As readers are undoubtedly aware, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has, for the second year running, nominated no men or women of color for any of the four acting categories. As a result of this snub, African-American luminaries have voiced their displeasure: Spike Lee denounced the lack of "flava" (his word) at the ceremony, and Jada Pinkett Smith (whose husband, Will, credibly could have gotten one of the best actor nominations) suggested she would be skipping the ceremony.
There are counterarguments of varying quality to be made. Charlotte Rampling did her (already meager) best actress hopes few favors by suggesting that such complaints are "racist" against white actors. More compelling is a look at winners in recent history; as Mark Harris has noted, the past two years are causing consternation in part because they're an aberration.
As the Economist has noted, "the number of black actors winning Oscars in this century has been pretty much in line with the size of America's overall black population." We're only three years removed from "12 Years a Slave" picking up wins for best picture, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actress. And in the non-acting realm, the best director trophy has, over the past three years, gone to two directors born in Mexico and one born in Taiwan.
Still, as TV's Andy Levy notes, conservatives - who have largely been critical of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign - shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the African-American community's frustration. After all, they lodge many of the same complaints:
"How often do conservatives talk about being underserved and overlooked by Hollywood? How often do conservatives complain that movies they like - 'Lone Survivor,' 'American Sniper,' '13 Hours' - don't get enough recognition from the Academy?" Levy asked last week. "Don't conservatives say 'I'm not watching the Oscars because the movies that get nominated don't represent me?' And don't conservatives argue that the Oscars aren't even the real problem - that the real problem is the people who run the studios being liberal and making liberal movies?"
It's not just conservatives and African-Americans who voice these complaints. Fans of populist blockbuster entertainment were so riled that Christopher Nolan's epic masterpiece "The Dark Knight" was shut out of the best picture race - despite near-universal critical praise and massive box-office totals - that the Academy expanded the number of films that could be nominated for best picture from five to 10. That move has had the desired effect of (slightly) increasing the quantity of popular films to receive best picture nominations: "The Martian" and "Fury Road" this year; "Gravity" in 2013; "Argo" in 2012.
The acting categories, however, are still generally dominated by performances that are somewhat dismissively referred to as "Oscar bait." The Academy's real concern should be that you can look at a certain type of role months before a single ad has been shown or a single viewer has seen a single snippet of the film and say, "Oh yeah, that's going to get a nomination."
Think of it as the Eddie Redmayne Problem.
One of my all-time favorite pieces of film writing is Vince Mancini's heartfelt plea to the Academy to refrain from giving Redmayne an Oscar nomination for his performance in "The Theory of Everything."
"A handsome British heartthrob playing a tousle-haired, permanently smiling physicist with crooked glasses and a degenerative disease isn't a performance that should be nominated for an Oscar, it's a performance that should be nominated at a parody of the Oscars," Mancini wrote mere hours before Redmayne picked up the nomination (and just months before he won). "This film has been discussed as an Oscars vehicle since the first moment it was announced. It's a film so blatantly pandering the producers knew all they had to do was get through it with a straight face and it would automatically rain laurels."
Redmayne followed up that period picture about a man with a physical disability with a period picture about a transgender activist coming to grips with her identity. Naturally, it was a role that became an instant front-runner for best actor consideration as soon as the first photos dropped. Obviously, he garnered a nomination. And if it weren't for the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio ate raw liver in the freezing cold during the filming of "The Revenant," Redmayne would probably be the odds-on favorite to take home another trophy.
In other words, the narrowness of what constitutes an Oscar-worthy film is a huge part of the problem. It's no wonder the brilliant Samuel L. Jackson didn't get a nomination for any of his great turns this year: lisping billionaire environmental nutjob, pimp-suited Greek chorus and Confederate-raping bounty hunter don't scream "Oscar bait." You shouldn't be able to guess who will be nominated for a supposedly merit-based award without having seen a second of that person's performance.
A system that creates the Eddie Redmayne Problem (and its corollary, the Jennifer Lawrence Conundrum) is a system that's irrevocably broken. That's one of the reasons that I, like Andy Levy, am more sympathetic than some of my compatriots to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign.
The Academy's announcement that it will endeavor to make the voting pool younger and more diverse is a step in the right direction. And it's a sign that conservatives may be able to influence the Academy if they mount the right arguments in years to come.