The Academy Awards are seen as the pinnacle of all award ceremonies, rewarding excellence in film, and are always surrounded by much excitement and debate. But this year, they were bombarded with a whirlwind of controversy, with accusations branding them as ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’. With these criticisms swirling about, any real discussion of the actual nominees or potential winners was seemingly blown aside. Obviously, the 2016 ceremony has been and gone now, with Leonardo DiCaprio finally grabbing the award he has been so desperate for, but the awards still seem to be shadowed by a dark cloud of criticism for not representing an equal and modern society.
After the nominees were announced, the hashtag ‘OscarsSoWhite’ began to trend on Twitter; 2016 marked the second year in a row in which all nominated actors have been white. Even the Academy’s President, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, stated that she was “heartbroken” by the lack of inclusion of black and female nominees. She then promised drastic changes to the Oscars judging panel, which she believed to be the root of the problem. On this panel, 94% are white, which many have argued to be a potential reason for the lack of inclusion of black actors.
However, it should also be noted that, since the century began, several black actors have won Oscars, including Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Hudson, Denzel Washington and Lupita Nyong’o only two years back. In the 2014 ceremony, 12 Years a Slave dominated, winning Best Picture, and this film had a black director as well as a predominantly black cast. At the 2016 Oscar ceremony, it was Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu who took home the award for Best Director for the second year in a row, perhaps contradicting many of the criticisms the Oscars have faced. He criticised the ‘OscarsSoWhite’ movement, calling it “very polarised” and “very politicised” and saying that we should not be “deciding the destinies of people…by the colour of their skin.” Moreover, although black actors were nominated in other significant awards ceremonies, none received an award, and so perhaps this is an indication that the real problem lies with black actors not getting cast enough in ‘Oscar-worthy’ roles, and perhaps some truth lies with Daily Mail columnist Baz Bamigboye’s opinion that “the movies this year with black actors and black film-makers aren’t of that high quality.”
The Oscars’ long-lasting label of being ‘sexist’ has also been brought to the foreground this year. Only one female has ever won Best Director, and only four females have been nominated for this award, since the Oscars started in 1929. Many blame the fact that only 23% of the Academy Awards’ judging panel is female. Naturally this has caused much controversy over the years.
However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigated the omission of a female director nomination this year and found that, in the top 250 highest grossing films, only 7% had female directors. Therefore, it is clear that it is not necessarily the fault of the Oscars, but more the lack of female directors to nominate.
It is improbable that the controversy of this year’s Oscars will diminish the popularity or significance of the award ceremony in the future. It has, however, made a huge impact and stirred up a lot of strong feelings of how the Oscars did not represent a fair and equal society in their nominations. Although I understand that there are issues with the lack of diversity in their nominations, I feel that a lot of the blame has been unfairly aimed at the Oscars. Their job, after all, is to reward people based on their merit, not to represent an equal society.
Original Illustration by Alex Nutman