Academy Awards and Diversity

oscars-so-whiteI’ll be honest: I was a little scared to start writing this entry, mostly for fear of offending someone or exposing my ignorance.

But I decided to do it anyway, because I think conversations about race are important. If I let fear get in the way of this type of conversation, then there is no potential for me to learn anything.

Recently, the nominations for the Academy Awards were announced, and for the second year in a row, there were no black nominees in any of the major categories.

The Academy Awards, in all of their self-importance, are supposed to represent the best in film, right? So when I heard about this, the first question that came to my mind was, “What if the best actors and directors in 2015 just happened to be not black/minorities? Isn’t that a perfectly reasonable possibility?”

One of the answers I’ve heard people suggest is that there were some black actors and directors who deserved to be nominated, namely those involved with Creed and Straight Outta Compton. But this is completely subjective. Like, I think Star Wars was the best movie last year, but does that mean I won’t watch the Oscars because it wasn’t nominated? No, I won’t watch because it’s really long and boring.

So the other suggestion is that the Academy is actively excluding black and minorities nominees who deserve to have been nominated. That’s a pretty dangerous accusation in my opinion, as it’s essentially saying that folks in the Academy compared directors like Adam McKay of The Big Short and Ryan Coogler of Creed and said, “Coogler deserves the nomination, but I’m choosing McKay because he’s white.” Do people really believe that’s what happened? Isn’t it more likely that the folks in the Academy simply thought McKay did a better job at directing his movie than Coogler did at his movie, regardless of whether or not you agree with that selection?

My personal opinion is that it creates a pretty big slippery slope if we start saying that race should be a factor for awards and accolades. Does that mean that there should be one best actor slot for each race? Each religion? Each age bracket? [UPDATE: I realized a few hours after I wrote this that the Academy actually does delineate between men and women, so maybe it isn’t so crazy to think that further delineations could be made. Or would that be a regressions towards the separatist policies of the pre-civil rights movement?]

Coincidentally, the NBA All-Star roster was announced today. It’s an all-black starting roster. Wouldn’t it be just flat-out wrong to suggest that a few white guys should have been selected too, just for the sake of diversity?

I’m not diminishing the value of diversity. But we’re talking about awards and accolades, where I believe the most important question to answer is who the best person is, regardless of race.

To me, this seems like more of a problem of casting than it is about nominations. The lead characters in Mad Max or The Martian could have been any race, for example. I think that’s the place and time when a diversity-driven choice could and should be made. So if any fingers are to be pointed, shouldn’t they be pointing at casting directors?

What do you think? I know this is a contentious subject, and I would love to hear your perspective.

UPDATE: There was a lot of discussion on Twitter following this post, and I think this was the best comment I read that helped me understand the issue better. This is from @JADe_games: “Demographics shouldn’t be a factor, however the results reveal a very likely bias that demands analysis.”

13 thoughts on “Academy Awards and Diversity”

  1. Im with Spike Lee – Its not the nominations that are wrong, its the industry. Many roles that are race neutral are given to white actors. Black actors are normally cast into “black roles” – there are only few exceptions. So the nominations are more a symptom , not the cause (sometimes white people are even cast as Cubans or egyptions).

    So its less about the actors and more about giving other ethnicities more roles. You cannot give a black actor the role of -say “Lincoln” but there is no reason, why “The martian” has to be white (Just an example. I loved the movie and Im a big fan of Damon).

    BTW: I would also opt for more ethnicities in modern Boardgamnes 🙂

  2. Peer: Thanks for sharing your thoughts. That was the same conclusion I came to as well (though I’m open to other conclusions too!). As for board games, that’s actually why I stopped using pledge levels for custom art. We have a lot more control over the amount of diversity in games if we don’t sell that opportunity, allowing us to add diversity where it is lacking.

  3. Here’s the problematic part of your contention. You conclude that “folks in the Academy” aren’t likely to have just said “I hate like black people; therefore, I am not nominating this deserving black person.” It’s certainly likely that some people are that cartoonishly racist. But I think most would agree that such a level of racism is not the likely cause of the nomination outcome. But the mindset that racism doesn’t matter if it’s small–and it’s a pervasive one–is such a damaging one. It’s akin to the Tyranny of Small Decisions (there’s a good Wikipedia article on this), where the cumulative effect of even minor causes can be quite destructive. Where racism is systemic — and I would argue that it is — you can have small, seemingly reasonable decisions that result in significant racist results. Maybe actors and directors of color are subconsciously held to a higher standard. Maybe the dearth of prior nominees and winners of color subconsciously encourages us to not see people of color as deserving in this way. This is similar to the woman who clutches her purse a little tighter when the young black man sits down next to her on the bus. She’s not yelling out the n-word and spitting in his face, but it’s still racism. And when it happens routinely and in many different manifestations, it’s potent. So, it’s not the result of a cadre of mustache-twirling racists that results in an all-white slate, but a host of smaller, more subtle forms of racism.

    Yes, of course it’s possible that this year all the potential nominees of color happened to be just a bit below their white counterparts. Someone one the PowerBall too. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to presume that racism is the more likely culprit.

    I do appreciate your willingness to discuss this is an open forum.

  4. Thanks for being open abt your worries on this topic, Jamey. I think your piece presents a false binary that excludes an important piece of the puzzle, namely: institutional racism. Here’s what I mean: I think your piece suggests that either there are no worthy Black nominees (thus, no racism in the nominations), or that the Academy judges are actively and individually racist, and are thus themselves racists.

    I’d question this binary by suggesting that even if individual Academy members are not racists, their institution (and the broader institutions of Hollywood, entertainment, the US as a whole) has benefited from a system that limits/limited opportunities for non-White people.

    In my opinion, this means that the Academy can be called to task for perpetuating racism, even if no single Academy member made decisions out of a racist mindset.

    Thanks again for being open with your thoughts on this topic, Jamey. Hopefully my deconstruction of the binary you propose makes sense. -Greg

  5. Justin: Thanks for sharing your comment. I hope my post didn’t come across as saying that “racism doesn’t matter if it’s small”–I agree with you that any amount of racism is bad, and some of it is less intentional than other types.

    On Twitter, a few people raised a point similar to yours, saying that the lack of diversity among the nominees demonstrates a selection bias, even if the vast majority of Academy members (of whom there are over 6,000 people) aren’t overtly racist. I think that’s a valid point, and it seems like a big part of the solution would be for the Academy to do a better job of creating diversity among their members.

  6. Greg: Thanks for your comment. Before I respond, I do want to clarify a key point here, as you said, “I think your piece suggests that either there are no worthy Black nominees.” That’s not really what I meant. Here’s what I intended to say: “In the eyes of the Academy, the best actors and directors in 2015 films happened to not be black.” My hope is that the Academy judges aren’t actively racist–it’s possible that a few of them are, and perhaps I’m naive, but I hope that most of them aren’t! 🙂

    That said, I do see what you’re seeing about institutional racism. That’s something we can all take responsibility for, right? Not just the Academy, but the casting directors, theater departments in schools, and people like you and me who pay to see certain movies and not others.

    I guess I just have a hard time blaming the Academy. Maybe they deserve blame; I don’t know. But compare it to the board game industry, which isn’t nearly as diverse as it could/should be. I think it’s a great example of unintentional institutional racism, as the vast majority of people in the industry are some of the most open and welcoming people I’ve ever met. However, there’s still a huge lack of diversity among characters and art in games, not to mention designers and publishers. BUT that doesn’t mean I blame game reviewers for not selecting a diverse racial spectrum of designers for their best-of awards. I give them the benefit of the doubt, as I truly believe they’re making their selections based on how much they like those games, not the race of the designer.

  7. I am still waking up so my back-of-the-envelope math could be wrong, but if 77% of the US population is white, there is only a .77^40 = 0.003% chance of nominating all white actors two years running, if chosen randomly from the US population. But of course they are choosing from the pool of actors who get big parts in big films – a field sorely lacking in minorities (thus minority actors have far fewer opportunities to have an Oscar-worthy performance) — which gets to the bigger issue of institutional (and cultural and subconscious) racism in Hollywood and the broader society. Why does Hollywood do things like change the lead character in the blackjack movie ’21’, based on a true story, from an Asian to a white guy? Because their market research shows it will do better. That doesn’t justify it, it shows Hollywood’s institutionalized racism is a reflection of society at large. At the end of the day it is less important which well-off actors get a trophy than continuing to address the broader issues of racism (especially housing policies and war-on-drugs) that effect millions of impoverished minorities, who probably could care less about the Academy than making their next bill. The 2015 Oscars are not important, but (as Jamie et al have said) the conversation it sparks is.

  8. Hi Sam,

    I’d be suspicious of any thing that quotes “market research”, after all market research showed that people wanted faster horses before Ford put out his car. It said people wanted bigger cell phones, when for the most part people just wanted better resolution. In terms of this myth that people need leads “who look like themselves”, TV shows like Sleepy Hollow or the Mindy Project have proven that it simply isn’t true. I’d like to give the general population a little more credit that just because someone is of European descent doesn’t mean they need to see someone with blue eyes get the lead role to relate to them.

    Hi Justin,

    This is a little off topic, but while I agree that bigotry no matter how small is bad, I think it also behooves us minorities to ask ourselves “is there another reason?” Does the woman clutch her bag because the young man is black? Or does she clutch it because he’s a man? Or she has a perfume allergy and his cologne is bothering her, but she’s too shy to say anything? It’s really easy to see every little thing as a slight against our race/culture/differentness, but unless they come out and say something, let’s give them the benefit of a doubt! Acceptance is a two way street.
    (On a related note my mom once asked a repair guy for ID. He got upset and asked if she said that cause he was black. She told him “No, it’s because I don’t know if you are who you claim to be.” He had forgotten his ID and had to go home for it, when he told his wife what happened, she agreed she wouldn’t let some stranger in her house without the proper ID either.)

    Hi Jamey,

    I know I already mentioned is on Twitter, but I’m going to put it here for the conversation’s sake. We’re essentially discussing European vs. Asian/African/South and Central American descent, not just white vs. black. ^_^ I like to be specific because I think an Us vs. Them, White vs. Black dichotomy perpetuates this myth of race and simplifies a very nuanced issue.

  9. Thanks for writing about tough things! I think that’s more important than anything else. Here are some things I read and found interesting on the subject. There’s no great answer, but talking through it helps our society evolve.

    “The underlying issue of the Academy’s failure to recognize black artists is the presumption that baseline experience is white experience and that black life is a niche phenomenon, life with an asterisk.”

  10. Thanks for those links, Emma! I continue to want to soak in information about this topic and be better informed, so I look forward to reading both of those articles.


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