The latest Academy Awards nominations have started a racial storm that has risen from Hollywood and caught the attention of the world.
For a second year running, the nominees in the four acting categories are all white performers. This has led to the question: were forty white actors better than any black, Latino, or Asian actor for two years in a row?
While many members of the industry seem to feel the controversy is too hot to touch, for others the battle lines have been drawn. Black filmmakers such as Spike Lee and actors like Jada Pinkett Smith have announced a boycott while veteran actor George Clooney has been heavily critical on Hollywood, stating that the industry is moving in the wrong direction.
As The Economist points out, of the 6000 plus voting members of the Academy, 94% are white. The paper goes on to say, “The chances of no single person of color being nominated across two ceremonies would be exceptionally small — even during a 15-year span, the odds of seeing at least one sequence of back-to-back whiteouts are around one in 100,000.”
Though a large chunk of the audience stands in solidarity with people of colour, some have hit back with claims of ‘reverse racism’ and also expressed the belief that black actors aren’t being nominated because perhaps they don’t deserve it.
Michael Caine actually advised black actors to be ‘patient’: “Of course it will come. It took me years to get an Oscar.”
This myopic view has been shared by old white actors such as Charlotte Ramping and Michael Caine. A few days ago, the Academy Award winning Caine said, “There are loads of black actors; I think in the end you can’t vote for an actor [simply] because he’s black. You can’t say [that] I’m going to vote for him [even though] he’s not very good but he’s black, I’ll vote for him. You’ve got to give a good performance.”
He also advised black actors to be ‘patient’, “Of course it will come. It took me years to get an Oscar.”
So is the Academy biased? Not necessarily.
Any organization that nominates an average film such as Slumdog Millionaire over The Dark Knight and fails to award one of the greatest black actors of our time, Denzel Washington, for his brilliant work in Malcolm X (1992) and The Hurricane (2001), yet goes on to award him for a less memorable turn in Training Day (2001), possibly because it was a year when black actors were being honored (Sidney Poitier was presented with an honorary award that day while Halle Berry took home the Oscar for Best Actress), clearly has a history of making unpredictable decisions.
I wonder: are black actors are more likely to earn accolades if they are fighting adversity on film? History seems to say, yes
Think of some of the white actors nominated over the years: The majority of those roles would have been unaffected by race, so why aren’t actors of color headlining more powerful films? One of the most nominated black actors of all time, Denzel Washington, has been typically nominated for a performance in a racially charged film. Are black actors are more likely to earn accolades if they are fighting adversity on film?
Take for example the controversy that started when John Boyega was revealed as a stormtrooper in The Force Awakens. Many white fans of Star Wars couldn’t stomach a black actor in the role and voiced their opinions ferociously. This racist mindset isn’t only restricted to whites; recently, a budding Pakistani filmmaker named Hassan Sardar, who interestingly enough teaches screenwriting and cinematography, criticized the film’s casting as ‘politically correct’ in an article.
Clearly giant hairy aliens are acceptable, but heroes of color can’t exist in space. Sadly, we are so conditioned to seeing white men star in films that we find it difficult to swallow a person of color in a leading role even when we happen to be people of color. How twisted is that?
While the producers of Star Wars must be commended for their realistic casting choices, with films being such a fragile investment, one can appreciate the risks producers of less bankable projects face. Ultimately, the trend can only be reversed through a holistic change, and it begins with us, the viewers.
Sometimes the whitewashing can reach ridiculous levels though. For example, some of the recent winners (not just nominees) in the Academy’s Best Actor category have been Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) and Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln), to name a few. All of these performers starred in biographical films about real people.
It would be difficult to imagine a black actor playing Lincoln or Stephen Hawking, but at the same time, why are historical figures of color sometimes played by white actors? One of the oldest instances of this is Ben Kingsley playing Ghandi under makeup. Could Hollywood not have found an Indian actor to play the most famous Indian man of all time?
Of course, actors of color did produce excellent performances in 2015 in spite of the roadblocks. While they won’t be winning Oscar gold, their work should be consumed by as many fans of cinema as possible.
Here are six actors from diverse backgrounds that could have earned an Oscar nod but didn't:
1) Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro Gillick in Sicario
Although Denis Villeneuve’s fantastic crime thriller earned three Academy Award nominations; it was criminally overlooked in the acting categories. As a vengeful former prosecutor turned assassin, Del Toro delivered a chilling performance, and it is a shame he didn’t make the cut in the Best Supporting Actor category.
2) Michael B. Jordan as Adonis "Donnie" Johnson Creed in Creed
This Rocky sequel was one of my favorite films of 2015, especially because of the amazing performances. I was pleased that Stallone earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination but was surprised that Michael B. Jordan was ignored.
3) Tessa Thompson as Bianca in Creed
Tessa Thompson played the complicated role of a singer-songwriter slowly turning deaf, who falls in love with the son of a boxing legend, and has enough self-respect to draw the line when the relationship takes a worrying turn. As Bianca, she landed all her punches.
4) O'Shea Jackson, Jr (Ice Cube), Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre), Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E) in Straight Outta Compton
These were my favorite three performances in in one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2015. Strangely, the only nomination for this biographical film about five black hip-hop artists starring a cast of talented black actors, directed by a black filmmaker, produced by mostly black producers, was for Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, who happen to be two white screenwriters.
Yes, like Creed, Straight Outta Compton is a largely black film about African Americans where the only nominees happen to be white.
5) Idris Elba as Commandant in Beasts of No Nation
That this harrowing film by Cary Joji Fukunaga about a child soldier in West Africa was completely ignored by the Academy is surprising. Earning acclaim from both fans and critics alike, it featured a riveting performance from Idris Elba as a warlord, who by missing out on a nomination for Best Supporting Actor has a case for snub of 2015.
6) Abraham Attah as Agu in Beasts of No Nation
This 14-year old Ghanaian actor’s debut performance as a child soldier is nothing short of stunning. He has deserved every award he has won so far, including Marcello Mastroianni's Best Young Actor Award at the Venice International Film Festival. For my money, he should have been a strong contender in the Academy’s Best Actor category.