One week from today, the #allwhite SAG movie awards will take place at the Shrine. For the film categories that will appear on the Jan. 25 telecast, the actors union managed to nominate not a single black actor in any of its four film acting categories. SAG also didn’t nominate any black performers among the 42 additional actors named as part of its Outstanding Performance By A Cast In A Motion Picture (nominees are Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything).
So that’s a total of 62 performances nominated, all of them white, with the closest thing to any level of diversity being Grand Budapest Hotel co-star and Cast nominee Tony Revolori, a Southern Californian of Guatemalan descent.
Yet did SAG, a union run by white actor Ken Howard, get anywhere near the level of flak and criticism and outrage the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (whose president and public face is a black woman, Cheryl Boone Isaacs) is having to endure for its all-white acting roster this year?
Not a peep as far as I could tell and ironically, the Academy’s list is pretty much the same as SAGs (The Academy doesn’t have a Cast Award). The exceptions were white SAG nominees Jake Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Aniston and Naomi Watts, whom the Academy swapped with three other white actors – Bradley Cooper, Marion Cotillard and Laura Dern.
In fact, if SAG didn’t also have eight TV categories with a tiny handful of black actors, most notably Viola Davis and Cicely Tyson (both past Oscar nominees), the SAG audience could look like it may have the same level of diversity that would be found at a Klan meeting.
This isn’t to knock the Screen Actors Guild, a union that among other things has strong diversity programs for its members. In fact, what a difference a year makes.
In 2013, there were no less than five black acting nominees at SAG. Both Lee Daniels’ The Butler and eventual Best Picture Oscar winner 12 Years A Slave received Outstanding Cast nominations (though American Hustle took the trophy).
In its 21 years of handing out awards, I could count only three previous years in which SAG had an all-white lineup. This is simply to point out that in an awards season that has not had much diversity to tout, it is Oscar’s high profile that made it the punching bag, as usual, for the industry’s broader ills. It seems unfair. This is everybody’s problem. Diversity is a great thing all around – and necessary. And it is not just about one race.
It certainly would be nice to have more women nominees among the screenwriters and directors for instance, but short of a crazy idea like imposing quotas, what can you do? These votes are not made by committee, but a disparate group of industry professionals using secret ballots. That’s very hard to control – or predict.
The Academy has publicly been trying to make strides toward greater diversity with a membership that is in it for life. That’s a tough task. And it is the one group that actually gave Selma, the film at the crux of the complaints of lack of diversity, a prized Best Picture nomination, one of only eight films this year to make that list.
None of the major guilds or BAFTA even gave Selma a mention. On Thursday morning, director Ava Duvernay (among those “snubbed” in other categories) graciously tweeted it was an “Oscar Gift” on MLK’s birthday. Since then, however, many in social media have labelled that nomination (one of two, along with best song) as an act of “tokenism.”
Many in the media did little better, treating the film as if it were completely snubbed, that it got nothing. The phrase ‘Oscar race’ is taking on new meaning.
Last night, Saturday Night Live was even making jokes in this regard. I can think of several other films this year that would kill for that kind of tokenism, including non-nominees such as Unbroken, Into The Woods, Gone Girl, Nightcrawler, Foxcatcher, Interstellar, A Most Violent Year and on and on.
It is ironic that the Academy is being hit so hard on this because that Best Picture nomination is the only one that is voted on by all 6,200 active members of the Academy. The omissions of star David Oyelowo, DuVernay and others came from the individual branches and their guilds.
In fact, going by the usual Oscar nomination indicators for any other film, Selma’s Best Picture Oscar nomination would be looked at as a surprise. Typically, you don’t go through awards season getting support from only the Costume and Makeup Guild, and then go on to snag an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.
That “Oscar Gift,” as DuVernay put it, was from across the board in the Academy, and now it is called “tokenism,” among much worse. Certainly, Paramount is touting it prominently in their ads and it is the one nomination that means something at the box office.
Ironically three of the four nominated Selma producers are white and past Oscar winners – Christian Colson, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner. The fourth is Oprah. Colson won for Slumdog Millionaire, while Gardner and Kleiner both won last year for 12 Years A Slave with Plan B partner Brad Pitt (with director Steve McQueen). No one was complaining about diversity problems when those films triumphed. This seems to be a cyclical problem, and certainly a cultural one.
Would it have been nice to see Oyelowo’s more-than-deserving portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. – the first ever in a major film for the great Civil Rights icon – among the five SAG Best Actor nominees (which didn’t get screeners) or the Oscars (which did). You bet.
But it was perhaps the most competitive year ever in the Best Actor contest. He didn’t make the cut. He probably came close. It happens. Ask Tom Hanks and Robert Redford how it felt last year? Or Gyllenhaal and Timothy Spall how it feels this year. Frankly, I think Chadwick Boseman‘s brilliant turn as James Brown in Get On Up deserved to be in there, too. He wasn’t, but no one seems to be talking about that as a result of the lack of diversity.
It also would have been very nice to see DuVernay become the first African-American woman nominated for directing. Neither the DGA (which also didn’t get screeners) nor the Oscar directing branch (which did) made that happen.
It is those two omissions that specifically seem to have set off the diversity discussion this year. What irks me as a writer, and a former Governor of the TV Academy representing writers, is that no one seems to be complaining – or even mentioning – that Paul Webb, the screenwriter of this very acclaimed film, also was not nominated.
You never hear this guy’s name. He’s invisible. Is it because he doesn’t fit neatly into the scenario the media wants to report? Webb happens to be British and white.
Selma came to life initially because of his script. He started it, but do you ever hear outrage that he wasn’t nominated? Our Variety colleague Peter Bart wrote last week about how the writer is getting ignored more and more in Hollywood. Here’s proof.
True, DuVernay did a re-write on his script – and was denied credit due to Webb’s contractual rights – but it seems when people are talking about snubs, especially on a Best Picture nominee with a 99% fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes, Webb as the sole credited writer, should be at least included. In any other instance, he likely would be.
Bottom line, a Best Picture Academy Award nomination is nothing to brush off, especially in a year where every major guild and BAFTA, usually reliable indicators of industry sentiment in this regard, all ignored Selma. The Academy didn’t.
They are in fact celebrating Selma with their highest honor, yet it is being treated as if they ignored it. Boone Isaacs, reacting to the uproar, told AP on Friday night she is proud of all the nominees but “inspired” to bring more diversity into their ranks. And if the year’s so-called best suffer from a lack of diversity, let’s not use the Academy as the sole poster child, but rather as an opening for the industry to take a long hard look at itself and decide what it wants to be, and how it wants to get there.