How the Oscars’ lack of diversity reflects who runs Hollywood

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    It took only minutes after this year's Oscar nominations were announced this morning for the criticism to begin.

    Much of the reaction centered on what was missing, namely, diversity among nominees for actor, actress, directing and screenwriting. For the first time since 1995, all of the actors nominated for lead and supporting roles are white. One prominent snub, the civil rights film "Selma," which snagged a best picture nod, but nothing for its director, actors or writers.

    What, if anything, does any of this tell us about the Academy or about the films themselves?

    For that, we turn to two film critics, Mike Sargent of Pacifica Radio and Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post.

    Welcome to you both.

    So, Ann Hornaday, what do today's nominations tell us about the kinds of films that Hollywood is making and the kinds of films that Hollywood is awarding?

  • ANN HORNADAY, The Washington Post:

    Well, at least for today, it looks like it's kind of a boys show.

    And even when you look at the best picture nominees — and, gratifyingly, "Selma" did make it into the best picture — to be nominated for best picture. But so many of those are movies are journeys undertaken by men, either the great men of "The Theory of Everything" and "Imitation Game" or the young man of "Boyhood" or the actor of "Birdman."

    So it is a striking sort of tableaux of men and their stories being represented in that group.


    Mike Sargent, what struck you most when you first watched and saw these nominations?

  • MIKE SARGENT, Pacifica Radio:

    Well, unfortunately, I wasn't very surprised.

    I mean, these nominations, I believe, reflect Hollywood in general and reflect what is coming out in film in general. And I agree with my co-critic that it is unfortunately something of a white boys club. Most of the films are written, produced and directed by white men.

    And, you know, you have to also look at how the Academy is set up and who it is that actually gets to vote and how you actually become an Academy member. Ironically, it's similar to the way it's depicted in "Selma" before the Voting Rights Act. You have to be nominated by somebody who is already in the Academy, and they kind of have to vet you, and you have to pass through this whole system.

    And, meanwhile, if you get nominated, you're offered entry into the Academy, but if consistently the people who are nominating, the people who are voting are a boys club and an all-white male boys club, then you know what? This is what we get.


    Well, Ann Hornaday, let me ask you about that, because this very same composition of an Academy voted for "12 Years a Slave" last year and whose — who was helmed by a black male director. "The Help" has been well-received, a couple other movies with racial themes over the years.


    Oh, sure.

    But that might be — those might be exceptions that prove the rule. I mean, I don't — and I don't take anything away from — especially from "12 Years a Slave," which was a magnificent achievement.

    But, to Mike's point, the demographics are — first of all, we're talking about a relatively small group of people. It's…




    You know, there are between 5,000 and 6,000 members, 94 percent — according to a study done by The Los Angeles Times two years ago, 94 percent Caucasian, 77 percent male. The median age is 62.

    So we're looking at a demographic slice of life that isn't necessarily representational of the culture. And, by contrast, let's look at the Golden Globes the other night. We used to sort of pooh-pooh the Golden Globes and the Hollywood Foreign Press as being, I don't know, lightweights or not quite of our station, but they ended up being so forward-looking and much more representational in their nominations and their wins.


    Mike Sargent, a lot of the debate about "Selma" in particular was about its accuracy, about its historical fidelity. Do you think that hurt it?


    Well, I think it definitely hurt it. And I also feel it is kind of a load of malarkey.

    I mean, let's face it. Historical films and a number of the films nominated are historical films based on real people. Historical films in general always have a certain amount of elements that are not specifically historically accurate.

    And I won't — whether disagreeing or not agreeing, that campaign effectively allows the PGA to not get behind her — that's the Producers Guild — the Directors Guild to not get behind her, and then, ultimately, the Academy can't back a film that is — quote, unquote — "has a controversy" over its inaccuracy.

    Meanwhile, a film like "Argo" won for best screenplay and best picture. Not only was it historically inaccurate, but the main character is a Latino played by Ben Affleck.


    And, Ann Hornaday, how much of this has to do with good old-fashioned campaigning? We have all seen the "for your consideration" ads, the stepped-up advertising in general for all kinds of movies leading up to Oscar nominations.

    Maybe somebody else just did a better job?




    Let me ask this to Ann Hornaday. I'm sorry.

    Go ahead.


    Oh, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.


    But there's — and there's no doubt. You're right, Gwen. The campaigns have reached Washingtonian proportions in terms of their budgets and their bare-knuckled seriousness.

    And so it could be that the campaigning hurt Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo this year, but it could have been also something as arcane as how many screeners the studio sent out to the guilds while they were voting on their award, so that it didn't get maybe the momentum that it could have had in the last few weeks.

    So, it — it might be overdetermined, as an economist might say, in terms of the reasons why some people got in and some people didn't.


    Mike Sargent, you started this conversation by saying you weren't that surprised. Does that mean that you were discouraged?


    Well, I — let's put it this way. I am somewhat discouraged.

    I guess, to me, this is sort of systematic and institutionalized. You know, it strikes me, a very important point about Hollywood is that, you know, there's this myth that black films don't travel. So, as a result, no matter how much money your film makes here — and I'm talking about black film, not necessarily a Denzel Washington film — I'm talking about whether you're Kevin Hart or whatever. You live and die here. That's it, because…


    In the U.S., yes.


    In the U.S., because those films are not distributed internationally.

    So, as a result, in a way, you're sort of ghettoized into just having your films play here and that myth perpetuating itself that, oh, the black experience is not of any interest to the rest of the world.


    Well, we will be able to watch and see what happens next in all of this, not only Oscar night, but after that.

    Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post, Mike Sargent of Pacifica Radio, thank you both very much.


    Well, you're welcome.


    Thank you.


    Thank you for having us.

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