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The State of the Race: How the Five Nomination Ballot Keeps Doors Slammed Shut

You will begin to hear the outrage at yet another year of 20 white actors nominated at the Oscars. This isn’t that surprising for women because there weren’t a lot of films that featured women of color in significant roles. Even if there were, the film critics groups are as culpable as the Academy for making their awards about humping the leg of white power as much as the Academy does. But even the critics, even the Hollywood Foreign Press, even the BAFTA nominated Idris Elba. The Screen Actors Guild nominated both Beasts of No Nation and Straight Outta Compton for its Outstanding Ensemble award. The Producers Guild nominated Straight Outta Compton, as did the Writers Guild and the American Film Institute. It’s when you get to the power center of Hollywood — the people who are supposed to matter most — that you see those doors, year after year, slammed shut.

In a year where Ryan Coogler altered and enhanced the public conversation by showing us what the Rocky legacy means to him, and then handing it over to the black community to announce their unappreciated power by owning the boxing movie and lifting it aloft to $105 million in 6 weeks. In a year where Straight Outta Compton made $160 million dollars and vividly illustrated the important story of the origins of the hip-hop movement. In a year where Cary Fukunaga made a masterpiece that no one in corner offices would touch because they wrongly thought America couldn’t handle it, and then it was branded with “Netflix” and oh, that’s “television.” And again, this wasn’t SAG; this wasn’t the Spirit Awards — this is all on the Academy.

This comes at a time when American culture couldn’t be evolving more powerfully in the opposite direction. The Black Lives Matter movement has forced the white-dominated country to listen to them, to see them, to count their existence as having equal importance. It’s an era where black men are routinely killed by cops for no particular reason, (an era that’s existed for 150 years but we finally have video evidence that can’t be unseen), and an era where an out-and-out racist and probable fascist is dominating the conservative presidential polls. For the Academy to turn its nose up at these groundbreaking black filmmakers is horrifying. So Straight Outta Compton got a single nomination, and so did Creed — but no offense intended that the Oscars can only honor the white participants.

All of this before we even get to Todd Haynes being shut out yet again and Carol being shut out for Best Picture. I know Todd Haynes, I’m lucky to have talked to him  — the most gracious, sweet, honest person you’ll ever meet is going to be thrilled that Phyllis Nagy got in, as well as Sandy Powell, Edward Lachmann, Carter Burwell, and Cate and Rooney. Ryan Coogler will be thrilled that Sylvester Stallone got in. I’m sure F. Gary Gray will be happy about Compton’s screenplay recognition. The Beasts of No Nation cast and filmmakers have been lauded by the far more interesting and progressive Spirit Awards, standing in stark contrast to this year’s Oscar nominations. The Spirits make the Academy look outmoded, outdated and, frankly, a tad embarrassing. What is this, South Africa under apartheid?

I can’t really viciously savage the nominations like I’d like to — because too many people have worked too hard to get where they are. We can, however, talk about the Academy’s truly detrimental decision to limit their choices to five nominees for their members who can’t be bothered to fill in ten titles. With ten nominees, like the Producers Guild has, we might have seen Straight Outta Compton get in. With its 6 nominations (as many as Spotlight) it’s very possible Carol might have even made the jump into Best Picture history.  Expanding the nominations ballot back to 10 possibilities is the only answer to help save the Academy from themselves — to help urge them to modernize and diversify. With only five nominees for Best Picture we never get more than their passion picks.  They pick what moves them, not necessarily what comes from a different world than theirs — unless, of course, a white man is inserted into that world.

It must be said that the Oscars have, for the first time in a while, chosen three films for Best Picture that feature female leads. The other five movies are all male-dominated. Despite that, only two women in the Best Actress race have a corresponding Best Picture nod, but weirdly so does the Best Actor category, compared with 5/5 last year and 5/5 the year before.

The Academy might consider, after today’s debacle, to open their nomination slots for members to embrace a more generous ten. What’s the harm? Incurious unmotivated voters can continue to simply fill out five if they can only think of five movies they like. It would certainly solve the glaring image problem, their seemingly increasing inability to fully understand the world that is changing so very quickly around them.

What are the younger generations of movie-lovers going to do when they see these nominations? Of all of the Best Picture nominees, only 3/5 have any black actors in them at all, mostly in supporting roles: The Martian, The Big Short and Mad Max: Fury Road.  Meanwhile, although The Revenant now makes Mexican history with Inarritu’s back-to-back nominations, as well as featuring a cast full of Native Americans, naturally the two acting nominations go to two white actors. At least back when Dances With Wolves was nominated, so was Graham Greene. Why have things gotten this bad when this — along with last year and the year before — illustrate that this industry and the people who help keep it in business are anything but white-centric? Why the continued focus on and preference for only white actors?

It’s worth noting that the short film, documentary and foreign language categories respect diversity every year, with women directors and filmmakers of color. It is only in the power center above the line where the Academy elders continue to show us who matters to them and who doesn’t. It’s time for them to remedy that and the only way to do that is to, at least, widen the Best Picture slate to a uniform ten.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, where does the Oscar race stand this morning? It’s still hard to say right now who’s ahead. We likely won’t know — honestly — until the Producers Guild announces their winner. Let’s see where we are.

  1. The Big Short – ACE/SAG/PGA/DGA/BAFTA
    Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Editing
    Plus: It’s the only film so far that has hit every marker that usually indicates the Best Picture winner.
    Minus: It didn’t get seen at Telluride or Toronto or earlier, no Globes directing nomination, slightly confusing storyline.
  2. Spotlight – SAG/PGA/DGA/BAFTA
    Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor/Supporting Actress, Editing
    Plus: It might end up being the one film people can agree on, even if it doesn’t win (and probably won’t win) director. It can still win Picture, Screenplay and maybe one other Oscar. Was seen at Telluride.
    Minus: Independent studio vs. big studio, no ACE Eddie nomination, no BAFTA nomination for director. A harder sell for a low key film to go up against such visionary ones from directors.
  3. The Revenant – ACE/PGA/DGA/BAFTA
    Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing, Costumes, Visual Effects, Makeup, Production Design
    Plus: It has the most nominations and it’s an epic.
    Minus: No SAG Awards Ensemble nod, a December release, back-to-back Directing wins are near impossible, back-to-back Directing + Picture wins has *never* happened in the history of the Oscars. No screenplay nomination.
  4. Mad Max: Fury Road – ACE/PGA/DGA
    Picture, Director,  Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing, Costumes, Visual Effects, Makeup, Production Design
    Plus: Miller could win director.
    Minus: No screenplay or acting nominations. No BAFTA noms. No SAG noms.
  5. Room
    Picture, Director, Actress, Screenplay
    Plus: Emotionally moving. Seen at Telluride. The only one of the BP nominees that has a Best Actress nomination.
    Minus: No guild nominations, BAFTA for Picture or Director.

From there, you have more unlikely contenders for Best Picture because they don’t have a corresponding directing nomination. I think if Ridley Scott had gotten in, it might have been Miller vs. Ridley Scott. Without Scott, however, it becomes about George Miller versus Alejandro Inarritu for the visionary director slot. But there is an upstart with a wildly original film in the race with clear appeal to the key branch that actually dominates the Oscars: the actors. And that’s Adam McKay for The Big Short, the film no one really saw coming.

We will be starting our regular predictions column tomorrow.

Until then, thanks for reading along this whole year and I hope I helped a little with your predictions.