It’s understandable that in the major categories, there is a distinct lack of inclusion of minority actors, specifically the black actors who really did turn out some of the best work of the year, specifically Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation, Michael B. Jordan in Creed, Tessa Thompson in Creed, for that matter, and the list goes on and on. So yes, this New Yorker cover, and the great majority of media covering the Oscars will have this story front and center. Try as some of us did ahead of time to warn them this would be “the story,” it didn’t matter in the end because the voters mostly do what they’re comfortable doing on an anonymous ballot.
However, one thing has gotten lost in the conversation, and it’s a bit of a bummer that it has. For one thing, many of the films up for Best Picture do have distinctly diverse or inclusive casts. I would rank them this way:
1. The Martian – while it has no chance to win because Ridley Scott was not nominated, The Martian stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Pena, Donald Glover (the genius scientist who saves the day), Benedict Wong, and Shu Chen, to name just a few. Because Matt Damon was the star and the only acting nominee, it was lumped in with the many films that are white-centric, which was not only unfair to the film, but unfair to the minority actors who were apparently invisible to the press covering the story. The Martian got no credit for its unconventional and deliberately diverse casting.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road – like The Martian, women are in charge. They deliberately cast black and Asian actresses to play the “breeders,” but there are also women of every age, actors of every color throughout the cast. No one from the film was nominated in the acting categories.
3. The Big Short and Room – both of these films are the only other films in the race besides Mad Max that have black women with speaking roles. There are only three overall, and they are supporting characters.
4. The Revenant – directed by Mexican Alejandro G. Inarritu, though filled with Native American actors – it’s either acceptable casting or problematic casting – I could see an argument for both. Unlike Dances with Wolves, however, there weren’t significant enough roles to merit Oscar nominations and both white actors got those.
The one thing that did happen, however, is that the Academy voters clearly made an effort to include women – films about women anyway, with Brooklyn and Room and Mad Max all featuring female-driven plots. Two of the adapted screenplays are written by women, and one of the original screenplays nominees is co-written by women. Because there was so much complaining this past year about the lack of women, clearly an effort was made. What you’re seeing now, however, is that women of color are at the very bottom rung. Thus, you aren’t going to see any films about women of color. Sadly, those types of films hardly ever come around, and when they do and when they appeal to voters, they are often distasteful to the black community for their depiction of maids or drug addicts or prostitutes.
The media did not notice the large percentage of stories about women because they were all white women.
Moving beyond the major categories, however, there is no excuse for the media’s lack of attention to films about women all over the world. Starting with the only female directing nominee, Liz Garbus’ documentary about Nina Simone, What Happened, Miss Simone? While the critics have gone nuts over Amy, which depicts the downfall of poor afflicted Amy Whinehouse, Simone’s story is even more painful to watch because she was dealing with black identity — strong black female identity at a time when it was somewhat controversial. Garbus’ documentary shows us the good, the bad, and the ugly of Simone’s complicated life. Kudos to the documentary committee for nominating it at all.
In the shorts categories, the live action short Day One is about a female Arabic translator for the U.S. Army who must help a pregnant Muslim woman give birth in a life-or-death situation. It’s a film that deals with both the complexities of a male-driven culture and women in the military overall.
In the documentary short category, Last Day of Freedom is an animated tale of one man having to turn in his brother for murder. While some might say, “oh, this is just one more black story about criminals,” it is so much more than that, if you listen to the narrator tell his story.
Body Team 12 is about Ebola in Africa, and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is about honor killings of women in Pakistan.
The foreign language races are not just about white stories either – with Theeb and Embrace the Serpent, you have diverse cultures and people represented.
Yes, it is beyond depressing, and a complete misrepresentation that so many actors of color, specifically black actors this year, were absent in the power seats: the acting, writing and directing categories. There is no excuse nor reason for it, not this year. But it’s also important to remember that there are other categories at the Oscars worth noticing.