I wrote a media commentary story for the Columbia Journalism Review last month right after the nominations for the Academy Awards were announced. The gist of the piece was that it was odd that all the press on the awards didn’t bother to lay out what the academy’s record when it came to recognizing minority actors actually was.
In the weeks since, the cacophony has only gotten worse. Just for the sake of disseminating accurate information, here’s some things you haven’t heard in the debate running up to the show, which is Sunday night.
Please note! Racism in the entertainment industry is a complex, multifaceted beast, with much blame to go around, from discriminatory hiring patterns on the part of the industry to the casual commercial indifference of audiences to films about the black experience.
But, having noticed a lot of changes in the way the academy has gone about its job over the last fifteen years, I think on balance that the criticism of it has gotten into the realm of the irresponsible.
Anyway, if you want to go protest something, here are some things you can put on your placards:
- Of the 300 Academy Award nominations for acting since 2001, 45 nominations have gone to people of color, including blacks, Hispanics and Latinos, and Asians. That’s 15 percent; some 35 percent of the U.S. are non white. That’s not a huge percentage, but it’s significant. It should be mentioned in every commentary on the awards, instead of leaving the implication that the academy has a terrible record with non-white actors.
- In 2001, the top acting awards were won by African Americans — Denzel Washington, for Training Day, and Halle Berry, for Monster’s Ball. In the years since, black actors have been awarded the Oscar nine times. Of the 60 statuettes awarded in the last fifteen years, that’s 15 percent. Blacks make up about 15 percent of the U.S. population. It doesn’t mean that much. (It’s not a limit—blacks could get it more than 15 percent!) But it’s not anything to protest about.
- Since 2001, black and Latino actors have dotted the nominations and the winners: Viola Davis and Penélope Cruz, Eddie Murphy and Javier Bardem, Octavia Spencer and Forrest Whittaker, Ken Watanabe and Lupita Nyong’o, dozens more.
- The academy has gone out of its way to recognize the overlooked. Quvenzhané Wallis, the incandescent presence at the center of Beasts of the Southern Wild, was nominated for best actress, the youngest actress ever nominated, this for a role in what was probably the lowest grossing film ever nominated for best picture. Barkhad Abdi, the Somali actor in Captain Phillips; Sophie Okonedo, whose background is Nigerian and Jewish, from Hotel Rwanda, Rinko Kikuchi, from Japan, from Babel, and others have broadened the academy’s nominations lists each year.
- In the context of the paucity of non-white roles in most American films, this recognition is even more significant. No one would make the argument that 15 percent of the roles in Hollywood filmmaking are serious opportunities for blacks, yet blacks have won the Oscar 15 percent of the time. If anything, the academy has dug down to recognize good black roles.
- This is not an insignificant practice. Nominations and awards increase the recipients’ earning power and filmmaking power.
- Before 2000 only two women have been nominated for best director. Since then, two more have (Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation, Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker.) In the first fifty years of the awards, there were no films nominated for best picture that had been directed by a woman. In the last 15 years, eight have. That’s not exemplary, but it’s an improvement.
- In the best director category, incidentally, a white American man hasn’t won the category since 2007 (the Coen Brothers, for No Country for Old Men), and only four total since the turn of the century. The Mexican directors Alejandro Iñárritu and Alphonse Cuarón won the last two years, preceded by the Taiwanese Ang Lee, and Bigelow. The others were Brits. (But an African-American has never won the award.)
- In the entire decade of the 1990s, there was not a single film nominated for best picture that had anything to do with the black or brown experience. In recent years there’s been quite a few: Ray, Babel, Slumdog Millionaire, Precious, The Help, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Selma, to name just some, culminating, of course, with 12 Years a Slave, which won best picture as well as two other awards, and created a moral bookend to the rather more rosy-eyed view of the South in the Hollywood touchstone Gone With the Wind, which won ten awards in 1939.
- And that’s not to mention the films that took an unblinking look at other minority populations, notably Brokeback Mountain, Milk, and The Kids Are All Right, all of which were nominated for Best Picture and won other awards.
- Over the last ten years or so, the members of the academy have broken themselves of the habit of focusing on high-grossing pictures. This is the biggest and most welcome change in the Oscars, and it’s the one that has made all the other changes possible. In the 1990s, the average box office gross of a best picture winner was $180 million. In the last ten years, it’s been closer to $80 million, and of course the difference is much greater when you take inflation into account. (Ticket prices were half what they are today in 1996.) In other words, the typical best picture today is seen by about one-fourth as many people as in the 1990s.
- Similarly, the average gross of all the films given the nod for best picture are about one half what it was back in the 1990s. It’s not unusual now to see films that have grossed less than $10 million nominated for best picture. (For comparison purposes, the marketing budget alone for a blockbuster can run $100 million to $200 million.) It’s also common to see no best picture nominees at all appear in the list of the top ten grossing films of each year.
- One of the complaints this year is that Beasts of No Nation didn’t get a best picture nomination, or an acting nod for Idris Elba. Beasts of No Nation made $100,000 at the box office. $100,000. Hurt Locker, with it’s $17 million gross, was the least-seen best picture winner ever. Beasts made roughly one-half of one percent what Locker made. That it could even be considered for a best picture nomination is a strong example of how wide the academy now spreads its net.