As Motion Picture Academy members cast their ballots for Oscar nominations this week, the biggest issue for many voters isn’t about who might be nominated but about the diversity of this year’s acting class.
Their fear: The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite will be trending on social media again.
The academy found itself on the defensive last year when white actors earned all 20 of the nominations in the lead and supporting categories. The topic came to define the Academy Awards so much that host Neil Patrick Harris opened the ceremony by quipping: “Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest. Sorry, brightest.”
Yet there’s a strong chance this year’s acting awards will once again be heavily, perhaps exclusively, white, despite the efforts of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to diversify the organization.
In the four acting categories, only Idris Elba (“Beasts of No Nation”) sits among the forecasted nominees at Gold Derby, a website compiling the predictions of two dozen Oscar pundits.
That could change by the time nomination balloting closes Friday, with some close observers saying that the prospect of another #OscarsSoWhite controversy could even influence the voting.
“If it’s all-white again, nobody’s going to be happy and there might be a growing perception that the academy is out of touch,” says University of Southern California history professor Steve Ross, author of several books about Hollywood politics. “It has to be a good performance, but, for some, if they’re deciding between Will Smith and somebody else, they might just go for Will Smith because of what happened last year.”
Some academy members worry privately that another backlash could damage the institution’s reputation, particularly as award shows such as the Emmys and Grammys feature prominent winners of color.
Oscar voters, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitive nature, seem split between going with their instincts and casting a ballot with an eye toward maintaining the group’s relevancy.
“I don’t see how you can nominate another group that doesn’t include any actor of color and think you’ll be taken seriously,” one actors branch member says.
F. Gary Gray, director of the N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton” who joined the academy this year, offers a different view.
“I’m not going to allow politics to influence my judgment because then that defeats the purpose,” said Gray, who is African-American. “That’s not how I make movies and it’s not how I’ll vote. If something moves me and touches me, that’s probably the direction I’ll go.”
This year’s prominent contenders of color include Michael B. Jordan (“Creed”), Will Smith (“Concussion”) and Samuel L. Jackson (“The Hateful Eight”). Gray’s “Compton,” nominated in December for a Screen Actors Guild Awards ensemble prize, is also in the mix, as is transgender actress Mya Taylor, who earned a Spirit Awards nomination for her turn as an L.A. prostitute in the indie film “Tangerine.”
“You definitely want the people who decide these things to reflect society,” says “Creed” writer-director Ryan Coogler. “There’s empowerment in representation. It means so much when you see somebody who’s like you up there on that stage.”
The academy responded to the #OscarsSoWhite criticism in June, inviting 322 new members, its largest class ever. The demographically broad group reflected a concerted move toward “a normalization of our membership to represent both the industry and the country as a whole,” academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs said then.
Then, at the Governors Awards in November, Boone Issacs announced a new academy initiative, A2020, designed to promote inclusion within its own staff as well as advocate for an “industry-wide commitment” to partner with the academy to “hire, mentor, encourage and promote talent in all areas of our profession.”
That appeal addresses what most observers see as the root of the Oscars’ diversity problem: Voters can’t nominate what doesn’t exist.
“There can’t be many nominees until people are given the opportunity in prominent, meaningful roles,” says Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. “The Oscars are the end of the line. When those opportunities come at the front end, then the nominations will probably flow accordingly. And if they don’t, then you’ll really have a pushback.”
Boone Isaacs has offered no further specifics on A2020, which, like the academy’s attempts at inviting a younger, more demographically inclusive membership, will take years to deliver tangible results.
Some aren’t waiting to see what happens. In September, “Selma” filmmaker Ava DuVernay relaunched her distribution collective, Array, broadening its scope to help exhibit movies by women and all filmmakers of color.
DuVernay was a central part of last year’s Oscar protest after academy members awarded “Selma” two Oscar nominations – fewer than many had expected. But she says her company’s focus is completely divorced from the Oscars.
“The OscarsSoWhite hashtag is what people want to hear about,” DuVernay says. “But it’s a privileged point of view to think that everyone’s end goal is to be in that fancy room. This work needs to be done so people of color can see themselves as real people on screen. That’s an issue of survival, essential to our personhood and our humanity and our dignity. It has nothing to do with those hashtags.”
But as the industry’s highest honor and a ceremony that remains one of the world’s most-watched annual events, the Oscars still hold the power to inspire.
Lupita Nyong’o, who began acting as a teen in Kenya, accepted the supporting actress award in 2014 for “12 Years a Slave,” saying, “When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”
Last month, Coogler, 29, had a full-circle moment when he watched Spike Lee receive an honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards. After Coogler applied to USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, friends encouraged him, telling him he “could be the future Spike Lee.”
“They hadn’t seen any of my work, but they had seen somebody who looked like me doing what I wanted to do,” Coogler says. “It made me wonder what it was like for Spike when he told people that he wanted to be a filmmaker.”
The academy will announce its nominations Jan. 14. The 88th Oscars ceremony will be held Feb. 28.