White. Male. Disappointing.
When the nominations for the 2015 Oscars were announced, an unimpressed public took to the blogosphere to debate the Academy’s lack of diversity in its selections. Each nominated actor in a lead or supporting category – 20 in all – is white. Every nominated director and screenwriter is male. This homogenous and pasty crew has amounted to the least diverse group of nominees since 1996, a painful reflection of the Academy’s 93 percent white and 77 percent male electorate. The Academy’s decision to ignore some truly magnificent films feels less like a snub and more like a slap.
One of the most beautiful films of the summer, “Belle,” deserved much more recognition than it received. In a fantastic use of ekphrasis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Beyond the Lights”) brings to life a 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race woman raised in England by a blue-blooded family. The film is witty and unafraid, taking on questions of race and gender that enthrall its audience.
Another fearless portrayal of race relations this year, “Dear White People,” was also rebuffed at the Oscars. Set at a fictionalized Ivy League school, the film revolves around the simmering racial tensions of an overwhelmingly white campus that eventually boils over. Sam (Tessa Thompson, “Selma”), the host of a provocative radio show, and nerdy journalist Lionel (Tyler James Williams, “Everybody Hates Chris”) deal with the frustrations of being Black students at a school dominated by the privileged and presumptuous.
But, the most shocking snub of 2015 was “Selma,” one of the most touching and culturally relevant films of the year. “Selma” retraces Martin Luther King Jr. in early 1965, when he and other Civil Rights activists joined forces to fight voter discrimination in the South. The director, Ava DuVernay (“Middle of Nowhere”), would have been the first African-American woman to ever receive a best director Oscar nomination. DuVernay shows both the micro and macro of King’s life, including the tolls the movement had on personal life and the hardships of the battle against systematic racism and injustice.
One of the arguments used against “Selma” is the glaring historical inaccuracy in its portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The film falsely portrays LBJ as an antagonistic obstruction in King’s fight for fairness when, in fact, the march at Selma was Johnson’s idea. In the true version of events, Johnson took action to make sure the protesters would be protected, and King and Johnson worked together to effect change. While the inaccuracies of the movie are frustrating, they dramatize the conundrums of a president in a divided country with many issues to confront. These flaws do not outweigh the movie’s hard and important work.
These films are a way for their Black directors, actors and producers to express their frustration about the oppression they have faced. The refusal of the Academy Awards to recognize the breath-taking work of African Americans in film shows a great divide between those who will listen to their stories and those who will not. As a Caucasian American woman, I write this article not as someone who can recognize the tragedies of “Selma” or the micro-aggressions of “Dear White People” from my own life, but as an ally ready to learn. The Academy should not turn a blind eye to these works because they don’t identify with them, but take a genuine look at them to feel the compassion they evoke. They should promote them, give them the recognition they deserve and serve as an ally to the oppressed. Above all, they should shut up and listen.