The 2015 Oscar nominations were announced recently, and with them came the inevitable hand-wringing that always accompanies news regarding the awards. Many critics cried racism, and the news was generally treated by denizens of the internet as symptomatic of the gross racial inequalities that continue to plague North America and the rest of the world. In one particularly hyperbolic headline, the popular news website Vox declared, “Selma was snubbed because the average Oscar voter is a 63-year-old white man.”
Here’s what actually happened: Selma, a biopic about Martin Luther King, Jr., was nominated for two awards (Best Picture and Best Original Song). While this would be great news for most films, many pundits were expecting additional nominations for director, Ava DuVernay, and lead actor, David Oyelwo. In their places in both categories were groups of entirely white nominees. These facts, combined with the statistics that Academy voters are 94 per cent white, 77 per cent male, and have an average age of 63, were all the evidence Vox cited when it proclaimed its inference.
While such a conclusion would be sensible if one were to look at the situation in a vacuum, such a reading seems incredibly reductive in the context of the rest of this year’s nominations. A film considered by many to have one of the year’s best scripts and widely seen as a frontrunner for the Best Adapted Screenplay category, Gone Girl, wasn’t recognized for its writing. Another film considered by many to be one of the best recent animated films, The Lego Movie, wasn’t nominated in the Best Animated Feature category. My personal choice for the best film of 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy, had to be content with nominations in technical categories.
None of this is to suggest that any of these films should or shouldn’t have been nominated, but rather to show the subjectivity involved in deciding whether one work of art is “better” than another. I was very impressed by the work writer Gillian Flynn produced in adapting her novel Gone Girl for the screen, but I don’t see how one could fairly compare its unique brand of lurid camp to any of the films that did get nominated for their screenplays. Similarly, The Lego Movie’s idiosyncratic combination of self-aware humour aimed at adults and surprisingly moving moments differentiates it entirely from the Best Animated Feature nominees, making it challenging to assess the film in relation to them. As for Guardians, well, I’ve suspected for a while now that I’d just have to learn how to live in a world that wouldn’t grant it Oscar glory.
These examples also prove the inherent absurdity in trying to affix a narrative to a process that’s anything but exact. Yes, many members of the Academy are old white men, which means that they bring a certain perspective to their viewing and assessment, but that still doesn’t explain why they’d snub the script of a film that was seen by many—unfairly, in my opinion, but the point remains valid—as a misogynistic fantasy or a hilarious comedy about plastic toys. Furthermore, it’s not like Academy members form a cabal in which they discuss the best ways they can think of to prevent gender and racial equality: the group consists of a disparate mix of industry professionals who vote based on what they think about what they’ve seen.
The controversy over what recognition Selma did or did not receive distracts from the more pressing issue of Hollywood’s lack of diversity. Sure, it would be nice if the one film nominated for Best Picture with a majority black cast had also received recognition for its black star and black director, but wouldn’t it be even nicer if we didn’t have to place our hopes for equality in the entertainment industry on the shoulders of one film? Between Selma and last year’s Best Picture winner, 12 Years A Slave, the last few years have been an improvement for representations of people of colour in critically acclaimed films, but the still conspicuous lack of diverse casts shows how much work is left to be done. Let’s worry more about doing it than about whether or not films that try to ameliorate the situation are properly recognized for their efforts.