talented actors are overwhelmingly white (though overwhelmingly white doesn’t mean racist), ergo a paucity of minority actors. This is true for a lot of the Fine Arts which remain pretty white, and sometimes exclusive to people who don’t have the time and resources to partake in a particular media, that is anyone who isn’t upper middle class.

    Our first instinct when we see a certain activity numerically dominated by white people is to assume “why does x have a race problem.” Slate Star Codex did a long, but wonderful job at critiquing this logic here, also about a year ago: http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/02/11/black-people-less-likely/

    He provides a lot of reasons, but essentially it comes down to the fact that, as mentioned above, affluence still serves as an impasse to taking part in, or even having curiosity about, many cultural activities, education serves as still another barrier, and that upper-middle class people attempt to distinguish themselves from their mundane suburban existence by partaking in all sorts of subcultures.

    Just because the xc-skiing club, Irish literature society, and knitting meet up are largely white doesn’t necessarily mean they have a “race problem.”

    • I view the current complaint, like last year, as the equivalent of arguing with the umpire, hoping to get a subconscious edge from voters the next time…just a nasty form of lobbying and creating a helpful bias. Al Sharpton is like Earl Weaver. It just didn’t work this year, that’s all.

      • you are living in a cave…when there is no diversity among the decision makers how can they possibly produce a diverse list of nominees. ..this is not rocket science..they vote out of there own experiences and exposures to film..
        really? are you that shallow?

        • Artists can recognize talent, and people take their responsibilities seriously. You are saying that a 60 year old white man can’t recognize that a 25 year old black woman has given a great performance.So all people atre hostage to narrow bigotry, no group is capable of fairness and objectivity, all black will will vote for blacks, all white for whites, and this has nothing to do with merit, just quota controlled by tribal biases. can men appreciate women in movies, Young people appreciate old artists? Can a Harvard educated lawyer from Boston appreciate Rocky? Do you have to be a veteran to like Patton? In the Civil War to appreciate Glory? You are an idiot.

          You’re a cynical ignoramus, and you call me shallow. Great. You’re banned. You start your relationship with my blog with an insult, and you don’t come back. Hope that dumb comment was worth it.

          Let me think: what don’t you understand? Professions, show business, bias, integrity, expertise, race, whites, blacks, movies, entertainment, human nature, awards. That’s the short list. Most confidently wrong comment I have seen in months.

  6. This is, by far, the most logical article I’ve read on this ‘scandal’, with a lot of that common sense spilling into the comments too.

    I have long doubted the integrity of the Oscars. There are obviously going to be small personal biases of the voters along the way, but I would suggest these are rarely about race and more often to do with business. There is a much larger bias at play here: their own personal opinion.

    For me, Mad Max Fury Road was the cinematic highlight of the year. It brought back that “high-concept” feeling, with a lot of the awe and technique and world-building that I haven’t felt in at least a decade. But I don’t expect it to win its best picture nomination, and that’s fine! No matter what picture wins, it cannot change my opinion that MMFR is my favourite of the year (I have seen all nominees). I have conversed with many who didn’t particularly like the film, even though they understand the technical achievements of it, and I accept that they didn’t get the same satisfaction that I did.

    I liked The Martian, but it didn’t leave much of an impression. The narrative was interesting, the humour was ok, but it failed to leave a lasting inpression. There were no real surprises, essentially delivering exactly what it said on the box, but was overall what I would call a vanilla experience. Matt Damon, while creating a successful character, also didn’t leave much of a mark on me, and would personally question his nomination. Yet others love the film, Matt’s performance, and repeatedly return to it for pure enjoyment. Who am I to say they are wrong?

    This, in essence, is what primarily de-values the awards for me, in that it is just an aggregate opinion of industry-folk, that is commonly and mistakenly confused for being a measurement of quality.

    To the topic at hand, I really struggle with the notion that there is a strong racial bias that restricts the view of the voting majority. While I would agree that bringing in more diverse members would be good for the Academy and ‘integrity’ of the awards, they should be added to the fold and not at the cost of aged members. I feel the Academy’s knee-jerk reaction to the situation really proved how dangerous social media can be, as there is arguably a strong history of support for minorities by the Academy (when not restricted to a small time period or range of categories), and the key argument should just have simply been “we vote on the work, not colour”.

    It is sad to see the level of ignorance completely clouding this issue with emotional hatred as opposed to understanding the facts, as this article manages to do.

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