The Oscars, Diversity, and Legacies


By: Connor Lenahan

Earlier this week the nominees for the Academy Awards were announced and none of the acting categories, nor the Best Director field featured any of the incredibly talented African American professionals that could have made it, including Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan (pictured above) for their movie Creed. It’s fairly clear to most everyone that this is an issue, and the lack of diversity at the Oscars is something that has come up plenty of times before this moment, but something clicked on this one for me. There’s a central problem with the Oscars, and to a larger part award shows in general, that made this diversity issue somewhat difficult.

The Academy Awards are the ultimate prize in filmmaking. Every person that goes into the field would love to have an Oscar, myself included. What happens time and time again is the debate over nominees and winners. We spend a great deal of time looking over this history of the awards and debating choices that make no sense – The Dark Knight not getting a Best Picture nomination – and the missing nominations and statues for those we love and believe are deserving – think Denzel Washington getting looked over for most his prime until Training Day.

The key with the Oscars is how often they get things “wrong.” There is a voting base of people that likely know what they are talking about giving away awards, but like all other award shows their choices are then open to the court of public opinion. If you look around online you will see people that disagree with a lot of the “major” category decisions – Major = Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor/Actress, & Best Supporting Actor/Actress. A complaint about how Pulp Fiction lost to Forest Gump here, a question about how Do The Right Thing wasn’t nominated there. It’s all a part of the game.

Hell, it’s almost a definitive feature of the Oscars to get the decision wrongCitizen Kane is widely believed to be one of the five best movies ever made and it didn’t win Best Picture when it was nominated. The Academy gets things wrong all the time.

But that’s not excusable here. The mission of the Academy is to reward the best in filmmaking, but that’s the utopian view. Leonardo DiCaprio is going to win an Oscar “for The Revenant” that really is being judged on his career up until now. It was an open and shut case once the movie came out and was good enough to justify handing him the trophy. That was the story. But narrative plays in constantly.  I don’t even vote but I understand the want to nominate a great Sylvester Stallone performance in Creed for playing Rocky Balboa 40 years after the last time he was nominated for it.

So this is where narrative should matter. The awards serve a larger function in their world. Within the realm of Hollywood and with regards to modes of production, Oscars can be gold. And further, nominations can be gold. Think about this. There is a difference in a movie trailer when you see “Academy Award Nominee” and “Academy Award Winner.” The latter lends you legitimacy, and the former immediately heightens credibility. It’s a concrete way to change the career of an actor, actress, or director.

Michael B. Jordan is likely the hottest commodity in Hollywood after Creed in some part because he’s a young, mega-talented African American man. He should be in demand because he might be the best actor 30 years old working right now. Ryan Coogler probably is the best director working under 30, and that’s why Marvel just gave him the keys to Black Panther. Both these men have been responsible for two of the best films I’ve seen this decade – Fruitvale Station and Creed. Both are moving, beautiful, and largely flawless films. With regard to the latter, which was eligible for nomination this year, let’s look at what could have been.

I don’t want to argue for token nominations, because that doesn’t make things better. There’s a difference between inclusion and recognizing talent. The Oscars should not, by any means, simply throw nominations towards minority actors and actresses as a public relations move. But they should open the floor to more inclusion at all. Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor last year for The Theory of Everything. This year he is again nominated for The Danish Girl, a film with decent but not spectacular reviews, and largely no one expects Redmayne to win for it. I have not seen the movie, but I can tell you that Michael B. Jordan should have his spot. Jordan was good enough in Creed to deserve the nomination, and the reigning Best Actor winner needs it less. Frankly, I’d genuinely toss Jordan’s name for one of the best this year into the conversation with DiCaprio and Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs. He should have been in that race, and he could have taken Matt Damon’s spot for The Martian without me blinking.

Ryan Coogler is a harder fight to fight, only because there are a lot of people to fight out of the Best Director category. But that’s less the issue than his name coming up in conversation. I’d hear the same six to seven names with regards to who was getting nominated this year and Coogler was never one of them. Why? Because the fight scenes in Creed, done in one shot, were some of the best pieces of filmmaking done this year bar none. For Coogler the nomination might be a hard sell but, shit, can we at least get him on the short list?

But most importantly, that addition to a business card can do a lot for a career. There’s a great chance that a lot of people I know aren’t familiar with Ryan Coogler as they probably should be. Ditto to Michael B. Jordan. Getting to at least add “Academy Award Nominee” to their title cards in projects opens up a whole new world for the duo. But further, it opens up a brand new world for their contemporaries. Their fellow African American actors, actresses, directors, screenwriters, and more. These two, and plenty more like them, can serve as inspiration to further generations of filmmakers and stars. Having them at least on the stage could do a lot to foster that community for years to come.

So let’s drop the pretense that the Oscars are 100% about getting things “right.” Let’s accept that in some way they reward careers by using their position in Hollywood to change careers. Let’s hope that they will do better not to give pity to hard-working individuals, but to recognize a wider spectrum of work. To reconsider the power they have. Eight of the ten possible nominations were used this year for Best Picture, and one more could have been rightly given to CreedStraight Outta Compton, or plenty of more deserving candidates.

We need to reconsider what the Oscars are and what they should be. Honoring amazing talents now would not only help truly represent the amazing work being done by actors that are not caucasian, but lead to more stories, more Oscar worthy performances, and more good films in the future.

The Oscars So White controversy is important, and no one disputes that. But with the right corrections, it can potentially lead to an amazing future for Hollywood and beyond.