The Academy Needs a Change

On January 15, 2015, Hollywood directors, screenwriters and actors nationwide collectively held their breaths as they waited for the 2015 Oscar nominations to be announced. When the time came, however, social media users immediately noticed something strange about the nominees: they were almost all white and almost all male.

Twitter users began using the hashtag “#OscarsSoWhite” to voice their concerns about the fact that all the nominees in the best actor and best actress categories were white, all the nominees in both screenwriting categories were white and male, and all but one of the nominees for best director were white and male as well—the one exception being Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, who was nominated for Birdman. This lack of diversity is a problem.

Though Selma, a biopic about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his work in the civil rights movement, was nominated for best picture, the director, Ava DuVernay, who would have been the first female African-American director to be nominated, was snubbed, along with the lead actor who played King, David Oyelowo. Other strong contenders that went ignored by the Academy were Gillian Flynn for best screenwriter (Gone Girl) and Angelina Jolie for best director (Unbroken).

There’s a lot to be said about why these particular filmmakers, writers and stars deserve nominations in their respective categories. For instance, DuVernay told Gwen Ifill in an interview with PBS that she does not own the rights to King’s speeches, and as a result, was saddled the difficult task of having to write her own versions of the iconic speeches while still maintaining the feeling and atmosphere of King. In an interview with Yahoo Movies, DuVernay explained her process: “I just unanchored myself from the words and went not even line-by-line, but word for word, to try to really understand what he was trying to say and then just say it in a different way.”

As for Oyelowo, one critic, Ty Burr at The Boston Globe, called his performance “deeply felt” and “quite brilliant.” Another top critic, Colin Covert at The Minneapolis Star Tribune, wrote, “What Daniel Day-Lewis did for Lincoln, Oyelowo does for King, mimicking his behavior and speech uncannily. He is both completely believable and someone we’ve never encountered before.”

In spite of all these reasons why DuVernay and Oyelowo deserve to be recognized for their accomplishments, some people will argue that the other nominees were just better. Some people will argue that even though Selma was good enough to be nominated for best picture, the directing, acting and screenwriting were not good enough, at least compared to the other nominees. After all, the best picture category has 10 spots, while the other categories only have five.

Most of all, some people will argue that Academy voters shouldn’t nominate minorities simply because they are minorities, and these people are right. Nobody should force the Academy to vote for any films or filmmakers they don’t think deserve to be nominated; however, this problem goes beyond who the Academy is voting for.

The lack of diversity in nominations can be attributed to a lack of diversity in the people who are doing the nominating.  Voters choose films that speak to them, and these are most often stories that match their own personal backgrounds. According to a study done by The Los Angeles Times, the Academy, which is made up of about 7,000 members, is 94% white, 76% male and an average of 63 years old.

Not only that, but there simply aren’t enough filmmakers who aren’t white and male. If there were more choices in minority directors and screenwriters, the academy might be more inclined to choose them. For example, research done by The Los Angeles Times shows that among 565 directors of top-grossing films, 33 were black and only two were black women. These numbers don’t mean that black female directors aren’t skilled, however—these directors just aren’t working on typical Hollywood films. As DuVernay said, “We’re finding ways to tell our stories outside the studio paradigm.”

The lack of diversity in the 2015 Oscar ceremony should be upsetting, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change in the future. The Academy needs to reconsider its membership guidelines before the ceremony next year, so it can allow more diverse audiences to vote. Also, Hollywood needs to be more welcoming to people who want to tell stories established filmmakers may not be used to. Only then can the Oscars truly be diverse and fair.