For the second year in a row, only white actors will take their seats as nominees at the Academy Awards on Sunday. Shocking, yes, but this used to happen routinely in the 20th century. It happened every year from 1975 to 1981, for example, until Howard E. Rollins Jr. was nominated for “Ragtime.”
In the 21st century — with demographics diversifying and media democratized — the current two-year whiteout is a bigger deal. Twitter quaked with outrage after this year’s nominations were announced Jan. 14. Op-eds were volleyed. Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith announced a boycott of the ceremony. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has vowed to diversify membership.
But the #OscarsSoWhite debate is a little more complicated than social media has time for. The Oscars have gotten slightly better at representing the kaleidoscope of society. For example, there were more black acting nominees in the past 25 years (39 nominees) than in all 63 years of the Oscars before then (26 nominees). Eleven black actors have won the statuette since 1991, compared with four before.
Still, there has been a slowdown in this decade:
In the 2000s, the Oscar nominations nearly represented the percentage of blacks in the U.S. population. But the current decade has had seven black nominees in five years, which means the academy would have to nominate 15 black actors by 2020 to match the number of black nominees from 2001 to 2010. (For this article, we’re referring to the year a movie was released, not the year of the awards ceremony, unless otherwise noted.)
And here’s the thing about nominations for black actors: Two men account for a quarter of them. Without Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, black representation since 1987 — when both men were first nominated — would be significantly lower.
There are hints of progress on other fronts. In recent history, the best supporting actresses have been a diverse group. Over the past 10 ceremonies, half the winners were minorities: four black and one Hispanic.
Penélope Cruz is not a minority in her native Spain, obviously, and neither is her husband, fellow Oscar winner Javier Bardem, but they are in Hollywood. Although black actors have gotten attention in recent years for particular snubs — Michael B. Jordan in “Creed,” David Oyelowo in “Selma” — Hispanic actors are doubly under-represented at the Oscars. Over the past 30 years, there were 17 nominated performances by Hispanics — if you include foreign film stars such as Demián Bichir (Mexico) and Catalina Sandino Moreno (Colombia) — and that’s way out of step with the general population trend of the United States:
Yes, we are using the term “Hispanic” to crudely lump many nationalities together (including Puerto Rican, Spanish and in one instance Brazilian, because the U.S. Census uses Hispanic and Latino interchangeably). As with black actors, the nominations for Hispanics were dominated by a small group, which shows that there’s a diversity problem within the diversity problem.
Other minorities are even less represented, although it depends on how you categorize a nominee’s race and ethnicity. It’s tough to meld the nuances of identity with the starkness of Oscar statistics. Take Asian actors. Three Asian actors have been nominated in the past 25 years, if you count Ken Watanabe and Rinko Kikuchi of Japan and Shohreh Aghdashloo of Iran. If you count Ben Kingsley, a Briton who is half Indian, there were six (he was nominated three times in that span). In the past 25 years, no Asian Americans were nominated and only two Hispanic Americans were (Brooklyn-born Rosie Perez and Benicio Del Toro, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to the United States just before high school).
Carol Channing had a black grandmother but was not counted in the tallies above because, at the time of her nomination, she neither presented as nor identified with the African American ethnicity. Should we have counted Oscar-winner Mercedes Ruehl as Hispanic because her mother was part Cuban? Or nominee Jennifer Tilly, whose father was Chinese American? Or nominee Hailee Steinfeld, whose mother is part Filipina? (For this exercise, we didn’t.)
One thing is certain: The United States has grown more diverse since the Academy Awards was first held, and is continuing to do so. By the 2040s, this will be a majority-minority country.
But to paraphrase Viola Davis’s Emmy acceptance speech: You cannot win an Oscar for roles that are simply not there. And white men continue to dominate screenwriting and the executive offices of major studios, according to UCLA’s latest Hollywood Diversity Report. The data suggest that nothing is changing in the short term.
Women, of course, always make up 50 percent of the acting nominees, but they’ve received only 19 percent of the non-acting nominations over the past decade, according to a report by the Women’s Media Center released last week. Only 12 films directed by women have been nominated for best picture, ever. That’s 2.3 percent of all best picture nominees. Women have been more successful in technical categories such as costume design, but no woman has ever been nominated for best cinematography.
In recent years, though, best directors have stood out for their relative diversity. A woman (Kathryn Bigelow) won best director for the first time in 2009. The Mexican writer-producer-director Alejandro G. Iñárritu won both best picture and director last year for “Birdman,” and is the only minority filmmaker with a shot at winning a major category this year, for “The Revenant.” In fact, a white American man has not won best director in nine years. The roster is varied: Iñárritu, Bigelow, Alfonso Cuarón (Mexico), Ang Lee (born in Taiwan to Chinese parents and now an American citizen), and three white European men (Frenchman Michel Hazanavicius, and Britons Tom Hooper and Danny Boyle).
If Iñárritu (below right) wins best director for “The Revenant,” he will join an exclusive club: He would be only the third person to win consecutive best-director Oscars and the first since 1950, when Joseph L. Mankiewicz (below left, at bottom) won his second in a row (for “All About Eve”). If “The Revenant” wins the top prize, Iñárritu would become the first person to win back-to-back Oscars for best picture. David O. Selznick (below left, at top) produced best pictures “Gone with the Wind” (1939) and “Rebecca” (1940), but back then the statuette went to the studio, not the producer.
All that said, only three black directors have ever been nominated: John Singleton (1991’s “Boyz n the Hood”), Lee Daniels (2009’s “Precious”) and Steve McQueen (2013’s “12 Years a Slave”). A black director did receive an Oscar in the past year, but it was an honorary one. Spike Lee used his acceptance speech in November to remind the industry that the world is changing, and will soon be minority white. “All the people out there,” he said, “who are in positions of hiring: You better get smart.”
Correction: This article originally said, “In the 2010s, the Oscar nominations nearly represented the percentage of blacks in the U.S. population.” It’s been corrected to say, “In the 2000s, the Oscar nominations nearly represented the percentage of blacks in the U.S. population,” referring to the first decade of the century. We regret the error.