The Academy Awards have a serious diversity problem

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Filmmaker and director of ‘Selma’, Ava DuVernay.

The nominations for the 87th Academy Awards came out last week. Amongst the deserving successes for films like BirdmanThe Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood, there is a certain noticeable pattern emerging from the nominees in the major categories.

For the first time in almost 20 years every single person nominated in the acting categories is white and – with the exception of French actress Marion Cotillard – is either American or British. (There hasn’t been an all-white nominee list since 1998, and that was the year when the Academy was obviously smoking something funny for giving Shakespeare in Love Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan.) On top of that, all the nominees in the directing and screenwriting categories are male, leaving female artists like Selma’s director Ava DuVernay and Gone Girl’s author/screenwriter Gillian Flynn out of the Oscar race. Furthermore, every film nominated for Best Picture has a male lead, with female-led films like Gone GirlInto the Woods and Wild failing to gain Best Picture nods over more macho films, like Clint Eastwood’s racism-disguised-as-patriotism movie, American Sniper. The lack of diversity in this year’s nominations has left everyone – understandably – very angry and very confused.

You can argue that the Oscars don’t really matter, and in the grand scheme of things, they don’t. But much of what we consume culturally finds itself reflected in our every day lives. The Academy Awards are the biggest and most acclaimed of all the award ceremonies, and have a lasting impact on the careers of winning actors and filmmakers. They have the power to change social issues and to promote artists who strive to make a difference in their work.

Last year, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave was the big winner of the awards season, taking home the statue for Best Picture, along with awards for acting, screenwriting and nominations in technical categories. It seemed like the Academy had finally changed their attitude and wanted to reward important films about social issues.

But this year’s nominations seem to undo all the Academy’s good work from past years, though audience reactions tell a different story. The general population was very aware of the lack of gender and racial diversity in the nominations, leading to the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, which quickly gained momentum on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

People were quick to point out that although all the nominees are deserving in their own right, there were performances as equally impressive and powerful from people of colour (POC). Overlooked performances from David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo in Selma, Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle and Tony Revoli in The Grand Budapest Hotel show that although a movie may be praised and critically acclaimed, that doesn’t necessarily mean that POC will be rewarded.

Over the last decade we have seen many actresses of colour like Lupita Nyong’o, Jennifer Hudson, Halle Berry, Mo’Nique and Octavia Spencer celebrate their well-deserved wins. In 2009, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman finally to win Best Director for her film The Hurt Locker. These wins are important, but there is still a shocking gap in how many women and POC are awarded for their hard work.

Maybe all this isn’t as shocking when you discover whom actually votes for the Academy Awards. There are more than 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and a whopping 94% of them are white. Furthermore, 77% of them are men and their average age is 63.

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Graphic on Diversity at the Oscars Via. Lee & Low Books

There is hope, however, for change in the Academy. In June 2013, Cheryl Boone Isaacs became the first African-American female president of the Academy. She hopes that diversity of nominees will improve, stating the day after this year’s nominations came out, ‘We are very active about increasing diversity throughout the Academy, and recognition of talent, and it will increase.’

The biggest victim of the Academy’s lack of diversity has been the film Selma, a moving biopic about Martin Luther King Jr’s fight to bring the Civil Rights movement to the deeply prejudiced south. It follows the 1965 organisation of a march by Civil Rights activists to the city of Selma, Alabama. The film is directed by Ava DuVernay and produced by Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B.

Since the release of Selma in the US, DuVernay has received praise from both filmgoers and critics alike for her brave and impeccable directing. Furthermore, she became the first woman of colour to ever be nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes.

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Ava DuVernay with stars Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo on the set of ‘Selma’.

Yet, the film only gained two Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Song. DuVernay’s position in the Oscar’s Best Director category was replaced by Bennet Miller, whose film Foxcatcher isn’t even nominated for Best Picture, and the guy who directed The Imitation Game, a movie in which the directing is by far the least exciting/interesting thing about it.

As not only a woman in an industry run in the favour of men, but also a black person in the very white-centric Hollywood, Ava DuVernay’s future after Selma is uncertain without the opportunities the awards season usually brings. Getting her start by working in miscellaneous crew roles on almost 100 films since 2000, she made a name for herself from writing and directing a couple of short films and documentaries, before making independent feature films, I Will Follow (2010) and Middle of Nowhere (2012), with the latter she won the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Without a Best Director nomination, Selma’s chances of going home with the grand prize are very slim, (although famously, Argo won Best Picture in 2012 without director Ben Affleck being nominated). But the real question is, will the anger and backlash towards Selma’s multiple snubs put a dint in the Academy’s reputation, and more importantly, like Cheryl Boone Isaacs said, “increase diversity throughout the Academy”? We can only hope.

So please go see Selma when it comes out in Australia on February 12th. You will not only be supporting a film about crucially important issues regarding racial inequalities which, if Ferguson last year was anything to show for it, still exist today, but you will also be supporting a very talented and underrated female filmmaker.

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Illustration of Ava DuVernay by Jade Bate

This piece was written for and published on Lip Mag.

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