For the second straight year, zero black actors were nominated for Academy Awards. And worse than last year, not even one movie prominently featuring black actors was nominated for Best Picture. Straight Outta Compton earned a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, but that movie was written by four white people. Creed was nominated—well, Sylvester Stallone was for Best Supporting Actor.
So it's no surprise that after nominations were announced yesterday morning, the popular hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite, from 2015 came back with a vengeance. And not only was the hashtag's resurgence expected, it was a reasonable reaction—the fact that the Academy Awards summed up an entire year of film in such a starkly pale way is astonishing, and enraging. But #OscarsSoWhite, and its usage, shouldn't be misunderstood. Because even if you think the Oscars are a meaningless procession of artists being arbitrarily rewarded for "paying their dues," or some boys club where the same people pat each other on the dick every year, the truth is that this time around, the Academy didn't really mess up in any egregious way by leaving black actors/creators off the ballot.
This year, no black people deserved a nomination.
Straight Outta Compton was a really well-made movie, and it defied expectations of being a rote, misappropriated biopic (which makes the screenwriting nom understandable). But it's not one of the best movies of the year—if there's any squabble regarding a movie left out of the Best Picture race, it should be over Carol (#OscarsSoMale, but we can talk about that some other time). It also featured a stellar performance by newcomer Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E. The mix of vulnerability and volatility that Mitchell packed into the role carried and partially legitimized the entire movie. But at the same time, I have a hard time calling it one of the five best performances of the year. Spike Lee made one of the most daring movies of the year, Chi-Raq, and in that film Teyonah Parris was a force to be reckoned with. But that movie is also riddled with problems, and I can't fault the Academy for deciding to overlook it. Michael B. Jordan stepped up to the plate yet again as Adonis Creed in Creed, but he's out-acted by Stallone, who gives the weightiest performance in that movie. Jordan is good but not great, even when he's running through the streets with his 4-woes.
Really, the director of that movie, Ryan Coogler, has the most cause to be upset about being passed over by Oscar. Coogler made Rocky relevant again—he ushered the franchise into a new generation, handed it over to a new hero who is both three-dimensional and representative of a under-represented group of people. And that's before even mentioning that Coogler co-wrote the damn thing. But can I fault the Academy for nominating Lenny Abrahamson, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Tom McCarthy, Adam McKay and George Miller—directors of movies better than Creed—over Coogler? Not really.
But one year isn't really what we should be talking about. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag can either dispute that black actors, writers and directors were "ignored" in 2015, or it can come to speak the real, larger issue: that there aren't enough black stories being told in Hollywood for those actors, writers and directors to be properly acknowledged.
Remember what Viola Davis said while accepting an Emmy in September. She was speaking specifically about women of color, but her words can be extended beyond gender:
Let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.
Of the 100 most popular movies released in 2014, only 12.5 percent of the movies' characters were black, according to a study done by the University of Southern California—and that statistic correlates to every year since 2007. It isn't just that the Academy—which was hugely revamped in June 2015 to become more diverse (a self-imposed change, by the way)—is largely uninterested in stories they consider "other," as film critic Mark Harris points out:
The older, white, male votership doesn't hate women, gays, black people. They're just not as interested in their/our stories.>>— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) January 14, 2016
The larger point is that there is an astonishing lack of opportunity, as Viola Davis put it. There aren't enough minority stories being depicted by the Ava DuVernays and Cooglers of the world—there aren't enough black creators being given the opportunity to do what Iñárritu did with The Revenant, or what Abrahamson did with Room. The Academy picked a largely white slate of nominees this year (and last year), because that's mostly all they had to pick from. Yes, #OscarsSoWhite, but #HollywoodSoWhite is closer to the truth.
At the Governors Awards this past November, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is black, announced A2020, a five-year initiative in which the Academy plans to work with studios to make sure Hollywood executives keep diversity in mind when hiring and nurturing new talent. A2020 is a plan "to study practices at the Academy with the aim of improving the diversity of its own staff and governance while also bringing new voices into the organization. It is also intended to encourage and to push the industry to examine its hiring practices and begin to make changes," Boone Isaacs declared.
There is a long way to go—and it'll probably take longer than five years before we even start to see progress. (I'll also hold my breath until we see this effort bear fruit, because it's important to remember that trying is different than doing.) But it's a much-needed push, because 12.5 percent is not enough. When that percentage rises though, you will see that change reflected at the Oscars. When the stories come through, so will the nominations. And hopefully we'll never have to use #OscarsSoWhite again.