***ESTIMATED READING TIME: 20 MINUTES***
On January 14, 2016, at 5:30 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) announced the nominations for the 81st Academy Awards. For the second year in a row none of the actors nominated in the four acting categories, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, were minorities. All twenty nominations went to White actors. The lack of Black acting nominees in particular, set off firestorms of outrage in the media and online.
A day after the nominations were announced, in response to the alleged "snub" of Black actors, artists and films, Spike Lee declared he would not attend the Oscar ceremony where he would have been an honored guest having been awarded an honorary Academy Award in November. Jada Pinkett Smith, wife of one of the actors thought to be "snubbed", Will Smith, also publicly declared she would "boycott" the awards show by not attending or watching it on television. Pinkett Smith tweeted "At the Oscars…people of color are always welcomed to give out awards…even entertain. But we are rarely recognized for our artistic accomplishments. Should people of color refrain from participating altogether?".
Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a Black woman, said that changes would be made in order to make the Academy, which does not make public it's membership demographics but which is rumored to be 94% White and 77% male with a median age of 62, younger and more diverse. On January 20th, the Academy announced an expansion of membership to include more women and minorities and to make the membership younger and with more recent work experience in the industry. This has done little to quell the anger felt by the Black community and their supporters of all colors, which have used the #OscarsSoWhite meme as a rallying cry.
The emotional response by the #OscarsSoWhite community to what they perceive as racially biased slights and snubs by the Academy and the film industry are very understandable in a historical context, but that doesn't make them rational or even real. Racism is a deadly serious topic, and charges of racism are not a matter to be taken lightly. I believe that the reaction to the alleged slights by the Academy are a result of emotionalism and not rationalism. A closer look at the film business here in America and abroad, and the demographic reality of Black people in those places, shows that the perception of massive Black under-representation in the Oscar acting categories is not one backed up by facts. A closer examination of the films, artists and actors alleged to have been snubbed this year, and their artistic merit, shows that this controversy is much ado about nothing, at least in regards to race. That doesn't mean that racism doesn't exist, it just means that it isn't the reason there have been no Black actors nominated for Oscars in the last two years.
Part of the uproar this year has to do with perceived snubs from last year. The film Selma is often brought up as a film that was snubbed along with its African-American director Ava Duvernay and its Black lead actor David Oyelowo. The thing that people tend to overlook is that yes, Duvernay and Oyolowo weren't nominated last year, but the film Selma was nominated for Best Picture and won an Oscar for Best Original Song.
Duvernay is a gifted director, and her work on Selma is admirable, but her not being nominated is far from a grievous slight. Selma is Duvernay's first major feature film, and if history is a guide, the Academy needs to be strongly convinced to give any first time director a nomination. It isn't impossible, but it is rare. For instance, John Singleton, an African-American man, was the youngest person ever nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay for his first feature Boyz in The Hood. Selma is a good movie, but I think we can all agree that it is no Boyz in the Hood. And just to put the Academy's reluctance to embrace directors early in their careers into perspective, consider that Martin Scorsese, maybe the greatest American film director, was not even nominated for his fifth feature film Taxi Driver, one of the most iconic films in american cinematic history. In fact, the Academy didn't nominate Scorsese for Best Director until his seventh feature, Raging Bull, and it took the Academy another 30 years after Taxi Driver to finally give Scorsese an Oscar win with his Best Director award for The Departed.
Oyolowo was in a similar boat, as he was relatively unknown to the Academy prior to Selma. His work is terrific in the film, but it isn't transcendent. If Oyolowo had been a more familiar face to the Academy I believe he would have been nominated for Selma. If Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle or Jamie Foxx gave that same exact performance they would have been nominated because the Academy knows and trusts them and their work. Not nominating Oyolowo and Duvernay is not a decision based on racism, but on typical Academy trends and politics. Which leads us to Oscars General Rule #1 : Except in the most rare of occasions and with the most transcendent performances, the Academy votes for talent with whom they are very familiar.
Before going any further, we should try and define what exactly is the purpose of the Academy Awards. Historically, the goal of the Academy when giving out awards to is try and the thread the needle between commerce and art. It wants to reward 'prestige' films which are close enough to the mainstream that they are financially viable yet have artistic merit to them. The Academy wants people to tune in to their awards show, so they nominate films that people have heard of with famous actors in them, but that are not seen as pure popcorn, money making enterprises. I reek of the art house, so for my taste the Academy leans much too far towards commerce, but to the general public they probably lean much to far towards art with their awards. Regardless, this is what the Academy is trying to do. With all of that said, let's take a closer look at this year's controversy.
The purported snubbing of Black actors at this years Oscars has a very simple premise to it, that there are Black actors who gave better performances this year than the White actors nominated. So let's examine the performances most mentioned when discussing the Oscar snubs of this year and see if this premise could be a valid one.
GUESS WHO'S NOT COMING TO DINNER?
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON
The first film mentioned is almost always Straight Outta Compton, the bio-pic of the famous rap group N.W.A. and their rise to fame, and their struggles once they got there. The film was very successful, making $200 million at the box office from a $28 million budget. Which brings us to… Oscars General Rule #2 : Box office success does not guarantee a film is great, or even good, and it certainly doesn't guarantee Oscar nominations. For instance, Star Wars : The Force Awakens, has made a billion dollars this past year but received no nominations. Sometimes films that are extremely financially successful do get nominations, Titanic for example, but that is not always the case.
Straight Outta Compton is, in my professional opinion and to my terrible disappointment as a fan of N.W.A., not a great movie. It is a pretty standard, paint by numbers, musical bio-pic. It is not very compelling, it looks flat visually, and it has major pacing, performance and narrative issues. The thing that stands out the most to me about the film is how relentlessly safe it is, in structure and in execution. The fact that in reality, N.W.A. was so successful because they were deemed to be so "dangerous" and hard only heightens how flaccid and impotent the film really was. If you are someone who really loved the film and think it deserves an Oscar nomination, I would tell you that I believe that you are seeing the film you wanted to see and not the film that actually was.
In addition, there is not a single standout performance from any of the actors. Yes, the actors looked like the people they were playing, but none of the actors are even remotely good at actually, you know…acting. There is a lot of posing and preening, but there are no genuine human moments in the entire film. The acting performances are incredibly shallow and hollow, it is almost like watching someone trying to act someone who is trying to act. Giving an acting Oscar nomination to any of the cast would be the equivalent of nominating an Elvis impersonator.
Musical bio-pics of iconic bands like N.W.A. are not usually heartily embraced by the Academy. A perfect example is Oliver Stone's The Doors from 1991. Just like Straight Outta Compton, The Doors tells the story of a revolutionary American band from its start to finish and all the turmoil in between. Both films were made about twenty years after their musical subjects broke up and/or died. Unlike Straight Outta Compton though, The Doors had a two-time Oscar winning director at the helm, Oliver Stone, and had a universally praised, dynamic performance from its lead actor, Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison. Unlike Oliver Stone, Straight Outta Compton director F. Gary Gray has had basically a journeyman's career with no track record for successful dramatic and artistically relevant films. Unlike Val Kilmer in The Doors, Straight Outta Compton has no well known lead actors and none of them give performances that would rank up there with Kilmer's Morrison. The Academy gave no nominations to The Doors film, its director Stone or its lead actor Kilmer. Like many people, the Academy didn't like The Doors, and like many people, they didn't love Straight Outta Compton either.
One thing to point out is that Straight Outta Compton, like Selma, was not entirely overlooked by the Academy, but rather got a nomination for Best Screenplay. The problem for many though is that the writers of the film were White and not Black. #OscarsSoWhite have used this as proof that the Academy is racist as it shows they only reward White artists and not Black ones. This is just a short cut to thinking. I guarantee you that Academy members had no idea what color the writers of Straight Outta Compton were and just threw the unworthy film a bone in the form of a screenplay nomination in order to NOT be perceived as being racist. Straight Outta Compton doesn't deserve a screenplay nomination, but the fact that people use this one nomination as proof of racism is the height of absurdity. One question that maybe the #OscarsSoWhite people should be asking as opposed to why the Academy only nominated the White writers, is why did Ice Cube hire White writers instead of Black writers to write his film? Could it be that Ice Cube just wanted the best writers he could get at the price he was willing to pay, and these White writers filled the bill? Is Ice Cube racist because he hired White people to write his film? The answer to that is obvious.
WILL SMITH : PARENTS JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND
Another actor often brought up as being rebuffed by the Academy is Will Smith for his performance in the film Concussion. Again, this is quite a stretch in searching for proof of racially biased snubs. Will Smith is, or was at one time, a giant movie star, but he is not now nor has he ever been a great actor. If Will Smith had made Concussion fifteen years ago, he would have been nominated, because he was, at that time, at the height of his career. Which bring us to…General Oscars Rule #3 : The Academy rewards big money-making movie stars for taking chances on prestige films, hence Smith being nominated for Michael Mann's Ali and for his work in The Pursuit of Happyness. It would be an error to conclude that Smith gave great performances in those films because he was nominated, he didn't. He was very average in The Pursuit of Happyness and he was not good at all in Ali, but the Academy rewards people who make them a lot of money, and Will Smith made a helluva lot of people a helluva lot of money, so he was rewarded by the Academy for taking the chance on those two prestige-type films. For an example of the Academy rewarding a movie star with a nomination, look back to Harrison Ford, the box office champ of all time with the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, and his lone nomination for Witness. Ford wasn't great in Witness, but he had made people tons of money, so the Academy rewarded him for that. Ford tried his hand at other 'prestige' type films, Mosquito Coast and Regarding Henry as two examples, and his work was ignored by the Academy both times.
It is also mildly amusing that Smith and N.W.A. should be brought up in the same Oscar discussion as they are polar opposites in regard to their rap music ability and credibility. Will Smith got into the music and film businesses in order to get rich and famous, not to express his artistic self like N.W.A., this is painfully obvious by the choices he made. His rap career was the worst, most cringe worthy attempt to appeal to as large an audience as possible. Remember "Parents Just Don't Understand"? In contrast to N.W.A.'s body of work, and Dr. Dre and Ice Cube's post-N.W.A. work, Smith is a laughably soft and weak rapper. His acting career has been equally tepid and just as pandering. Remember "The Fresh Prince"or the calculatingly formulaic Bad Boys, Men in Black, Independence Day and Wild, Wild, West? Smith has succeeded not by being great at anything he attempted, be it rapping or acting, for he is mind numbingly average at both, but by being an extremely appealing presence and a genuinely likable guy. Being so likable and enriching so many people is how he got nominated for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness. For Smith to feel slighted that he is not getting his artistic due with his lackluster performance in Concussion is beyond a ludicrous.
Which brings us to Creed. There has been much angst that Sylvester Stallone (who is White) was nominated for his role in the 6th Rocky movie but that Michael B. Jordan (who is African-American) was not nominated. Again, this has nothing to do with race. Michael B. Jordan is a terrific young actor, with a great chance at a bevy of Oscar nominations in his future. The reality is that Creed is nowhere near an Oscar worthy film either, but that it is perceived to be Stallone's swan song. It might not actually be his swan song, and the Academy might be getting head faked by the Lazarus-esque Italian Stallion, but the Academy wanted to reward him for his long career and to let walk him off into the sunset a winner (much like they have done with Clint Eastwood…on numerous occasions). Stallone was rewarded for Creed not because he was great in it, but because he, and the film, were 'good enough' given the low expectations they had going in, to give him a pass.
Which brings us to General Oscars Rule #4 :The Academy eventually rewards actors for their long careers and for making a lot of people a lot of money over the course of their careers. Look, God knows Stallone is no Marlon Brando, but he has made people very rich with not only his Rocky movies but with Rambo and all his other films. The question could be raised, if the Academy is rewarding Stallone for all the money he's made people, why not reward Will Smith too? Well, the biggest issue here is not race, but age. Will Smith needs to be around for another two decades or so before the Academy will contemplate giving him what they are giving Stallone, which really amounts to a lifetime achievement type of Oscar nomination. In other words, it simply isn't Will Smith's time yet.
Michael B. Jordan has a truly fantastic career ahead of him, but Creed is the 6th Rocky movie and isn't exactly a prestige film. It was perceived as a money grab to make one more Rocky movie, but the film was better than expected, which doesn't make it great, it just makes it not awful. This is not a reason to nominate the film or Jordan. The same can be said of director Ryan Coogler, who has a very bright future ahead of him as well, but a Rocky sequel is not the place to cry foul on not getting an Oscar nomination.
SAMUEL L. JACKSON
Samuel L. Jackson has also been mentioned as being snubbed for his work in The Hateful Eight. Samuel Jackson has done some remarkable work in his career, but The Hateful Eight is not one of his better performances. It is very derivative of his other, better work (from Pulp Fiction for instance, where he was nominated), and the fact that the film is a lesser outing from Quentin Tarantino doesn't help his argument either.
I would argue that Jackson has lost out on nominations before, most notably in Tarantino's Django Unchained and in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, but I don't believe those lack of nominations were the result of racial bias, just a weak-kneed, poor taste in film by the Academy.
BEASTS OF NO NATION
The performance by a black actor that I think should have been nominate this year, but wasn't, is Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation. I believe the film, it's young Ghanaian-born lead actor Abraham Atta, and Idris Elba all deserved Oscar nominations. Beasts of No Nation, Atta and Elba were not overlooked because of racism, but because of the insidious arrogance of the film business. Beasts of No Nation was distributed by Netflix and because Netflix skirted some arrangements with movie theaters, it was only shown in very limited release in theaters. It was available immediately on Netflix though. The Academy still hasn't wrapped their head around Netflix and looks at Beasts of No Nation as some sort of hybrid film/tv project. Which brings us to… General Oscars Rule #5 : The Academy only respects film, not tv. Thus Beasts of No Nation was in an industry no man's land and the film, Elba's and Atta's performances were lost to the Academy voters. This is a terrible oversight but not a racially motivated one.
WHO SHOULDN'T BE NOMINATED?
When #OscarsSoWhite talk publicly about the racism in the Academy and this year's lack of Black actors, one thing remains elusive but very important, namely, what White actors who were nominated shouldn't have been nominated. If the #OscarsSoWhite people are going to accuse Academy members of being racist and nominating people based on race, why wouldn't the #OscarsSoWhite people have the courage to say what actors they think should not have been nominated? This is a pretty important point that no one seems to want to bring up.
Who should Will Smith replace on the Best Actor list? Michael Fassbender? Leonardo DiCaprio? Eddie Redmayne? What about Samuel L. Jackson? Should he replace Matt Damon? Or Bryan Cranston? There are arguments to be made, but #OscarsSoWhite has to have the courage to actually make them. They can't say one person deserves a nomination without implying another person doesn't deserve it, so they should have the intestinal fortitude to tell us who they would throw out.
Since I am asking people to say who should NOT be nominated, I will go first. This year I think Abraham Atta from Beasts of No Nation should, without question, be nominated for Best Actor over Bryan Cranston of Trumbo. Trumbo is a dreadful film and Cranston is awful in it. I would also have nominated Idrs Elba of Beasts of No Nation over Sylvester Stallone from Creed. As previously stated, there are reasons that have nothing to do with race as to why Stallone and Cranston were nominated this year over Atta and Elba. The first reason is (General Oscars Rule #5) the Academy's issue with the releasing of the film through Netflix and not into theaters. The other reasons are that (General Oscars Rule #1) Atta is a total unknown and Bryan Cranston is a beloved actor in Hollywood for his previous work. Elba being overlooked has to do with the Netflix issue (General Oscars Rule #5) and with the Academy rewarding Stallone for his long and prosperous career (General Oscars Rule #4).
A final note about snubs in general. Snubs happen every year to all sorts of actors. great actors get snubbed one year when they deserve a win, and then get an award another year when they don't. The Academy is slow to reward fresh talent, and quick to give make-up awards. For instance, Denzel Washington should have won a Best Actor Oscar for his tremendous work in Malcolm X. While Denzel was nominated he ended up losing the award to Al Pacino for his work in Scent of a Woman. Denzel deserved the win, but Pacino got the trophy. This was not due to racism, it was because of the fact that the Academy had overlooked Pacino's stellar work earlier in his career. Which brings us to General Oscars Rule #6 : The Academy makes up for most of their very stupid mistakes over time. So in this case, Pacino, who didn't win for his unbelievably great work two decades earlier in The Godfather and Godfather II, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, finally got his award for a less than stellar performance in Scent of a Woman. Denzel was overlooked for his remarkable work in Malcolm X, but a decade later got his Best Actor Oscar for a good but not great (by his lofty standards) performance in Training Day. Another example of this rule in action is that in 1990 Martin Scorsese was nominated but did not win for Best Director for his time-less classic Goodfellas. Instead the Academy gave the Best Director award to…GULP…Kevin Costner for Dances With Wolves. This is maybe the most egregious and embarrassing of idiotic mistakes the Academy has made in recent history. But, a decade and a half later, the Academy made it "right" by awarding Scorsese a Best Director Oscar for his rather underwhelming work on The Departed. The Academy can be pretty maddening in its choices, and slow to recognize true genius but…this is how the Academy works, and as Denzel Washington and Martin Scorsese and Al Pacino can attest, it works this way regardless of race.
DEMOGRAPHICS AS DESTINY?
African-Americans have long been a marginalized minority group here in America. Black history is littered with one heinous struggle after another, from slavery to Jim Crow to civil rights and beyond. The African-American community's perception of racially motivated slights, or outright racism, is strongly grounded in historical precedence, so one can't blame that community's thought from taking the shape of a hammer and seeing every problem as the nail of racism. In the case of the Academy Awards though, that perception does not perfectly align with reality.
According to the US Census, in 2014 African-Americans made up 13.2% of the general population of the United States, and, rather interestingly, according to a 2014 study by the Motion Picture Association of America, they made up 12% of the movie ticket buying population. In contrast, Latinos only made up 17.4% of the general population but 23% of the movie ticket buying population. Asians/others made up 8% of the general population and 11% of the movie ticket buying population. Non-hispanic Whites made up 62.1 % of the general population (not to be confused with European-Americans, who make up 72.4% of population) but only made up 54% of the movie ticket buying population. What does this have to do with Oscar snubs and potential racism? A closer look at Oscar history and statistics reveals that the Academy's choices may not be as racially biased as some perceive them to be.
In the last 30 years, since 1986, there have been 120 Oscar winners in the acting categories, and there have been 12 Black actors who have won Oscars. Which means that 10% of all acting Oscar winners have been Black, which is 24% below the percentage of African-Americans in the general U.S. population and 17% below their percentage in the movie ticket buying population.
An even closer look at this 10% number shows us that while it is roughly 24% below the national population percentage of African-Americans, it is actually above the percentage of the African-American population in the state of California where the film industry is centered and one can assume it is also where the majority of the Academy members either live or have lived. In California, African-Americans make up 7% of the general population, and more specifically to the movie industry, in Los Angeles County make up 8.7% of the general population. Even more specifically to Hollywood, African-Americans make up 9.6% of the general population of the city of Los Angeles. So, the 10% win rate of Oscars for Black actors mirrors back to Academy members almost exactly the general population of the city in which most of them have lived and worked.
Another number of interest is the population of english speaking countries with vibrant film industries, as those countries would more than likely have members in the Academy. So if you add up the total populations of the U.S., U.K., Australia, and Ireland, the Black population combined comes to 9% of the total overall population in those countries. Meaning that according to this metric, Black actors are over-represented by 10% in Oscar wins over the last thirty years. If you add Canada's total population to the U.S., U.K., Australia and Ireland grouping, and add Canada's black population to those countries Black population, the numbers turn out exactly the same, with the Black population being 9% of the overall population. If you reduce the metric to just the U.S. and Canada's populations together, then their overall Black population is 10.9%, showing a small under-representation in terms of Black actor Oscar wins.
When you expand the numbers over the last thirty years to look at Oscar acting nominations and not just wins, the numbers thin, as there have been 600 acting nominees since 1986 and 44 of them have been Black. That is 7.3% of the nominees, which is slightly higher than the percentage of African-Americans living in California, and slightly lower than the Black population in Los Angeles, L.A. county and in the general population of the U.S., U.K., Ireland and Australia combined.
If you look at Oscar nominations and wins over the last twenty years (1996-2015), Black actors have been nominated 33 times out of 400 nominations and have won 10 Acting Oscars out of 80. That means from 1996 to 2015 (the Oscar ceremony is in February but it awards films from 2015), Black actors have a nomination rate of 8.25% and an Oscar win rate of 12.5%. The win rate is a 25% increase from the thirty year rate (10%) and gives Black actors 24% wins over their population rate in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Ireland and Australia. The 12.5% win rate is also 4% higher than the Black percentage of the movie ticket buying population. The nomination rate has increased 11.5% from the thirty year rate and has reduced Black actor under-representation in nominations from the thirty year mark of 19% to 8.3%.
If you look at the last ten years, 2006-2015, Black actors were nominated for Oscars 18 times out of 200 nominations, and won 5 Oscars out of 40. The ten year nomination rate is 9% and the win rate is 12.5%. Compared to the twenty year rates, the nominations have increased by 5.8%, and the win rate has stayed exactly the same. The win rate of 12.5% is still 24% higher than the Black percentage of population in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Ireland and Australia and 4% higher than the movie ticket buying population in the U.S.. The nomination rate is exactly the same as the population rate of Blacks in the U.S., Canada, U.K. Ireland and Australia general population combined. This is a pretty fascinating statistic.
Another argument by the #OscarsSoWhite movement is that Black actors are under-represented in the casting of roles, so they have fewer opportunities to be nominated for Oscars. According to a study by the Annenberg Center for Communications and Journalism, this is simply not the case. Black actors were cast at a rate of 12.6% from 2007 to 2013 (the last year of the study) which is exactly proportional to their percentage of the U.S. population in the 2010 Census, which is 12.6%. When you expand the casting rate of Black actors to the wider english speaking film industry, they are over-represented by 28.5% in proportion to their 9% population percentage in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Ireland, and Australia over that same time period.
According to the Screen Actors Guild, Black actors are 12% of their membership, which is roughly equivalent to their percentage of the U.S. population in the 2010 Census, and to their Oscar win rate percentage over the last twenty years. Another SAG study from 2007-2008 (the most recent year that study results are available) shows that Black actors are slightly over-represented in casting of film/TV roles, snagging 14.8% of total roles. Black actors were cast in 13.2% of lead roles and 16% of supporting roles. Black actors being cast in 14.8% of total roles is 10.8% higher than the black percentage of the U.S. general population and 19% higher than the Black actor percentage of the Screen Actors Guild population. Also, it is 39% higher than the Black percentage of the U.S., Canada, U.K., Ireland and Australia general population. Black actors being cast in 13.2% of leading roles is perfectly in line with the Black percentage of the U.S. population, which according to the U.S. Census information from 2014 is 13.2%.
In addition, the Economist Magazine did their own study and found that Black actors get 9% of the top roles in films (they define "top roles" as the top three names on the cast list at IMDB, in films with a 7.5 rating or higher, an American box office gross of at least $10M, and which were neither animated nor foreign-language). Interestingly enough, The Economist claims this shows that Black actors are under-reopresented in "top roles" as compared to the U.S. population, but what it really shows is that The Economist misinterprets their own study by ignoring the vital data of the populations of Canada, U.K., Ireland and Australia in addition to the U.S.
A QUICK REVIEW
A quick review shows a steady progress for Black actors over the last thirty years in regards to Oscar nominations and wins. The Oscar nomination rate has gone from 7.3% (30 yrs.) to 8.25% (20 yrs.) to 9% (10 yrs.). The Oscar win rate for Black actors has gone from 10% (30 yrs.) to 12.5% (20 yrs.) and held steady at 12.5% (10 years). This seems to be in stark contrast to the claims made by the #OscarsSoWhite people.
The statistics also show that Black actors were cast in roles from 2007-2013 at a rate of 12.6% which is in identical proportion to the black percentage of the general U.S. population over that same time period (2010 Census: 12.6% African-American population percentage). The numbers also show that Black actors are cast in "top roles" 9% of the time, which is in direct proportion to their 9% population rate in the wider english speaking film industry nations of the U.S., Canada, U.K., Ireland and Australia.
PERCEPTION AND REALITY
As the statistic show, Black acting Oscar winners are under-represented when compared to the African-American population in the U.S. but are slightly over-represented in regards to the wider english speaking industry, and are right in line with or slightly higher than the African-American population in California, L.A. and L.A. County. But the perception remains that somehow they are dramatically and unfairly under-represented, why is that? I think part of the answer to that question is that Black people are massively over-represented in other media and entertainment fields when compared to the general U.S. population. For instance, on the Forbes list of the most powerful people in entertainment, seven of the top ten people on the list are Black. That is pretty extraordinary considering it is 6 times greater than the African-American representation in the general U.S. population.
The same can be said of the Black percentage of players in professional sport. 74.4.% of all NBA players are Black as opposed to the 23% that are White. That means that Black players in the NBA are over-represnted by roughly 82% when compared to their general population percentage in the U.S. 68% of all NFL players are Black as compared to the 28% who are White, which means Black NFL players are over-represented by 80.5% in relation to their percentage of the U.S. population. These numbers are wildly out of sync with the general population numbers and can give a distorted perception of the demographic reality of the Black population here in the U.S.
Adding together the inordinate amount of Black entertainers at the top of their fields and Black athletes populating professional sports, it is easy to see where the perception of racism in regards to the Oscars can take shape. By awarding only 10%-12.5% of the acting awards to Black actors, the Oscars seem to fall horrendously short in recognizing Black people when compared to other areas of public life. But the reality is that the Oscars aren't greatly under-representing Black artists, but rather that the other areas, be they music, TV or sport, dramatically over-represent Black people.
The movie business is a business and so these demographic numbers tell us the real story. Racism isn't behind the Academy or the industry and their relationship to blacks, but money is. Blacks make up 13.2% of the U.S. population and 12% movie going population, but according to the MPAA study they only make up 10% of the multiple movie going population (people who see more than one film in a theatre in a given year). In purely business terms, the Black audience is stagnant at best and at worst, shrinking. So not trying to appease or chase the Black audience is not about racism, but it is about the bottom line. Add to these numbers the perceived reluctance of foreign markets, particularly the Chinese market, the holy grail of every studio executive in Hollywood, to embrace Black actors (whether this perception is based on facts is a discussion for another day, but I find it dubious), and you have a recipe for the Black minority to be even more marginalized by Hollywood than they are by their demographic reality in America. Hollywood may be a lot of things, but the one thing it is without question…is a cut-throat, bottom line business. The powers that be in Hollywood do care a great deal about color, but that color is green.
This may not be a pleasant reality, but it is the reality. It is easier to be emotionally swayed to accuse the Academy and film industry as being "racist" rather than actually looking at and digesting the facts and figures. Black actors are being treated and rewarded right in line with their perceived economic usefulness to the film industry's money lusting overlords. You can rightly blame capitalism, corporatism, globalization or demographics, but you'd be unwise to blame racism, because then you'd be ignoring reality, no matter how cold and hard it may be.
A DRY WHITE SEASON
If, as the #OscarsSoWhite people seem to be arguing, you believe that the racial breakdown of the U.S. population should be mirrored by Oscar nominations and wins, then there is another group of people who are under-represented in Acting Oscar nominations and wins over the last thirty years….White Americans. Since 1986, there have been 362 nominations for White American actors, which is a percentage rate of 60%. White American actors have won acting Oscars 65 times in this same time period which means they win 54% of the time. Non-hispanic White Americans are 62% of the general U.S. population, which means that White American actors are under-represented in nominations by 3.2%. If you also include Canada in with the U.S., the amount of under-representation slightly grows, as the White population is 67% in the combined countries and the Oscar nomination and win rate stay the same, meaning American/Canadian Whites are under-represented by 10.4% in nominations and 19.4% in wins.
Over the last twenty years White-American actors have a 56.75% nomination rate (227 nominations out of 400) and a win rate of 42.5% (34 wins out of 80). This means that White-American actors are under-represented over the last twenty years by roughly 8.5% in nominations and roughly 31.5% in wins when compared to the White population percentage in the U.S.
Over the last ten years, White-American actors have a 65% nomination rate (144 out of 220) and a 37.5% Oscar win rate (15 out of 40). This means that White-American actors are over-represented over the last ten years by roughly 5% in nominations and under-represented over the same time period by roughly 40% in Oscar wins when compared to the percentage of Whites in the general population of the U.S..
When you take nationality out of the analysis, things get even more interesting. If you combine all of the White American actors and the white Canadian, British, Irish and Australian actors to have been nominated in the last thirty years, it comes to 520 nominations. 520 nominations is 86% of all of the acting nominations and the white populations 96 wins are 80% of all Oscar wins over this same thirty year time period. This seems to back up the argument that White actors, regardless of nationality, are massively over-represented. The White population of the U.S., Canada, U.K., Ireland and Australia is 66% of the overall population of those countries combined. Which means that White english speaking actors are over-represented by 17.5% in Oscar wins and 23% in Oscar nominations. Although, if you only count the White and Black populations, and eliminate all other races and ethnicities, in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Ireland and Australia, then things align a bit more in that Whites make up 87.4% of the population and have been awarded 86% of acting Oscar nominations and 80% of wins, and Blacks make up 12.6% of that population and have been awarded 10% of acting Oscar wins and 7.3% of nominations over the same time period.
While this proves that U.S., Canada, U.K., Irish and Australian White actors are over-represented in regards to the total population, our earlier analysis shows that this over-representation does not come at the detriment of Black actors. So who is getting left out and why?
THE SILENT MINORITIES : LATINOS AND ASIANS
In terms of America, the answer is pretty obvious, Latinos are dramatically under-represented in the acting categories in relation to their percentage of the U.S. general population. As previously stated, Latinos make up 17.4% of the U.S. general population, but with just 5 acting nominations in the last 30 years, make up .008% of the nominated actors. The only Latino American actors to have ever been nominated are Edwards James Olmos (Best Actor), Andy Gracia (Best Supporting Actor), Benicio del Toro (two Best Supporting Actor nominations), and Rosie Perez (Best Supporting Actress). Del Toro represents the lone Latino American acting Oscar win for his work in Traffic, which brings the Latino American win rate to .008%. Even when taking into account the expansion of the Latino population in America over the last thirty years, this statistic is pretty shocking and oddly consistent.
If you expand the search criteria to actors who speak Spanish as a primary language then the numbers mildly soften. There have been 11 actors nominated from majority Spanish speaking countries over the last 30 years, with 5 nominations coming from Spain, 3 from Mexico, 2 from Argentina and 1 from Columbia. There is only one win, that being Spaniard Penelope Cruz for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The percentage of nominations for Hispanic/Latino/Spanish speaking actors over the last thirty years is roughly .027%. The percentage of wins is roughly .017%. Even if you expand the U.S. Latino population into the "English Speaking, vibrant film industry" countries of the U.S., U.K., Ireland and Australia, the U.S. Latino population is still 3.5%, well above their Oscar nomination and win rate.
Another group of people seriously under-represented in Acting Oscar nominations and wins are Asians-Americans. Asians make up 6% of the U.S. population, yet an Asian-American actor has not been nominated at all in the last thirty years. When you expand the search to Asians across the globe, there have been just two nominations, one best Supporting Actor nod for Japanese actor Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai and a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Japanese actress Rinko Kakuchi for Babel. That equals a .002% rate for Asian nominations and a 0.0% win rate over the last thirty years, both of which are obviously drastically below the Asian-American U.S. population percentage and so small as to nearly incalculable in regards to the global Asian population.
If we are trying to understand why the Latino and Asian communities are under-represented, we have to make a bunch of assumptions that I don't have the data to confirm or deny. The main assumption is that language is a big barrier to foreign-born Latino and Asian actors. Acting in your primary language is one thing, but the difficulty of acting in a second language cannot be over estimated. Knowing how to speak a language is one thing, and knowing the rhythms, nuances and intricacies of it are entirely another. Also, the Academy is more likely than not, made up of english speakers, so films in foreign languages may get less of a viewing opportunity from members who don't want to read subtitles, and the subtlety of performances may be lost to those not fluent in the language being spoken on screen. Those may be some of the reasons why Latino and Asian actors are so under-represented, but frankly, this argument holds little to no water in regards to Asian-Americans and Latino-Americans, as it assumes that Latino-Americans or Asian-Americans are recent immigrants who are not entirely assimilated into the culture and language, which based on my own personal experience, is an extremely weak premise at best and totally absurd at worst.
It should be noted though that Japan, China, Korea and India all have thriving film industries in their own right, so there would be less of a pressing want or need for success in Hollywood coming from those areas. That said, Asian and Latino directors have still found some success in the Academy where Asian and Latino actors have not. In fact, the last three Best Director Oscar winners have been Latino or Asian, with Mexican directors Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Innaritu winning in 2013 and 2014 respectively and Taiwanese director Ang Lee winning his second Best Director Oscar in 2012. Innaritu is nominated again this year for The Revenant (his third Best Director nomination) and may be a favorite to win the award. The relative success of Latino and Asian filmmakers in recent years is a positive for the film industry and for diversity of artistic vision, even if it hasn't yet translated into more Asian and Latino actors gracing our movie screens.
In looking at the numbers what strikes me the most is that people like Jada Pinkett-Smith, Spike Lee and the #OscarsSoWhite movement are mostly directing their outrage at only Black actors being "snubbed" and under-represented and not about Latino and Asian actors being overlooked. I suppose this makes sense in the case of Lee and Pinkett-Smith since both are African-American. In contrast, what is fascinating to me is that the Latino and Asian communities are not up in arms and claiming racism over their obvious exclusion from the Academy Awards like the Black community has been. Why that is I don't know, but it is very striking nonetheless since the Asian and Latino communities have a much more solid argument. There is a much more compelling case to be made for Benicio del Toro to have been nominated this year for Sicario than there is for any of the previously mentioned Black actors to have been nominated. But the question becomes, was del Toro not nominated because he is Latino? Since Del Toro has been nominated and won an Oscar before, that is a difficult argument to prove.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Which brings us to another uncomfortable question, namely, when race, religion and ethnicity comes up in regards to under-representation, slights and snubs, what group is being over-represented? The "safe" answer is to say "Whites". Of course, not all Whites are the same, or created equal in terms of Hollywood. What does that mean? It means that the thing you aren't supposed to say is something you need to say if you want to have an honest discussion. Namely, that another minority in America, Jews, who make up 1.2% of the general population, are massively over-represented in the film business. This is an easily observable fact. Look at the heads of many of the studios and agencies, Brad Grey at Paramount, Bob Iger at Disney, Michael Lynton at Sony, Les Moonves at CBS/Viacom, Ronald Meyer at Universal, Ari Emanuel at William Morris and Harvey Weinstein at the Weinstein Company, these are just a few of the Jewish movers and shakers in Hollywood.
In regards to Acting Oscar nominations and wins, in just the Best Actor category alone, Jewish actors have won nine times in the last thirty years, for a win rate of 30%, and have been nominated 23 times for a rate of 15.3%. Both the Best Actor win rate and nomination rate are well above the 1.2% Jewish population rate in the U.S. But the question becomes, is that a problem? Is it bad that Jews make up the majority of Hollywood power brokers and a disproportionate amount of Oscar nominees and winners when they are a tiny minority in the population at large? If #OscarsSoWhite thinks Blacks are under-represented than they should have the courage to say that Jews are massively over-represented. This is an extremely uncomfortable topic for obvious historical reasons, but it needs to be brought up if we are saying that the Academy is racist, since the Academy, like Hollywood, is likely populated by many Jews.
In my opinion the answer to the question of Jewish over-representation is…what difference does it make? Just like with Blacks being the overwhelming majority of players in the NBA and NFL, or being 7 of the top 10 most powerful people in entertainment, it is entirely irrelevant. Making it in professional sports requires not only inordinate talent but an immense amount of hard work. So it is with entertainment in general and the film industry in particular. If you succeed in any of these fields it is not because of your race, religion or ethnicity, it is because you are just plain better than the competition and/or have worked harder. In all bottom line businesses, be they sport, entertainment or any other, if you don't get better results than your competition, you won't be around very long. There is no room for ethnic, racial or religious loyalty when victory is the only goal.
Hollywood is an awful, awful place. The film industry is brutal and dehumanizing. Women in particular, of all ethnicities, are treated absolutely atrociously. All people, regardless of color, are seen as little more than opportunities for the powerful to exploit for their own profit. The business is next to impossible to break into, and even when you do break in, you basically have to sell your soul just to get in the room to have the opportunity to audition for a part that might lead to another audition that might lead to another part that might actually get you somewhere. But there is always someone else, someone better looking, someone more interesting, someone better connected, someone 'newer' and 'fresher', or someone just plain better. This is life in Hollywood and entertainment….regardless of color, religion or nationality. The callous gauntlet of Hollywood could not care less about your race, religion or ethnicity, it just wants to know what you can do for it, not what it can do for you.
In the final analysis, the Academy Awards are a pretty ridiculous endeavor, where wealthy, famous and powerful people congratulate one another on how fantastic they think they all are. It is a narcissism measuring contest held by the Narcissism Society of America in the Narcissism Capital of the World (well…it is in the top three with Wall St. and Washington D.C.). The Academy is many things...stupid, sentimental, cowardly, myopic, greedy, but to blindly and emotionally call it racist would be to reduce the power of that charge and diminish the needed impact it would have in areas where the diabolical curse of racism is real and at times deadly. #OscarsSoWhite is a misguided meme that unwittingly endorses emotionalism over rationalism, feelings over reason and a distorted but understandable perception over reality. People would be more accurate, and better served, to say #OscarsSoSHITE than to say #OscarsSoWhite. Regardless, if someone says the Oscars are racist because there are no Black acting nominees this year, be sure to tell them...#DontBelieveTheHype!!!