Oscars So White? Or Oscars So Dumb?



“Creed,” with Michael B. Jordan, left, and Sylvester Stallone, who received an Oscar nomination for his performance in this film about black lives.CreditWarner Bros. Pictures

(THE NEW YORK TIMES) Are these the whitest Oscar nominations ever? Or just the most recent Academy Award whiteout? For the second year in a row,the nominations failed to recognize any minority actors. Movies about black lives like “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton” did receive recognition, but their nominations were for either white writers (“Compton”) or a white performer (Sylvester Stallone in “Creed”). The black directors of each movie along with their nonwhite actors were shut out.

This year’s nominations ledSpike Leeand Jada Pinkett Smith to announce on Martin Luther King’s Birthday that they would not be attending the ceremony. On Monday, the Academy’s president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, promised a review of recruitment efforts, saying, “This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes.”

Like many, The New York Times’ chief film critics, Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott, and the critic at large Wesley Morris were not surprised by the nominations. Here are excerpts from their conversation:

A. O. SCOTTLast year,Vin Dieselboldly predictedthat “Furious 7” would win the Academy Award for best picture, “unless Oscars don’t want to be relevant, ever.” It may be that the irrelevance of the Oscars is, as the saying goes, more of a feature than a bug. The Academy looks after what the literary scholar James English calls “the economy of prestige” while franchises like the “Furious” movies look after the economy of actual money. Given the global, multicultural nature of the modern movie audience, this means that more commercial movies are very often more diverse.

The shocking — or maybe not so shocking — whiteness of this year’s field of nominees exposes not only the myopia of the nominating body but also the deep structural biases of the industry that feeds it. The Oscars have, since the century began, done a reasonably good job of recognizing black talent, belatedly making up for decades of neglect. “12 Years a Slave” won best picture. Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Halle Berry, Forest Whitaker and Mo’Nique all collected statuettes for acting, as Geoffrey Fletcher (“Precious”) and John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) did for screenwriting. But somehow (and I hope we can shed some light on exactly how), these victories, in the larger context of Hollywood racial politics, can smack of tokenism rather than real change. Spike Lee’s lifetime achievement award feels like belated and inadequate compensation for a career’s worth of slights. At the movies, we may be in the age of “Chi-Raq” and “Straight Outta Compton,” but the Academy is still setting the table for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

MANOHLA DARGISI love that so many people are enraged at this year’s whiteout — anyone who yells at the Academy is a friend of mine — but I wish that this anger was being expressed 365 days a year and not when the nominations are announced. As Tony suggested, it’s worth repeating again and again (and again!): The primary reason the Oscars are so white this year and most years is that the movie industry is overwhelmingly white. That’s infuriating, but that’s not shocking, and it sure isn’t news. And if that bothers people, then they need to start complaining loudly and perhaps even begin voting with their dollars. By, say, supporting movies with minorities and women. Because the only way the industry will change is if people give them hell.

Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation.”CreditNetflix

WESLEY MORRISThis is all true. That’s what was so hypnotizing about The Los Angeles Times’ putting photos of the 25 acting and directing nominees on its amazing and necessarily harsh Friday cover: the incongruity. Under the indicting circumstances, some of the photos actually look like mug shots (especially Alejandro G. Iñárritu — and he’s “innocent”!) I stared in fascination for a long time, and then I laughed. You know how you can repeat a word until it starts to warp into nonsense? That’s what happened to me looking at the assembly of all of those photos: What am I even staring at anymore? #OscarSoDumb.

I mean, half of me really doesn’t care. There’s obviously a serious problem with regard to race, sexuality and gender in Hollywood. But it doesn’t begin or end with the 6,000 or so members of the Academy. The Oscars aren’t full-time jobs. To hear some voters talking about this time of year, it sounds like tax season or exam time. One problem is what the wider industryisn’tmaking. We’re mad at the Academy, but afterIdris Elbaplaying that African warlord in “Beasts of No Nation,” Samuel L. Jackson in “The Hateful Eight,” “Creed,” and assorted aspects of “Straight Outta Compton,” which, for what it’s worth, I liked for about the first 40 minutes, what black people or “black films” did the Academy really miss?

In the case of both “Creed” and “Compton,” I just don’t think the campaigns were there for these movies. Just as I don’t think they were there for “Selma” the previous year. And as nauseating as that sort of thing can be, that’s how these things work: positioning, narratives, spinning, hype, overexposure, wanton whoring. So some of this is a matter of there not being enough movies in the pool. Some of it is the studios’ misunderstanding the worth of the movies they have. It strains credibility that “Creed” wouldn’t be a film the Academy would go for. But I also don’t think any voter wants to be told that he or she has to vote for a predominantly black film or: racism!

Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins andO’Shea Jackson Jr. in “Straight Outta Compton.”CreditUniversal Pictures

Manohla, wouldn’t you say that’s what happened in the last year and the year before? The audiences paid to see women, films with mostly black actors and racially diverse casts, and paid often: “The Force Awakens,” “Inside Out,” “Furious 7,” “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Spy,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Trainwreck,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Cinderella,” “Creed,” “Get Hard,” “Sisters,” that second “Divergent” movie and the last “Hunger Games.” There’s demonstrable proof that North America wants to see itself — more of itself — in its entertainment. And the Academy — which is working to add more women, young people and color to its ranks — should want to see more of its ideal self at the Oscars.

DARGISYou’re right, Wesley, moviegoersarevoting with their dollars, as it were. But the movies that you listed, from “The Force Awakens” to “Fury Road,” are the kind of big-studio releases that have been historically dismissed as popcorn fare. These days critics, perhaps especially those weaned on postmodern theory, are less beholden to certain ideas about the divide between high art and mass art, but clearly a lot of folks in the Academy haven’t gotten that message. And the major studios — which I honestly don’t think care about the Oscars any more than we do — tend to mimic this divide, as we know. They roll out the blockbusters in the summer and their prestige items in the fall. Little gold statues and glowing reviews are nice, sure, but box-office domination is the name of the industry game。

Also, I think it’s important to say that more and more people are calling the industry out, as when people went after the makers of the forthcoming “Gods of Egypt”for castinga bunch of white surfer-dude types as ancient Egyptians. But this kind of protest tends to be drowned out by the culture of consensus that has turned too many mainstream media types into industry lap dogs. Wesley, you mentioned spinning and whoring, so let’s go there: Some of the other people who need to criticize the industry, seriously and rigorously, are those in the entertainment media. A lot of what now passes as entertainment news is generated by those who have surrendered any pretense of disinterestedness and autonomy for access; it is apparently tough to criticize the hand that’s feeding you 15 minutes with Leo.

John Boyega in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”CreditFilm Frame/Lucasfilm

SCOTTYes yes yes. It’s always possible to pass the buck upward and outward. The Academy’s blunder reflects the structural biases of the movie industry, which in turn reflects deeply embedded racism in the society at large. And no institution is immune. For the news media to call out Hollywood’s lack of diversity is a bit like the pot calling the kettle ... um, yeah, never mind. But you know what I mean, right? Sorry if I offended anyone!

But I don’t want to let the Academy and its members off the hook. Or rather, I want to broaden the indictment beyond the specific complaints that they ignored Mr. Elba, “Creed,” “Straight Outta Compton” and Will Smith’s excellent Nigerian accent in “Concussion.” It’s not as if the 6,000 Academy members exercised the singular intention to ignore those contenders. The nominations are a numbers game, and in each case you can offer a nonracial explanation for the oversight. Other movies and actors just had a few more votes. “Beasts of No Nation” came from Netflix, which is a scary interloper in the hidebound, turf-protective world of the studios. The violence may have put off some voters. “Creed” did not get much of a campaign from Warner Bros., which may have figured that the seventh movie in a 40-year-old franchise with a mixed track record wasn’t exactly Oscar bait. “Concussion” is terrible. “Straight Outta Compton” …

I think it’s when you get to that one that race sneaks back into the picture. The Academy, in its function as the culture industry’s upholder of the ideology of Quality, has for a long time been open to African-American talent and even eager to promote and reward it. But at the same time, it has been consistently blind, indifferent and hostile to African-American culture, or at least to certain popular manifestations of blackness at the moment of their greatest impact elsewhere. A Ray Charles biopic in 2005 is unlikely to cause any Academy member the slightest discomfort. An N.W.A biopic in 2015 is another story. “Million Dollar Baby” and “Rocky” are both excellent boxing pictures and worthy best picture winners that breathed fresh life into perhaps the most cliché-ridden genre in all of cinema.

“Creed” belongs in their company, but I think some of its particular virtues flew under the Academy’s radar, much as the glories of “Beyond the Lights” (2014) did. In addition to being a fight movie, “Creed” is a quiet, sweet love story about two people who happen to be young, gifted and black. It’s also suffused with hip-hop and Philadelphia street culture, but in a way that feels entirely organic. It’s not a film that is pointedly “about” race or class or any particular social problem. It’s not sending a message or teaching a lesson. It’s about the lives, feelings and aspirations of its characters.

Which, if those characters are not white, is apparently not enough. American cinema — more than television or pop music or literature — still prefers to treat black people as symbols, problems and members of a “niche” audience.