Pissed about Selma director Ava DuVernay’s Oscar snub for Best Director? How about its leading man David Oyelowo being overlooked for Best Actor? And what about the film’s director of photographer Bradford Young’s shutout from the Best Cinematography category? I am too, but let’s try to make sense of it all, and figure out how to avoid it in the future.
It almost makes no sense why each individual was left unrecognized by the Academy. First, Selma is the stuff Oscar dreams are made of. It’s a focused, ever-relevant, politically charged biopic about overcoming the odds, in the vein of Oscar winners The King’s Speech and The Hurt Locker. Oyelowo plays a well-known, not to mention beloved, public figure, Martin Luther King Jr., with such conviction and empathy that he disappears into the role, no different from the way Joaquin Phoenix embodied Johnny Cash in his Oscar-nominated role in Walk the Line or Meryl Streep’s portrayal of The Iron Lady. As for Young, think of him as a young Roger Deakins, who was just nominated for Unbroken. Their styles both dreamlike, precise, and intentionally emotional, as if they both paint pictures with their cameras rather than simply snapshotting.
Now, here’s how they got snubbed. Here’s how DuVernay became the ninth woman overlooked for best director (most recently before her was Kathryn Bigelow for 2013’s Zero Dark Thirty). And here’s how, as The Atlantic pointed out, the 2015 Academy Awards nominations are the whitest its been in 19 years.
It’s commonly known, and joked about, that the Academy is made up of crusty old white men, and the stats back it up. An LA Times survey from earlier this year revealed that the population was 94% white and 76% men, with an average age of over 63. As for minorities, it’s 2% Black, 2% Latino, and less than %0.5 Asian and Native American combined. This is despite the Academy’s attempt to diversify its membership, inviting 271 new members to join, including 12 Years a Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o, Captain Phillips’ Barkhad Abdi, and mega producer Megan Ellison. However, according to a survey taken on the new members, apparently 72% were male and 28% were female, doing close to nothing to even the playing field.
However, lesser known is all AMPAS members don’t nominate all categories. Specifically, only members in certain branches nominate in their branches. That is, actors nominate actors, editors nominate editors, and yes, directors nominate directors. Basically, DuVernay’s fellow directors are the ones to blame for overlooking her, The Fault in Our Stars screenwriter, Michael Weber points out:
Ditto Ava DuVernay – her fellow Directors snubbed her. Not entire Academy. We can only vote on nominations in our own branch.
— Michael H. Weber (@thisisweber) January 15, 2015
And if the long list of white directors nominated this year — and the fact the Steve McQueen was the first ever black filmmaker to win an Oscar and Bigelow was the first woman ever to take the Best Director hardware home — indicate anything, its that there’s virtually no one to speak to the diversity.
I’m not saying that white male voting members are inherently racist nor intentionally overlooking minorities. I’m an optimist in that I like to believe that people vote according to good work that responds to them. What I’m saying is that it’s easy to see why these oversights can happen. The Academy needs people with different perspectives to see things the white male simply cannot.
To have any hope of diversifying the Academy membership, which you can only get invited to if you were nominated or sponsored by two Academy members, we need to keep encouraging young, minority talent. Unfortunately, as a minority myself, it’s difficult to feel like you can make it in a white male-dominated industry when you really haven’t seen it before, which is why it’s so important when examples like Bigelow, DuVernay, Oyelowo, and McQueen take the podium. We need to keep a look out for the emerging talent at independent film festivals, and celebrate them in a way that’s impossible for anyone with eyes to ignore. Hell, it’s possible. Just look at how Damien Chazelle’s Sundance hit Whiplash became a Best Picture nominee this year. And for a little more positivity, Duvernay herself went from winning Best Director at Sundance for her indie Middle of Nowhere, to becoming the most talked about woman today, for a major motion picture, one nominated for Best Picture at that.
Where to start? Let’s spotlight A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’s Ana Lily Amirpour, Appropriate Behavior’s Desiree Akhavan, and Wonder Woman’s Michelle Maclaren. Let’s pay attention to Eddie Huang’s sitcom Fresh Off the Boat and his battle with network TV. Let’s fight for minority visibility in hopes that it’ll energize the next generation to change this ridiculous lack of diversity we’re still fighting today.
Watch DuVernay discuss her personal relationship to Selma.
[Photo Credit: Getty Images]