Are the Oscars a glorified white boy's club?

'Selma's' snub on Thursday has sparked the familiar - but still disheartening - outcry that Hollywood has a diversity problem.

 An Oscar statue is seen in Beverly Hills (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Oscar statue is seen in Beverly Hills
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If the Academy Awards are supposed to reflect the cream of the crop of mainstream filmmaking, then British actors (especially those playing scientific geniuses) had a banner year. For people of color? Not so much.
That was the main takeaway after actor Chris Pine, directors JJ Abrams and Alfonso Cuaron announced this year’s nominees on Thursday: white dudes as far as the eye can see.
While Selma snagged a best picture nomination, it was ignored in every other significant category (including actor and director, where a nomination was likely).
It’s a big letdown for those clamoring for a more diverse Hollywood, especially with the announcement coming less then a week after the Golden Globes honored projects about people from a variety of racial, sociological and economic backgrounds.
At the Globes, projects about Dr. Martin Luther King (Selma), the transgender community (Transparent), as well as strong female-driven stories were lauded. But, of course, the Golden Globes honors both film and television. The latter is rapidly becoming a medium where – thanks to Netflix, Amazon and HBO – risky, alternative fare is flourishing.
The Academy Awards’ glaring omission of Selma, the lack of any person of color in the four acting categories, and the directing and writing categories which have men gracing those lists, only reinforces the idea that the Academy Awards are an out-of-touch white boys’ club.
For context, the last time this happened was in 1998, making this year the “whitest” Academy Awards in over 15 years.
Naturally, the outpouring of criticism was inevitable.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Director Spike Lee (who knows quite well what a snub feels like after being overlooked for Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X), spoke out against this year’s crop of nominees.
“Anyone who thinks this year was gonna be like last year is retarded,” said Lee of the 2014 ceremony where 12 Years a Slave walked away with Best Picture.
“There were a lot of black folks up there with 12 Years a Slave, Steve [McQueen], Lupita [Nyong’o], Pharrell. It’s in cycles of every 10 years. Once every 10 years or so I get calls from journalists about how people are finally accepting black films. Before last year, it was the year [in 2002] with Halle Berry, Denzel [Washington], and Sidney Poitier. It’s a 10-year cycle. So I don’t start doing backflips when it happens.”
There is the theory that a late December release and historical inaccuracies prevented Selma from making a bigger showing. However, that didn’t stop American Sniper, which had both factors going against it as well, but still managed to score six nominations.
Many critics point to a generally white, monolithic Academy voting body as part of the problem.
“Why do we elect people who drift toward not the most talented, best and brightest we have in the country?” Director George Lucas mused on CBS This Morning.
“It’s a political campaign. It has nothing to do with artistic endeavor at all.”
On Friday, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs went on the defensive in an AP interview.
“In the last two years, we’ve made greater strides than we ever have in the past toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization through admitting new members and more inclusive classes of members,” said Isaacs – herself an African American woman. “Personally, I would love to see and look forward to see a greater cultural diversity among all our nominees in all of our categories.”
It wasn’t only people of color who weren’t invited to the party. Despite a heavy PR push all awards season, and a Golden Globe and Screen Actor’s Guild nomination, Jennifer Aniston was passed over for her work in Cake.
Jake Gyllenhall and Amy Adams didn’t make the cut, even though they earned rave reviews for their performances in Nightcrawler and Big Eyes respectively.
So while the cast of The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Imitation Game crack open a bottle of champagne, Hollywood should take the time to examine what appears to be a top-down problem when it comes to diversity.
In other words, as long as the decision makers – directors, producers, executives – are predominantly white and male, the work being produced is going to reflect that.
Sure, actors like Denzel Washington and Will Smith get to choose from a variety of projects and, sure, movies like 12 Years a Slave sometimes sweep at the Oscars.
But if Hollywood is honest with itself, it should acknowledge that these are exceptions, not the rule.