The Nominees and the Noise
Was it racist that Idris Elba wasn't nominated? Or would it have been racist to nominate him?
It's less the Oscar nominations now than the noise surrounding the Oscar nominations.
This year, it's been the outrage of #OscarsSoWhite, led, in my Twitter feed anyway, by Sasha Stone of Awards Daily, who has been one relentless piercing note on the subject, despite being part of a group you might as well tag #CriticsSoWhite. Glass houses, kids.
Here's the issue: For the second year in a row, no person of color has been nominated in any of the acting categories. This used to be a regular thing, then it wasn't, now it is again. Here's the history of African-American acting nominations and wins by decade:
So a big surge in the 2000s, followed by a drop-off. Because of that surge? Who knows? I wouldn't mind a more in-depth discussion of that from an industry insider.
But why am I not more outraged like these other white critics? I don't know. Maybe my outrage meter broke 10 years ago when “Crash” beat “Brokeback Mountain” for best picture. Maybe I assume the worst from the Academy. Maybe I'm not into identity aesthetics. (I'm not into identity aesthetics.)
Or maybe I just don't see the fuss this particular year. Basically I find myself in agreement with Jeff Wells over at Hollywood Elsewhere, who posted a podcast with Sasha and another critic, Erik Anderson, Thursday, adding this on his blog:
Neither Erik nor Sasha would admit that The Revenant is far and way the likeliest winner of the Best Picture Oscar at this stage. Not would they grapple with my riff about current racial profiling gripes (i.e., why no nominations for Straight Outta Compton and Creed?) not being worth discussing except in the case of Beasts of No Nation's Idris Elba, who definitely should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
That's my feeling. Who else should have been nominated? Alyssa Rosenberg over at The Washington Post has a soft piece in which she lists “8 great performances by black actors” without saying if they should have replaced any of the nominated actors, and if so who. The whole piece is the sound of one white woman patting herself on the back. Her choices: Michael B. Jordan (Creed), O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Straight Outta Compton), Abraham Atta (Beasts of No Nation), Jada Pinkett Smith (Magic Mike XXL), Audra McConald (Rikki and the Flash), Adepero Oduye (The Big Short), John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Teyonnah Paris (Chi-Raq).
Some of these are headscratchers. Oduye? She was in the movie for like a New York minute. Pinkett Smith? In that awful film? Rosenberg says Atta was as great as Jacob Tremblay in “Room,” but of course Tremblay didn't get nominated either. (Kids rarely do in lead roles.) Jordan was fine, and if you'd swapped him out with Matt Damon for “The Martian” I wouldn't have blinked; but Damon lost weight for his role, Jordan built up for his. The Academy rewards you for starving yourself rather than working out with a personal trainer.
“Beasts of No Nation” might also have suffered with the Academy because 1) it all-but-premiered on Netflix, giving it a “straight to video” vibe; and 2) it was condemned, in some circles, as racist. On Roger Ebert's site, Matt Zoller Seitz brought up the issue of Hollywood's constant depiction of the monstrous African man. Movie critic Charles Muedede was even more insistent. So nominating Elba might have opened up the Academy to a different charge of racism: that the Academy only recognizes the work of scary black men: Denzel in “Training Day”; Forrest Whitaker in “The King of Scotland.” That can be countered with Jamie Foxx in “Ray” and Morgan Freeman in “Million Dollar Baby,” but it would've been out there. There will always be an outrage.
My outrage, such as it is, is for the number of nominations for “Mad Max,” which, to me, is a two-hour-long chase movie, in which bad, ugly people pursue good, good-looking people, and the good, good-looking people win. Somehow this meant critics awards and 10 nominations.
But mostly I was happy; the Academy recognized some of the best movies I saw in 2015: “The Revenanat,” “The Big Short,” “Spotlight,” and my favorite film, “Theeb,” which became the first movie from Jordan to be nominated in the best foreign language category. It's about a Bedouin boy in the 1910s; it's “Lawrence of Arabia” from a different perspective. Oscars aren't always so white.