White, caucasian, however you want to call them, the Oscar nominees this year are once again pretty light skinned. Is it a Hollywood conspiracy of 60-something white men in tuxedos? Is it because there aren’t enough talented black actors? Is there something else going on?
Big White Persian Cat
Let’s start at the beginning. Hollywood is not a place of creativity, but of business. Movie studios are in it for the money. The best way to force their hands, make them allow you to try something truly original, is to become a critically acclaimed director. Quentin Tarantino. Christopher Nolan. Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Steven Spielberg. Terry Gilliam. Terrence Malick. J.J. Abrams. Darren Aronofsky. Danny Boyle. Cameron. Kubrick. Woody. Lynch. Coen. They’re making movies (and most importantly, a profit) that people will go and see, no matter who’s in them. But they’re exceptions to the rule, and the way businesses operate is simple. There’s an old guy in a suit, in an office on the top floor, stroking his big white Persian cat on his lap. He’s president of the company, and because he’s a white middle-aged man, it’s easy to predict what his employees look like. And the employees being hired by his employees, and so forth.
Is that racism? That’s not the question you want to ask. People are attracted to other people who look like they do. There’ve been lots of studies that show and explain this, like this one. Attraction, familiarity, trust and being able to quickly assess somebody you’ve just met, are very important elements in establishing friendships, falling in love and also job interviews. The quicker you can read certain people, the bigger chance they’ll have of getting hired by you. So it’s not really a surprise that The Academy is full of people who look like each other and are of about the same age.
If those Academy members vote, it’s also no surprise they’re more inclined to vote for actors (and actresses) who look similar to them. Because, if their skin color, type of hair and even eye color, matches to theirs, it’s easier to identify with the person on screen. It doesn’t mean a white man can’t identify with a black actor, it just means the identification process moves slower and they should be aware of that, so it doesn’t play a role anymore. I think we can all agree that this shouldn’t even be an issue, since members of the Academy shouldn’t vote with their first impulse, but with their professional expertise. It’s about who’s done the better job, although comparing acting performances remains very apples & oranges.
Idris Elba Would’ve Survived Too
The professionalism of The Academy can certainly be disputed. Most members don’t even watch all of the movies on the longlist, and really, do more than a handful of them even know how to judge ‘sound mixing’? Or ‘original song’? You can leave that box empty, I suppose. Anyway, let’s come full circle here. The question is not why actors with a slightly darker skin tone aren’t nominated. It is why weren’t they chosen to star in the movies that were. I’m sure Denzel Washington would’ve done a terrific job, exchanging prisoners during the Cold War, in Bridge of Spies. I’m sure we could’ve left Idris Elba on Mars and he would’ve survived, too, in The Martian. I’m sure Don Cheadle could’ve worn a horse for a coat in The Revenant. I’m sure Ving Rhames could’ve bet against the economy in The Big Short. So why didn’t they? Well, money. Whether it’s true or not, Hollywood is convinced a black leading man doesn’t bring in as much money as a white one.
Compton, Creed, Concussion
So because the studios are hiring people who look similar, and because they prefer white actors for financial reasons, there are two options to bring black actors and directors to the forefront (and into the list of nominees). First: make a damn good movie, and second: get lucky. Straight Outta Compton didn’t. Michael B. Jordan (Creed) didn’t and neither did Will Smith (Concussion). Did Jordan and Smith deserve to be nominated? And whose places would they take? Cranston, Damon, DiCaprio, Fassbender or Redmayne’s? Personally, if I may call upon my own (un)professional expertise, I’d say the Academy nominated the right ones. When it comes to Straight Outta Compton, I don’t get it. There are two spots left open in the Best Picture category, and F. Gary Gray (together with Quentin Tarantino) should’ve been recognized in the Directing category. If I had to guess, the reason why Compton was overlooked (or snubbed), is because most members of the Academy just never saw the film.
Academy president Cheryl Boone has issued a statement this week, saying they’ll shake up the ‘membership recruitment’, to get ‘much-needed diversity’. That sounds like Boone expects new, black members to vote for black actors and directors, doesn’t it? It sounds like voting on impulse, when it should be voting on professionalism (and actually watching the movies, people). The lack of diversity at the Academy and movie studios is a problem, not because of the absence of black Oscar nominees, but because people are attracted to their mirror images and aren’t aware of it. People – especially the ones in positions where they cast and hire people – should be made aware how they’re influenced by their subconscious. It’s only then, when you realize what your decision is based on, that you can change it. Ethnic profiling – which is basically what Boone is planning for the way new members will be recruited in the future – is not the solution. Not including enough diversity isn’t due to racism, it’s due to subconscious illiteracy.