The Disappointing Whiteness of the 85th Academy Awards
When Oscar nominations were announced on January 10th, there were some notable surprises and omissions. But while most of the world – or at least most of the web – was hard at work condemning the Oscars as irrelevant, a farce, a joke, for not including their personal favorites (all par for the course, I might add), something else seemed amiss, and it was something that I saw basically no one talking about.
A couple of years ago, not a single black actor was nominated for an Academy Award (or producer, or director, for that matter). Such a turn of events of course reignited the debate about non-white actors and the roles they are given. Or rather, the roles they have to settle for. This is a commonplace discussion, and not without reason. That year, one could argue that non-white performances of “Oscar caliber” simply were not there to nominate. Or rather, as was argued, there were simply no prominent non-white roles in the major Oscar contenders to even nominate. This year is a very different story. There was a whole host of phenomenal performances from a good portion of prominent movies in 2012. And yet Oscar chose to nominate only two non-white actors.
Let me first get out of the way the idea that those nominated were somehow undeserving, or that any nominations were somehow “stolen” or the like. That is not my intention. Nor am I arguing for some kind of “racial quota” in who and what gets nominated. However, the two non-white roles nominated were Denzel Washington for Flight and Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild. Both are well deserved. And while it was bold of the Academy to nominate Quvenzhané, as it usually shies away from nominating young leading actresses in the appropriate leading category (see: Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit (2010)). That said, only two nominations when movies like Lincoln, Django Unchained, and Life of Pi are nominated for multiple awards, seems quite unfortunate.
To put things into context, I will list all the non-white performances I believe deserved consideration but either got very little or were simply ignored:
Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley in Lincoln
Jamie Foxx as Django in Django Unchained
Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen in Django Unchained
Kerry Washington as Brumhilda in Django Unchained
Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel in Life of Pi
Irrfan Khan as Old Pi Patel in Life of Pi
Doona Bae as Multiple Roles in Cloud Atlas
Halle Berry as Multiple Roles in Cloud Atlas
Dwight Henry as Wink in Beasts of the Southern Wild
Lenny Kravitz as Cinna in The Hunger Games
Naomi Harris as Eve in Skyfall
Nate Parker as Jimmy Grant in Arbitrage
Michael Peña as Mike Zavala in End of Watch
I imagine that there are even more worthy performances and actors to nominate. (And I also imagine some will disagree with some of the choices I’ve made above.) But these were taken off the top of my head, only from movies I was able to see in 2012 (I saw a sadly low number of films). But that should speak even more strongly to how unfortunate the lack of color at the Oscars is. To be fair, the 85th Academy Awards are not the 83rd Academy Awards. There is more ethnic diversity. Ang Lee picked up his third nomination for directing, and his second for producing with Life of Pi. And Django Unchained has at least one non-white producer to its credit.
But even then, the real issue – at least as far as this article is concerned – is the fact that, unlike the 83rd Academy Awards, the 85th does indeed contain a good number of non-white characters in prominent roles in prominently-nominated movies. Moreover, they deliver not just solid, but according to some, extremely brilliant performances that not only deserved consideration, but actual nominations as well.
Granted, one could fairly argue that the 84th Oscars were no less disappointing than the 85th. On this very basis, two of its non-white acting nominations being from The Help. I believe this point speaks for itself.
One can draw whatever conclusions one chooses from all of this. I doubt if there was any purposeful intent on the part of AMPAS to consciously exclude worthy actors from consideration. (One could rightly argue just the opposite, given Quvenzhané’s nomination.) Sometimes there are legitimate excuses, that the number of fantastic roles for non-whites are simply nonexistent. But 2012 was not one of those years. Given that, I can’t help but be at least somewhat disappointed.