So Long as There’s One: Why the 87th Academy Award Nominations Aren’t Shocking

by Matthew Cabe

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Note: The years found within this article in which actors and actresses were nominated refer to the year their films were released, not the year in which their roles were nominated or when the respective Academy Awards show aired. 

When the Academy Award nominations were revealed last Thursday, the discussion immediately became about race and the all-white list of nominees in the four acting categories. Selma, the film centered on Martin Luther King, Jr. leading a march on Washington, was nominated for Best Picture, but David Oyelowo’s performance as Martin Luther King, Jr. was not. Ava DuVernay, the film’s director, was also left out of the Best Director category, which means Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu represents the one non-white nominee there.

One, by the way, seems to be the magic number. So long as one non-white person (usually African American) receives a nomination, the lack of cultural diversity rhetoric is tempered, if not quelled entirely. Of the four times Denzel Washington has been nominated for Best Actor, for example, he’s been the sole non-white actor in that category three times.

Below is the skinny on each category since 2000:

Best Actress

Nominees in the Best Actress category have been all-white two years running. 2012 marked the last year in which a non-white actress was nominated (Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild). 2000, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2010 were also years in which the category included all-white nominees. In the years in which non-white actresses were nominated (2001, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2011, and 2012), each included only one non-white actress. Halle Berry (in 2001) is the only non-white actress to win the award. If you’re keeping score, that’s seven non-white actresses and 68 white actresses nominated for the award since 2000.

Best Actor

All-white Nominees for Best Actor have come in five of the last 15 voting periods (2002, 2003, 2007, 2008, and 2014). Multiple non-white nominees came in 2001 (Denzel Washington and Will Smith), 2004 (Jamie Foxx and Don Cheadle), and 2006 (Forest Whitaker and Will Smith). In every other year (2000, 2005, 2009, and 2010-2013), the list of nominees included just one non-white actor. The total stands at 13 non-white nominees to 63 white. Three of those 13 won the award: Denzel Washington (2001), Jamie Foxx (2004), and Forest Whitaker (2006).

Best Supporting Actress

Best Supporting Actress might be the most diverse of the acting categories considering there were two years (2006 and 2008) in which three non-white actresses were nominated and another two years (2009 and 2011) in which two non-white actresses received nods. All-white lists occurred in 2000, 2001, 2005, 2010, and 2014. The inclusion of just one non-white nominee occurred in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007, and 2013. Five non-white actresses have taken home the award: Jennifer Hudson (2006), Penélope Cruz (2008), Mo’Nique (2009), Octavia Spencer (2011), and Lupita Nyong’o (2013). Since 2000, 16 non-white actresses have been nominees compared to 60 white.

Best Supporting Actor

A mere 10 non-white actors have been nominated since 2000 whereas white actor nominees total 65. Three of those 10 won the award: Benicio Del Toro (2000), Morgan Freeman (2004), and Javier Bardem (2007). From 2008 to 2012, the category touted all-white nominees; this also occurred in 2001, 2002, 2005, and 2014, bringing the total of all-white lists to nine. 2003 and 2006 mark the only years in which multiple non-white nominees were included; 2003 had three: Benicio Del Toro, Djimon Hounsou, and Ken Watanabe. Barkhad Abdi (for his role in Captain Phillips) is the only non-white actor to be nominated in the category since 2007.

These statistics are even more staggering the farther back you research. But what all the acting categories have in common is that when a non-white actor or actress is nominated, the inclusion is routinely of only one (as shown above, in the Best Actress category it’s never been more than one), and that one always seems to go on to represent diversity among nominees.

Last year’s list of nominees has been touted as a banner year for cultural diversity; however, outside of Barkhad Abdi, the non-white nominees came from one film: 12 Years a Slave. And in the four acting categories, everyone was white except for Abdi, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Lupita Nyong’o. Of those three, only Nyong’o won.

The point is that this year’s nominees don’t represent a moment of regression in Academy voting so much as they display a more obvious version of a recurring theme. Of course, zero nominations for non-white actors and actresses is without question a glaring lack of diversity to say the least; however, if we’re being honest, so is one.

According to a Los Angeles Times article published in December of 2013, 94% of the Academy’s 6,028 voters were white, 77% were male, and the median age among voters was 63. And once you become a member, you’re in for life, which means significant changes to the demographics of the voting body will, no doubt, take decades.

The bottom line is that the Academy, both in members and voting habits, has never been diverse. And while the Oscars remain the most prestigious awards show out there, in no way are they reflective of the diversity that continues to grow among non-white filmmakers, actors, and actresses, et cetera.

Arguably the bigger issue, which was addressed in Top Five, Chris Rock’s latest film, is not which non-white actors and actresses are getting nominated, but for what roles they’re getting nominated. Especially in the Best Actor category, nominations for non-white actors tend to go to actors who play historical figures. Since 2000, six of the 13 nominees came from biopics. That number significantly decreases to just one on for Best Actress (Salma Hayek for her role in Frida), but the other nominated roles all have race relations at their center.

Whereas white actors and actresses earn nominations for a wide variety of performances, their non-white counterparts often earn nominations for roles that come from one of the three following categories: biopics (like Ali, Ray, or Frida), historical dramatizations (12 Years a Slave or Hotel Rwanda), or harrowing stories of poverty survival (Precious or The Pursuit of Happyness). In each, race plays a pivotal role that white actors rarely encounter.   

In Top Five, Rock plays a comedic actor named Andre Allen who is looking to break into more serious, Academy-friendly roles. To do so, he chooses to portray Dutty Boukman in a film entitled, Uprize!, a biopic that documents the Haitian Revolution. The choice’s familiarity is what makes it satirical. Rock’s point seems to be that when it comes to serious roles, there aren’t many out there for non-white actors and actresses that don’t involve race or a person of historical note.

For the record, it’s easy for me, a white male, to disregard this trend as pigeonholing. Clearly, many people want films like Selma, 12 Years a Slave, or Fruitvale Station to be made. It’s also arguable that, given the state of the Academy, these films must be made; race is still very much at the top of important issues in America (if nothing else, the events in Ferguson, Mo. prove that).

But it doesn’t seem coincidental that the snub of David Oyelowo for his performance of the martyred Dr. King resonates at a higher frequency than that of Rock’s for his performance in Top Five, which, in my opinion, was just as deserving of a nomination.

So why does race (and the lack of diversity) play such a crucial role in the Academy’s annual pitting of art against art? And if art is to be judged, shouldn’t the judging be done with regard to artfulness, not the skin color of those involved in artistic creation?

Maybe. But the real answer, at least when the Academy Awards are concerned, lies in the above statistics, as well as in the overwhelming whiteness and purported importance of the Academy itself. There’s simply too much of a continuous trend to ignore the lack of diversity.

The problem is that there is a myriad of other awards out there, but being nominated for and/or winning an Academy Award is seemingly the only way toward industry prestige. It’s a career maker in many cases, and the names of nominees and winners alike become inseparable from the Academy; just take a look at how movies are marketed when they include a past nominee or winner.

However, author Bret Easton Ellis once disregarded that prestige when he said, “The Oscars are interesting because they reveal what Hollywood is thinking about itself. What it’s thinking it does best.” If there’s any truth to Ellis’s statement, maybe the best response to the lack of diversity inherent in this year’s Academy voting is the advice Spike Lee gave Ava DuVernay in an interview with The Daily Beast: “Fuck ’em.”

Because despite the guise of prestige, awards don’t make a movie artful or even great, and a lack of awards doesn’t diminish a film’s accomplishments. Dozens and dozens of great films never received recognition from the almighty Academy. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was notoriously snubbed in 1990 in favor of Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy.

Like Selma, Lee’s film earned just two nominations, one for Best Supporting Actor (Danny Aiello) and the other for Lee’s screenwriting. Neither won; however, in Lee’s own words from the same Daily Beast interview, “Nobody’s talking about motherfuckin’ Driving Miss Daisy. That film is not being taught in film schools all across the world like Do the Right Thing is.”

He’s right, and Driving Miss Daisy isn’t the only misfire. Past Academy’s choices for Best Picture alone includes a long list of films that produce puzzled if not outraged reactions. And if the present history of Academy voting is any indication, the test of time Lee refers to is not only for films to stand, but for non-white filmmakers, actors, screenwriters, producers, et al, as well.

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