For a long time I believed the Oscars were at their best in the nominations stage, arguing that those nominations gave a pretty clear idea of how good – or bad – the cinema had been in the previous year. By contrast I thought the voting for award winners was not much better than a crapshoot, a time when friendships, enmities, rooting for the local boy or girl and other personal prejudices came strongly into play.
But this time around I’m not so sure. The awards, of course, have yet to be announced but this year even the nominations are worrying, apparently giving the lie to Hollywood’s proud boast of being “colour blind” and also suggesting it’s misogynistic as well.
Not only was no black performer or director deemed worthy of nomination but neither was any woman director and you have to wonder why.
I’m indebted to the trade magazine Variety for the information that last year 45 films had black directors, 50 had Hispanics and more than 150 had women. Of those only the Mexican Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant, which won best film, best director and best actor for Leonardo DiCaprio at Bafta) was nominated. Is it possible that none of the others deserved a nomination? Women have a particular reason to wonder because let us not forget that in 80-odd years of Oscar only four women directors have ever been nominated and of them the sole winner was Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) in 2010.
The most popular explanation for these oversights and anomalies is that, at the last estimate, of the 6,300 Oscar voters 94% were white and 77% male, a good many of them well into middle-age and beyond.
But the film industry itself, here as well as America, is pretty much made up of such people and when casting a film they rarely seem to look far beyond their own kind.
In other words, as Idris Elba has pointed out, in the UK any non-white performers and directors face a lack of opportunity and many black artists make a similar accusation about America.
Incidentally, Elba (Beasts of No Nation), along with Samuel L Jackson (The Hateful Eight), is one of those with a particular cause for grievance at being overlooked this year. By all accounts others include Creed’s black star, Michael Jordan, and black director Ryan Coogler, Sarah Gavron, director of Suffragettes, and F Gary Gray, the black director of Straight Outa Compton. From Creed the sole nominee was Sylvester Stallone (best supporting actor) and from Straight Outa Compton the only nominees were the equally white screenwriters.
As for the question of lack of opportunity it’s by no means new. Back in 1956 Variety ran a series of articles asking why there were so few roles for black performers in films and the situation hasn’t got a lot better since.
At the Cannes film festival in 1995 Samuel L Jackson and I were discussing The Usual Suspects and I suggested it was exactly the kind of film that would have been right for him. “Well,” he said, “my agent did enquire about that but he was told there was no role for a black actor.” Which was absurd because in that movie, as in many others, the ethnicity of the characters was quite unimportant.
This is not to imply that members of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are endemically racist or misogynistic. They don’t get together to decide whom to nominate; each votes independently. But let’s face it – if you’re white you might instinctively and with no thought of racial prejudice favour a white contender.
As for lack of opportunity for black actors, the writer-director Joel Coen said recently: “You don’t sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews and a dog’ – right?”
Well, no, if you’re white you probably don’t but if you’re a black writer you might. Although the comparative lack of films about black people (or come to that Jews, never mind dogs) suggests that such a writer might have difficulty finding backers.
The absence of ethnic and female contenders in various categories is particularly glaring this year but there was a similar situation last time around when Selma was nominated for best picture but there were no nominations for David Oyelowo, who was superb as Martin Luther King, or the director Ava DuVernay.
The American Academy is aware that it has problems. A number of people, led by Jada Pinkett Smith, wife of Will Smith, are planning to boycott the awards ceremony; Stallone also considered joining them until Coogler told him he should go.
Partly in view of this the Academy’s president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an African-American, has announced a scheme to attract a more diverse membership and restrict voting to those members who have worked in the industry in the last ten years, thus excluding the very old (and mostly very white and male) members who have been retired for decades.
It might work but it will take some time to come into effect. Meanwhile we can only hope that next year the voters will approach the nominations with a more open mind.