by Matt Thekkethala
Here’s what we know:
- Last year, every single person nominated for an Academy Award for a performance in a motion picture was white. This year, every single person nominated for an Academy Award for a performance in a motion picture is white.
- This phenomenon is systemic. There are more white actors, producers, and directors than actors, producers, and directors of color in Hollywood. Thus, the majority of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ membership is white. Therefore, white actors are recognized for their work more so than actors of color because, historically, there have always been more roles for white actors.
- The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is conservative. That is, artistically conservative. Let me explain.
Film is an evolving machine. In the past one hundred years, it underwent several transformations: silence to sound, 35 millimeter reels to digital, cinema to Netflix. It’s hard to be a conservative in such a dynamic industry. But somehow, conservatism prevails.
The earliest instance of the Oscars’ conservatism in recent memory is 2009, and its exclusion of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight from the Best Picture slate of nominees. Referring to this film as a ‘comic book movie’ is accurate, yet highly reductionist.
Though films of the X-Men, Avengers, and Iron Man franchises have shared The Dark Knight’s critical acclaim and financially success, this movie is simply in a different league. The Dark Knight – as a work of cinema – was incredible; it featured a legendary, Academy Award-winning performance of the part of the late Heath Ledger, and is quite possibly one of the best films of the decade.
Anyone can attest to that. It was snubbed because it was judged not based on its quality, but on its fanciful premise: a man dressed as a bat that fights crime. The Academy nominates high art, not mass art. If The Dark Knight is mass art, then it’s mass art at its best.
The Academy increased the amount of Best Picture nominees to ten the next year in response to the uproar at The Dark Knight’s exclusion. The ten nominees of 2010 were perhaps the most diverse set of films to ever be included in the same category.
Oscar bait like The Blind Side and Up in the Air were accompanied by Up, a Pixar film about an old man and a boy scout in a flying house suspended by balloons, Avatar, a CGI wet dream about the genocide of blue aliens, Inglorious Basterds, a classically yet ridiculously violent Tarantino account of alternative WWII history, and District 9, an apartheid-themed alien movie.
For the first time, it looked as though the Oscars would honor films that weren’t mere Oscar bait. Perhaps mass art could coexist with high art.
This year, Mad Max: Fury Road – a thrilling post-apocalyptic Western – is nominated for Best Picture. Like The Dark Knight, the film was lauded for its intense action sequences, strong character development, cinematography, and powerful themes.
In other words, Mad Max: Fury Road is mass art at its best. Like Avatar, District 9 and Mad Max represent a certain happy medium between high art and mass art: Though intended for a mainstream audience, these films are strong enough artistically to be nominated for Academy Awards.
I see a very similar pattern in films about people of color.
When nominating a film with either a Black protagonist or a predominantly Black cast, the Academy looks for specific kind of film, perhaps a “model POC” film. But let’s be real. Very rarely do we see Oscar-nominated films that feature Latinx, East/South/Southeast Asian, or Native casts. So for the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to these films as “model black films.”
In a model black film, the lead Black actor or actress will struggle. Their struggles will not be unique, however.
The most recent Black nominees were Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave and Barkhad Abdi for Captain Phillips. Last year, Quvenzhane Wallis was nominated for Beasts of the Southern Wild and Denzel Washington for Flight. All of them were nominated for playing slaves, a Somalian pirate, an impoverished girl about to lose her home, and an alcoholic, respectively.
Clearly, there’s a similar trend in these prior Black nominees.
All of their stories subscribe to a central, stereotypical narrative about the Black identity, particularly for the Black American characters. In other words, the struggles of Black characters in model Black films are compartmentalized.
In his New York Times article, Brandon K Thorp noted that not a single black actress received a Best Actress nomination for playing a woman with a college degree, and further, that ten of the total Black nominees had a “white buddy or counterpart” who is often the “apparent protagonist.”
Essentially, the model Black film is shot with white eyes.
This is why Straight Outta Compton didn’t have a chance. Would a white -majority Academy with an average age of 62 see as much value in a film about the rise and fall of N.W.A. as they would in films like Room, Spotlight, or the esoteric Carol?
This is also why Creed didn’t have a chance. Apart from the fact that Creed is part of a franchise of fight movies that underwent a major dip in quality as time went on, it’s “a love story about two people who happen to be young, gifted, and Black,” according to A.O. Scott in the New York Times.
He writes, “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.”
Black actors do not get nominated for playing normal people.
In the same year Chiwetel, Lupita, and Barkhad were nominated, Bruce Dern was nominated for playing a senile yet complicated old man from the working class in Nebraska, and Cate Blanchett was nominated for being a rich Manhattan socialite. I do not mean to invalidate the work these actors have done. I do mean to question whether a Black actor would gain any recognition at all for playing an ordinary person, like Bruce Dern did.
Like The Dark Knight, Straight Outta Compton and Creed weren’t nominated for Best Picture because they weren’t “model” films in their respective genres. The Academy maintains its conservatism which constrains accomplished Black filmmakers to limited white understanding of Black identity.
It’s time to end the age of honoring model films and model roles.
The Academy should reward artistic risks, unorthodox filmmaking, and unconventional stories. Like I said, film is evolving. There’s a difference between conservatism that preserves the art form and conservatism that confines the artist’s talent to their socio-racial identity.