The Oscar Nominations Prove the Academy Still Doesn’t Get It

5 minute read

The 2016 Oscar nominations were announced Thursday morning, with critics and moviegoers alike ready to pick apart the Academy’s voting like a bear hungry for Leonardo DiCaprio’s flesh. With Oscar Sunday six weeks away, on Feb. 28, here is the run-down on what the nominations say about the stories we acknowledge and the ones that go unrecognized.

Women of a certain age were, for the most part, conspicuously absent. Charlotte Rampling deservedly snagged a Best Actress nomination for her stirring performance in 45 Years. But when she looks around her come Feb. 28, she will find that she’s only female nominee in her age bracket. The six-week lead-up to the nominations—which consist of critics awards, top-ten lists and SAG and Golden Globe nominations—heard much discussion of the solid performances delivered by Jane Fonda in Youth, Helen Mirren in both Trumbo and Woman in Gold, Lily Tomlin in Grandma, Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van and, to a lesser extent but a favorite of TIME’s film critic Stephanie Zacharek, Blythe Danner in I’ll See You in My Dreams.

Of course, Oscar nominations are based, theoretically, on merit, and not every actress whose work is deemed worthy ends up with a shot at taking home the little gold man. Perhaps the Oscars are looking to reward the next generation of talented actresses—between Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan, Jennifer Lawrence, Alicia Vikander and Rooney Mara, it’s a particularly young field—but the absence of Fonda (78), Tomlin (76), Mirren (70), Smith (81) and Danner (72) seems a suspicious coincidence. Perhaps Rampling, at 69, just made the cut-off.

It was a semi-decent year for women’s stories, but that’s not the same as a good year. Of the eight Best Picture nominees, three are stories about women: Room, Brooklyn and Mad Max: Fury Road. That’s almost half! And it’s more than last year’s zero, and the previous year’s two. Many will be disappointed by the absence of Carol, which rounded up six nominations without eking its way into Director or Best Picture. The same goes for Joy, after David O. Russell’s last three films landed nods. (Though there would have been room for both films in a category that allows up to 10 nominees—and this year numbers only eight—films need to reach a minimum threshold of votes to be included.)

More female-driven movies than last year is nice; not as many as male-driven movies is disappointing. It doesn’t help that only 9 percent of directors of the top 250 films in 2015 were women, or that one third of those 250 films did not employ a single woman as director, writer, producer, editor or cinematographer. (It’s worth pointing out that all five nominees for Best Director are men—in 87 years of Academy Awards, one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has ever won.) All in all, it’s a half-decent year for women, but half-decent isn’t exactly a modifier to aim for. There’s no rule that says the field has to be entirely equitable all down the line. It’ll be nice when we can stop counting.

The field of nominees could literally not be any whiter. Of 20 acting nominations, 20 went to white actors and actresses. Last year Selma director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo weren’t nominated, despite the movie’s inclusion as a Best Picture contender and favorable critical reception. So if this year’s field feels like déjà vu all over again, that’s because there’s virtually no improvement to speak of. The lack of nods to actors of color—and stories about people of color—comes despite Golden Globe nominations for Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation) and Will Smith (Concussion); despite the critical success of Beasts of No Nation, Straight Outta Compton and Creed, not to mention widespread accolades calling the latter’s director, Ryan Coogler, one of the most promising new talents in the industry.

The Academy of Motion Pictures, it’s widely known, is not a diverse body. Based on a 2012 study by the Los Angeles Times, it was 94 percent white and 77 percent male. This fact tends to be, year after year, the one people point to in trying to explain the repeated lack of diversity among nominees. And there’s no lack of psychology studies that show that people tend to hire, stop at crosswalks for and even buy iPhones on eBay from people who look like them. But the problem runs deeper. It’s not just who people with voting power cast their votes for, but who people with access to social and financial capital alike choose to invest in when it comes to financing movies, hiring directors and choosing which stories to champion. The problem starts long before the voting begins.

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