COMMENTARY: Academy Award selections subjective, not racist

With a current controversy in which the Academy Awards is accused of racism, one could ask why we didn’t hear this clamor in 2014 and 2015.

Those were the respective years that “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “Belle” were ignored, with neither film receiving nary an Academy Award nor Golden Globe nomination. The snubs of those two films were arguably more grievous than this year’s slight of Will Smith.

However, Jada Pinkett-Smith’s current advocacy of her husband Will Smith notwithstanding, none of the above slights makes a strong case to reach for the playing deck of race cards.

Will Smith’s outstanding performance in “Concussion” as the forensic pathologist whistleblower was arguably Oscar

Carlos Holmes by .

Carlos Holmes

Best Actor nomination quality. For the record, Smith has been nominated twice for that award for his work in “Ali” and “The Pursuit of Happyness”; in both cases he was beaten out for the awards by African-Americans — Denzel Washington (“Training Day”) and Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”), respectively.

Such omissions bring to mind the distinction between an snub resulting from a competitive field of nominated films and actors, and a case of being ignored as a function of perceived racial bias. A good indicator of which is at play is the strength of nominee group and a thoughtful consideration of their performances and of the films which showcased them.

Smith was simply crowded out of the Oscar Best Actor nominee group — of which Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Revenant”) arguably outdistances the rest of the field. The rest of the nominees — Bryan Cranston (“Trumbo”), Matt Damon (“The Martian”), Michael Fassbender (“Steve Jobs”) and Eddie Redmayne (“The Danish Girl”) — along with the omitted Will Smith, could all be considered at the same level of outstanding acting performance, but yet behind DiCaprio. With respect to the Best Picture category, “Concussion” simply did not rise to the level of nomination recognition.

The 2015 movie season (which is recognized by the 2016 major awards) did not have any other top Academy Award-level films or acting involving people of color outside of Will Smith. Other films such as “Creed,” “Tangerine” and “War Room” were touching and good films, but not great ones. Samuel L. Jackson (“The Hateful Eight”) and Michael B. Jordan (“Creed”) turned in solid performances, but did not rise to the level of Oscar consideration. It should be noted, however, that “Straight Outta Compton” has earned a Best Original Screenplay nomination.

But rewind back to the 2015 Oscars.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw must have been asking “What’s a sister got to do to get a Golden Globe or Oscar nomination?” Not only was her portrayal in “Belle” of an English mixed-race aristocrat outstanding, she also gave an equally poignant performance that same year in a role as a troubled hip-hop artist in “Beyond the Lights.”

Her failure to get a 2015 Oscar Best Actress nomination is all the more perplexing by the wanting strength of the nominated field. While nobody understandably batted an eye over that year’s winner Julianne Moore (“Still Alice”), the rest of the field — Marion Cotillard (“Two Days, One Night”), Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”), Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”) and Reese Witherspoon (“Wild”) — did not rise far above the level of a good performance. Mbatha-Raw’s powerful performance in “Belle” exceeded those of the runners-up and should have vied with Moore for that Oscar.

That slight of “Belle” from the Best Picture nomination group is equally confounding after being passed over in favor of the inclusions of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Boyhood,” “Selma” and most particularly the absurd and confusing winner, “Birdman.”

The difference between the Academy Award nominations of 2016 versus the Oscar nominations for 2014 and 2015 lies in the available choices of projects involving the acting and stories of people of color.

In contrast to the 2016 Oscars, there were more people of color choices for the 2014 and 2015 Oscars and some nominations and winners. While “The Butler” was ignored along with “Fruitvale Station” and “Mandela,” “12 Years a Slave” garnered six major nominations, leading to a Best Picture Oscar and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Lupita Nyong’o.

The year “Belle” was ignored, “Selma” received a Best Picture nomination. Outside of those two films, there were no other projects that year starring people of color that should have risen to the Oscar consideration level.

Other previous years yielded Oscar awardees such as Morgan Freeman, Jamie Foxx, Mo’Nique, Jennifer Hudson, Octavia Spencer and others, as well as some nominations.

The track record over the last 16 years does not point to a racial exclusion conspiracy.

There were more than 110 American movies released in 2015. Only a handful of those films merit consideration where the major cinema awards are concerned; even fewer are nominated. It should be noted that every year there are other quality movies not involving people of color that are also left outside the coveted nominations. Considering the big picture, the nominee selection process is one of subjectivity. While there may be disagreements with the Academy’s nominations, their annual cinematic judgments do not reflect abject racism.

The current controversy is good only if it prompts some thoughtful discussion by folks who back it up with some solid homework. And it should be counted as a positive that the Academy Awards folks recently announced plans to diversify its governing body and voting members. If that commitment becomes a reality, that will make all this fuss over the snub of Will Smith worth it.

However, instead of focusing on the need for affirmative action on the Academy’s part, it is the entire filmmaking industry that needs to improve on the opportunities for people of color — in front of the camera and behind it as well. That has improved somewhat over the years, but it is still not where it should be. Some headway has been made by an increase in people of color who are financing and directing their own films. This not only needs to continue but should be increased.

In the Oscar report card since 2000, African-Americans and other people of color have been:

• Nominated 14 times for Best Actor and Actress, with four wins (Washington, Berry, Foxx and Whitaker)

• Nominated 15 times for Best Supporting Actor and Actress, with five wins (Freeman, Hudson, Mo’Nique, Spencer and Nyong’o)

• Nominated twice for Best Director, with zero wins. Of those two, British filmmaker Steve McQueen was the first black director earn an Oscar for Best Picture (“12 Years a Slave”).

EDITOR’S NOTE: Carlos Holmes, of North Bowers Beach, is the director of News Services at Delaware State University and a self-professed movie snob.

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