Things to consider when deeming the 2016 Oscars too "white."
1. Let's look at a sampling of other years to get a sense of how unjust these Oscars really are. We'll start with last year's 87th Academy Awards. Similar to this year, there were no black actors or filmmakers nominated in major categories. Similar to this year, the only nominee of color was Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (which he shared with three other men of Hispanic descent). Last year notably featured snubs for the film Selma for director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo, both of whom were nominated at the Golden Globes and Critics' Choice Awards. (It settled for one win, for the song "Glory.") So 2015 was a somewhat better year for racial minorities, but still pretty bad. However, again there were also no women nominated in several categories: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Cinematography, or Best Visual Effects. In the "below the line" categories, however, women did very well, winning Best Documentary Feature and Short and Best Animated Short.
Now, let's go back to the year before when 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture. Actors of color were nominated (or won) in 3 of 4 categories. Mexican Alfonso Cuaron won Best Director, where African American Steve McQueen was also nominated. John Ridley won for Best Adapted Screenplay as well. People of color were represented in every major category except for Best Actress. It was also a better year for women in major categories, with female nominees for both writing statues but none in Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, or Best Visual Effects.
Finally, we're going back twenty years to the 1995 Oscars. There were no African Americans nominated in any major category. An Indian man was nominated for Best Director, and an Argentinian won for Best Dramatic Score. Emma Thompson was the only female nominated for writing (which she won), and the only tech categories with female nominees were Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, and Best Costume Design.
What's the point here? The Oscars have historically been a white, male, heterosexual affair. There are exceptions, though, but we apparently easily forget them. Look at the progress made between the 1995 and 2014 Oscars. It's a slow climb toward inclusion, but if we only focus on one subset of the nominees, we're ignoring someone else who is being excluded.
2. Calls for diversity are necessary, but for the ceremony to be diverse, that doesn't mean it just needs to add more black nominees, which is what this recent uproar is focusing on. There are no black nominees for any major award at this year's Oscars, true. But there are also very few women nominated in categories not specifically geared toward women. Of the twenty individual nominees in the two writing categories, four are women, an all-time high; that's right, 20% is an all-time high. Out of all the technical categories, 16 out of 85 nominees are women (and half of those are for two categories: Best Costume Design and Best Makeup/Hairstyling). There are no women whatsoever nominated for Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, or Best Sound Editing. According to this article, women represent only 19% of all non-acting nominees in the past 10 years. Some things touched upon, just in case you don't feel like reading that article: A woman has never, in 88 years, been nominated for Best Cinematography. Of the nominations making up that 19%, a large number come from Best Picture (when women produce), a category in which more than one person is almost always nominated for each film, and other shared nominations.
3. In the major acting categories, which are the ones causing the biggest upset in regards to leaving out African American nominees, there are no Asian, Indian, Latino, Native, etc. actors or actresses nominated either. In all major categories, director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and storyboard artist Ronnie Del Carmen are the only non-white nominees.
4. Moving beyond gender and race, let's consider sexuality. There is only one openly LGBT nominee in any major category (Phyllis Nagy for Best Adapted Screenplay). This, despite there having been a large (and deserved) campaign for the lauded performances of the two transgender actresses, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor (who won a Gotham Award and the Indie Spirit Award last night), from Tangerine, which itself was one of the best-reviewed films of the year. There were also eligible and praised performances this year from Ellen Page (Freeheld) and Ian McKellan (Mr. Holmes), among others. More glaring is the omission of two major contenders from the Best Picture race: Carol and The Danish Girl, both of which received multiple acting nominations for its non-LGBT stars, but no love in the main event for its telling of LGBT stories (note that not a single film nominated for Best Picture features a major LGBT character or storyline). Further, openly gay director of Carol Todd Haynes did not receive a Best Director nomination, despite scoring nods and/or wins from the Golden Globes, the BAFTA Awards, the Critics' Choice Awards, and a slew of area critics' awards.
The only other openly LGBT artists nominated this year (which I could verify, anyway) are Lady Gaga and Sam Smith, both in the Best Original Song category (which is also where the most representation for people of color comes).
5. Let's look at the other major awards shows and break down the nominations for black actors and filmmakers.
SAG: Idris Elba is the only actor of color to be individually nominated. The casts of Straight Outta Compton and Beasts of No Nation, the latter of which includes Elba, were nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Cast.
Golden Globes: With thirty total nominees for acting, only two were people of color (Will Smith for Concussion in Best Actor in a Drama and Idris Elba for Beasts in Best Supporting Actor), so the average is barely better than the Oscars'. (Notice as well that there were no women of color nominated at any of these ceremonies.)
BAFTA: Again, Elba is the only actor of color nominated (though Star Wars star John Boyega is up for the Rising Star Award). It should be noted, however, the BAFTAs did a much better job including other racial minorities in categories like Best Documentary and Best British Debut.
Critics' Choice Awards: With eleven nominees each for leading actor and actress (between drama and comedy), still no actors of color made it into the lineup, nor did any appear in the supporting categories. There were also no actors of color in the ten total nominees for actor or actress in an action movie. The cast of Straight Outta Compton, however, was nominated for Best Ensemble, and of the five nominees for Best Young Actor/Actress, three were African American men.
What does all of this tell us? The Oscars actually aren't that much different from the other awards shows of the season. People of color are severely underrepresented across the board, even at ceremonies which award more overall opportunities for nomination than the Academy Awards. For example, the Critics' Choice Awards nominated over 40 actors/actresses in 8 different major acting categories, and none were people of color. By comparison, there are only 20 acting nominees at the Oscars. Isn't it more upsetting that with double the number of nominees, people of color still didn't manage to get in? Where was the uproar over those awards? Is it just because the Oscars are considered the most prestigious award, so they're the only ones worth getting upset over? Why? Something to think about.
Further, I believe ceremonies like the Golden Globes and the Critics' Choice Awards are easily overlooked in these comparisons because they also include awards for television, which provides much of the diversity of the show. For example, the Critics' Choice Awards featured at least one person of color in almost every category, with many winning awards. So it's easy to gloss over the lack of diversity in the film categories when there is so much diversity in the television categories being handed out at the same time.
That doesn't, however, make up for the under-representation of other racial minorities, of women, and of people who identify as LGBT+. Why are we not focusing on being more inclusive overall? The hashtag that swept the nation after the Oscar nominations were announced was #OscarsSoWhite, so why then has the overwhelming majority of the discussion and backlash been over exclusively black nominees? Change has to start somewhere, obviously, but the reaction to #OscarsSoWhite just lends itself to even more separation than we already have. If the move is made to include more black actors and filmmakers in the future, will we have to have this conversation all over again about excluding women, Asians, Latinos, gays, and trans people? Here's a call to change the hashtag to #OscarsSoHeteronormative.