I used to love award shows and Oscar pools at work. I used to bet on the Grammys on the school bus in middle school. At some point I got hip to how it all operated as an industry, rife with politics and payola swag, and I fell out of love with them, resigning myself to online debates and kicking over water coolers at work. Eventually, even these forums paled. So I swore off debating about Black absence in the Oscars this year for a multitude of reasons, and I promise I’m not debating it here. This essay is not a breach of said rule. I am not breaking my mandate because the Oscars didn’t nominate any people of color in any of their acting roles for the second year in a row. It’s not the first time it’s happened, and it won’t be the last (I got five on it). I’m mostly surprised anybody else is still surprised by this considering how painfully white and crushingly racist Hollywood is, has been, and likely shall forever be.
Let’s start with everyone’s favorite killjoy: data.
The Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) rated 707 films in 2014 (which was the most films they’ve rated in a decade, FYI). Let’s be conservative and just use the number of mainstream films released in theaters (basically pretending Netflix, Amazon, HBO and Showtime don’t exist). Applying a minimum budget requirement of 1 million dollars to every production in 2014, there were a minimum of 481 movies released in the US that year. When you average the same stat for the last 5 years, it’s exactly 480 films per year. So it’s safe to assume that the number of films meeting the same requirement for 2015 is around 480.
Got that number? Hold on to that for second.
In 2014 49% of people who bought movie tickets went to a movie less than once a month. In short, most people complaining about the Oscars probably haven’t seen most of the films up for Oscars regardless of who/what they are, and they certainly haven’t seen enough films in any given year to make a decision anymore informed than a member of the Academy, who at least has free copies of movies being mailed to them in campaigns to garner their votes. All you have is your wallet and guess what: if you’re Black you don’t use what’s in it at movie theaters. Statistically speaking.
You know who should really be mad about that? Hispanics.
56% of frequent moviegoers are white (that’s a bump up from 2013, BTW). The second largest group? Hispanics at 25%…almost 3 times the number of African Americans who bought tickets for movies (10%). So really, I should be writing this essay in Spanish.
Except they should probably get in line behind women.
Women were 52% of moviegoers. They should be madder than everybody, not so much at the acting awards, which are evenly split by gender, but by all the other categories where women have virtually no presence almost every year. Of the 8 films up for Best Picture, only 1 has a female lead (technically). None of the directors. Of the 5 original screenplay nods, 1 of them has a woman buried under 4 other writers, and another is Straight Outta Compton. I think it’s safe to say that if Compton miraculously wins this category it’s not going to be seen as a resounding achievement for women. So if you’re into women’s representation, cross your fingers that Inside Out prevails and the lone woman writer (Meg LeFauve) gets a couple of seconds on the mic alongside her 4 male co-writers.
Black people being mad at Oscar nominations is like being mad at snow on your car in December: yeah, you can be pissed about it, but it’s December. You should probably move where there isn’t snow in December if that’s actually going to add points to your blood pressure score.
Hey, there’s an idea I hear people kicking around a lot after the fact: let’s all move the party over to the other side of town, yes? Let us recognize our own art on our own terms. Let us award people of color through a lens of color. Let’s pack up Michael B. Jordan and Idris Elba and head on over to the NAACP Image Awards. Awesome!
Except that’s not really the problem, is it? A move like that fixes the problem if your problem is “Black entertainers don’t receive awards.” But if your problem is bigger and more nuanced than that, we have a couple of different jobs to do.
I’ve always had problems with the NAACP Image Awards, primarily because they are unerringly compelled to reward bad art. In the last year or so they’ve done better in categories that aren’t music or film, and I was genuinely impressed with their literature nominations this year. Unfortunately, music and film categories are the ones that get the most shine, and in most years the nominations seemed highly suspect. Even Rosa Parks boycotted this show when Barbershop was nominated (for obvious reasons if you’ve seen it). The process has many subjective hiccups: I am nowhere near forgiving them for not nominating Uzo Aduba for The Wiz Live this year or Jenifer Lewis for black-ish. Also, when I am seeking to reward Black excellence, I’m never really looking in R. Kelly’s direction, especially when he’s in the midst of child porn allegations.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more sympathetic to the NAACP Image Awards, opting to believe that, at least in terms of film (because they have zero excuses for being so bad in music) their problems lie in the depth of the pool. You can’t nominate what isn’t there, but that could mean a couple of things so now would probably be a good time for us to be honest about three things:
1) Black people generally don’t stand much a chance at the Oscars.
This is just math, not a qualitative argument. In 2013 there was a bump in Black lead roles in films…to 16.7% out of 174 surveyed films. People of color had bumps in cast diversity, directing roles and writing roles, but they were only significant in cast diversity, and the bars for these things are set so low that any bump becomes “a breakout year for Black film” (which later turns out not to be so much of a breakout at all). In television, minorities dropped in lead roles in broadcast shows, but saw a bump in cable shows. Boo on NBC/ABC/CBS, but thanks HBO!
The fact that a Black person gets nominated at all in an acting category should surprise you, not their absence. Hattie McDaniel was the first Black person to win an Oscar in 1939. No Black person won an acting Oscar for another 24 years (Poitier 1963). No Black person wins after that for another 19 years (Gossett, 1982). The 1980s were pretty steady on the nominations for Black actors, but actresses were almost non-existent in nominations during the same period, and only a handful of people won between them. During the decade of 1980-1989 7 Black men were nominated for lead or supporting Oscars; 2 won. Same period, 4 women were nominated (3 from one movie, The Color Purple); none of them won. We’re talking The Color Purple, yo. We’re talking Glory. We’re talking A Soldier’s Story. Ensemble casts of Black actors in their primes doing iconic work. Not to mention what didn’t get any love: Do the Right Thing was making headlines for not being nominated for anything before there was an internet to get mad about it on.
The 1990s weren’t any kinder: 8 Black men were nominated for lead or supporting roles between 1990-1999; 1 won. Same period: 3 Black women across lead and supporting categories; 1 won. Dude, we’re talking about Malcolm X. We’re talking about What’s Love Got To Do With It. Spike Lee put out 9 movies and a documentary in the 90s by himself. And what did we win for? Ghost and Jerry Maguire. Come on, son.
Any way you cut it Hollywood is pound for pound one of the whitest industries you’ll ever find. Don’t confuse the love you have for its product with an actual relationship. It ain’t there. Don’t let all the wins you were getting in the 2000s convince you otherwise. Those are exceptions, not quotas.
Before anybody gets it confused: this is the number one reason why the Oscars are white by a large margin. If the three things I lay out here were divided onto a pie chart of reasons why the 2015 acting Oscars are all white, Hollywood being predominantly white would be 90% of why that happened.
2) Black film had an off year.
Second come-to-Jesus moment: 2015 did not have a Selma to carry the load this year. While I enjoyed Creed very much and Beasts of No Nation is a finely wrought film (which was only in theaters long enough for Netflix to pimp it for an Oscars inroad), if these are your quality fallbacks for the entire year you’re coming up way short just in volume to match the odds required to put a dent in this problem. Our next best bet was Straight Outta Compton, which at least spoke in a language the industry actually respects – making a ton of cash – though I am loathe to suggest we should reward it in any way, let alone because it was popular. Chi-Raq was a train wreck. Dope failed us. Were there even 20 Black-directed US films last year? Out of 480? I can’t even come up with a list of 40 films with Black leads that didn’t star Kevin Hart.
Bottom line: Black film didn’t have a critical mass of quality product to weigh in this year, made all the worse by the fact that we are barely there to begin with. We didn’t have a Selma or a Ray or a What’s Love Got To Do With It this year. We didn’t even have anything with Morgan Freeman as a lead. Or a Denzel Washington film. So even the gimme Black actors the Academy loves giving awards to took a break in 2015.
3) There’s only one film industry for awards.
The third thing we need to be honest about is that we only have what the Academy creates to choose from. The Academy isn’t just a body of voters; it is the movers and shakers of the Hollywood industry. It’s comprised of the crews, directors, writers and producers that create the films anyone interested in seeing one that year will have to go through. It is the machine through which this art form exists. And if you leave Hollywood to its own devices because it’s not diverse, that doesn’t empower the NAACP Image Awards. The NAACP still picks their recipients out of a field that white industry seeds for them. They’re not out looking to fill their marquee ballot slots with amazing Black indie talent. Which is not to say Black artists shouldn’t seek to develop independent resources and product; we absolutely should and do. But then we can’t complain about the Oscars in the same breath if that’s the goal. In fact, if that’s the goal, the Oscars become irrelevant. But until that happens (and that’s an internal fight, not an external fight. We can only support that fight with our dollars and media support once the art is delivered) the NAACP Image Awards also has to pick from Hollywood’s bucket.
And then there’s you to contend with, the audience.
The NAACP Image Awards are not just awards; they’re award shows, award productions, award pageants. They’re three hour long commercials. And what does every show need? Ratings. Just ask the Oscars: they ran it as a private dinner for 24 years before someone wised up and said “We can make some money off of this thing coming and going” and they started broadcasting it in 1953. The NAACP can’t get ratings for an awards show that’s based solely on merit for the same reason the Oscars can’t: no one wants to watch a show giving out awards to a bunch of actors they never heard of in a bunch of films they never saw, even if they represent the best talent the industry has to offer that year. And based on how many people pay for movies – and in what demographics – what you see at the Oscars is calculated pretty much in line with how the numbers play out. 12% is America’s favorite number when it comes to Black people: it’s just large enough to be a useful token stat, but it’s rarely large enough to impact anything important.
Minority talent can’t get into the pool if we’re not significantly aiding in the generation of content on the back end. This isn’t news. Everyone except Matt Damon has been saying, literally for generations, that there needs to be more non-white, non-male representation behind the cameras: more writers, more directors, more producers. More of these people means more roles and stories for the Academy to recognize. And while I will always go to the mat making a case that minority talent is at a point where that art can actually be more consistently good than consistently bad to accomplish this – that not only do we not need to shoot for the lowest common denominator, but that it sets us back to do so – what’s not really debatable is you can’t beat the system without some critical mass of numbers.
Many years ago my grandmother desegregated the Nelsonville public swimming pool in the hill town my people come from. She did that by making her kids – my mother among them – swim in it. When people said it was illegal, she basically told them to keep swimming. She didn’t say, “Well the creek is over here, we’ll just swim in that.” It was a public pool, she was part of the public, and her children were going in the pool. Film belongs to whoever can make their way in it and produce their art. It’s not “theirs” and it’s only white by default for now. Hollywood may very well burn, but film is forever.
The Oscars is a symptom of a deeper problem. That’s why making a Black woman – Cheryl Boone Isaacs – the president of the Academy didn’t change anything. For all we know from the outside looking in, that act had the same effect on Hollywood that hiring Barack Obama did on the country: it exacerbated the fear, sexism and racism that was already inherent in the system. People keep treating it like it’s the illness. It’s not. It’s a thermometer. And I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic in pointing out that Hollywood’s temperature is running mad high right now.