The Academy Awards will always be big news. That’s a given for one of the most important dates in the film industry’s awards season. However, at the moment the Oscars are making the news for all the wrong reasons.
Over the past week or so, the usual pre-Oscars discussion has changed from who will/who won’t win, to a much more serious and emotive question of diversity. For many, the issue is that this year’s nominees illustrate an increasingly obvious bias against non-white people, made all the more stark by some surprising omissions.
At the time of writing, Will Smith has just confirmed he’ll be following his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, by not attending this year’s ceremony. Smith had widely been tipped to pick up a nomination for his role in ‘Concussion’, yet was overlooked by the Academy. We can also add to that list ‘Creed’, whose director Ryan Coogler and leading man, Michael B. Jordan, were also passed over. Spike Lee has also confirmed he won’t be attending, while there is pressure on Chris Rock to step down as host in protest.
So, is the Academy simply out of touch, or is there something more sinister going on? This isn’t the first time that the Oscars have been accused of a racial bias. For many, the evidence suggests an institutional bias. Last year, Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo were controversially overlooked for the Best Director and Best Actor respectively for ‘Selma’ at the 2015 Academy Awards. The Academy has also been criticised for the lack of women recognised in categories like Best Director, with the aforementioned DuVernay being a recent notable omission.
Of course, film is a highly subjective medium, where opinions differ greatly. This is especially true when it comes to awards shows. Just because a person is omitted doesn’t necessarily mean that they have been excluded on racial or gender grounds. However, when it comes to the Oscars and issues of race and gender, 2016 and 2015 aren’t isolated examples. The Academy has long faced calls to improve its diversity, both in terms of the nominations, and in its membership. In this light, 2015 and 2016 look increasingly less like exceptions and more like the rule.
It could be a vicious circle. The less diverse the Academy membership, the less diverse the nominations. Seeing as receiving a nomination is one way to become a member, we are back where we started.
It’s clearly an emotive issue. As to who should win what, it should all come down to performance. Skin colour or gender should never be an issue, whether that’s to exclude someone or to give a token nomination or award. However, to say race and gender shouldn’t be an issue when it clearly is, is to sweep it under the carpet and pretend the problem isn’t there.
I still remember the 2002 Academy Awards, and the Best Actor/Best Actress wins of Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. Though the coverage in the news afterwards was right to suggest their historic importance, the fact that it was so notable shows how much work the Academy had to do back then regarding race and gender. The fact that we are still having this same conversation in 2016 shows the work still needs doing.