Since the announcement of the 2016 Oscar nominations, a lot of criticism has fallen onto The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the body behind for the Oscars awards). Some have suggested boycotting the awards show and the hashtag “#OscarsSoWhite” has become popular on Twitter. Even the president of the Academy admitted being deeply disappointed by the nominations. The criticism is the result of the perceived bias of the Academy against racial – and other – minorities. Whether you think that the accusations of racism are warranted or not, it is difficult to argue that the award nominations do not lack racial diversity (they really are “lily white”, as Spike Lee has put it).
It is a fact that the Academy is 94% white and 77% male (source: LA Times 2012). Still, I don’t believe that the “lily white” nominations are due to racial discrimination. Last year, “Birdman” made the Oscars a big Mexican party, earning the awards for Alejandro González Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki, among others. Two years ago, three Oscars went to “12 Years A Slave”, including the best picture. Focusing just on Afro-Americans, in recent years there have been wins by Octavia Spencer (2012 for “The Help”), T. J. Martin (2012 for the documentary “Undefeated”), Mo’Nique (2009 for “Precious”), Jennifer Hudson (2006 for “Dreamgirls”), Forest Whitaker (2006 for “The Last King of Scotland”), Jamie Foxx (2004 for “Ray”) and Morgan Freeman (2004 for “Million Dollar Baby”) (for a full list of Afro-American Oscar winners, see here).
I think it’s hard to argue that the Academy actively discriminates against minorities when you see this list of winners. Also, the roughly six thousand members of the Academy are mostly artists, people with education – a type of person one would expect to be tolerant and open-minded. So, if they are not racists, why do their choices seem to suggest otherwise? It is something that perhaps should be studied by psychologists. I am not one, but one answer that seems plausible is unconscious racism – which is something that about 70% of us are guilty of, according to a study (I really recommend reading this article from the Guardian on the topic).
For example, in case of two movies that had predominantly Afro-American talent, the Academy only noticed nomination-worthy contributions from the white talent: Sylvester Stallone in “Creed” (Best Supporting Actor) and the writers of “Straight Outta Compton”. Puzzling.
Speaking of other omissions, I expected Emmanuel Affadzi to be nominated for his role in “Beasts of No Nation”. Perhaps, in this case, it was the direct-to-Netflix distribution that did not sit well with various Hollywood types.
The Academy has as its president an Afro-American woman, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. She was also very troubled by this year’s nominations and promises soon real changes. I doubt, though, whether there are quick solutions here.
But even if the Academy sorts out its problems, the minorities will still be under-represented at the awards if they continue to be under-represented in Hollywood in general. As the film director Spike Lee has said: “It’s in the executive offices of the Hollywood studios and TV and cable networks. This is where the gatekeepers decide what gets made”.
Regardless who the judges are, the Oscars will remain subjective. That will always lead to controversies, discussions – but maybe that is not all bad.
Egalitarian voting systems where anyone can participate don’t seem to be better either. For example, in the NBA All-Star game voting, the fans decide the starting players. But to the chagrin of those who keep a close eye on the league, the fans seem to pick on the basis of the fame of the players, rather than their performance in the season.
On the other side, leaving film evaluations to experts, such as critics, also doesn’t seem to produce great results. Perhaps the best system right now for judging films is the review site Rotten Tomatoes. It offers two types of scores – one based on the opinions of a wide range of film critics; and the other draws from the mainstream audience. There are, of course, other review sites, but Rotten Tomatoes has worked for me the best (not that it has never failed me).
Maybe the best solution will be offered by recommendation algorithms implemented using advanced machine learning – like what Netflix is continually working on. For one thing, it would be difficult to get upset at machines for picking the wrong best film.
Another point to keep in mind is that the Oscars were never meant to find the best film, best actor and so on. At best, it finds the best Hollywood or English-language film. The Oscars were established to promote Hollywood studio productions and they continue to do so. Yes, there is a foreign-language film category, but artists, filmmakers working in languages other than English have little chances of winning an Oscar. In the long history of the Oscars (started in 1927), only one foreign-language film has ever been nominated for the Best Picture (“Amour” in 2013) – and no, it did not win. Considering how many masters of cinema worked in languages other than English, it is clear the Oscars exist to serve American cinema, not world cinema. For a great discussion about non-English-language films at the Oscars, please read this Variety article.
So, it should be remembered that the “Best of” at the Oscars only means the best of English-language cinema.
The final point in the discussion of fairness in Oscar voting is that art should not be treated as sports. Choosing the best work of art is fundamentally wrong. Now, I enjoy the Oscars ceremony and I am for giving out trophies. It is a great way to recognize and celebrate someone’s work and it brings fun and drama to the evening. But it is an entertainment show and we should not take it very seriously.
Of course, I understand when people like David Oyelowo (starred in “Selma” – 2015 Best Picture nomination) get upset. In his criticism of this year’s nominations, he said: “”We grow up aspiring, dreaming, longing to be accepted into that august establishment, because it is the height of excellence. I would like to walk away and say it doesn’t matter, but it does, because that acknowledgement changes the trajectory of your life, your career, and the culture of the world we live in.”.
Certainly, in the film industry, people’s careers are greatly affected by these awards. Therefore, it is in their best interest to bring change to the Oscars, or to create a new, more inclusive awards show.
So – to answer the question from the title of this article – no, we should not be upset by the Oscars – unless, that is, you are a woman or non-white working in the film industry. Then, you have the right to make noise and boycott.