I tried to stop caring about the Academy Awards when I began noticing that they often picked winners with which I didn’t agree at all. I decided that it didn’t matter whom the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to honor and that the brilliant artists and beautiful works I admire will forge lasting legacies without the gold Oscar statuette. But recent events have changed my mind. As a recent article from The Economist pointed out, the Oscars have failed to nominate a single person of color for an acting award two years in a row. The article goes on to explain that the films “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton” only received one nomination apiece and that the nominees for both films are white. Thus, two films that focus on the experiences of people of color in this country have failed to receive significant recognition, especially for the people of color who played major roles in their production. Reflecting on this, I have realized it does matter whom the Academy nominates and awards, and the failure to honor people of color reveals a huge problem with the organization.
According to the Academy’s website, “Academy membership is limited to film artists working in the production of theatrically released motion pictures. The Academy has 17 branches, for the crafts ranging from actors to writers, and two categories, members-at-large and associates, to accommodate individuals who work in motion picture production but do not fit into one of the branches.” Academy Awards are decided by members nominating and voting for awards within their respective field. Because Academy voters are members of the film industry and not critics, the awards should not be seen as an autonomous panel of judges granting symbols of merit — which is how I previously and incorrectly viewed it — but as a group of people recognizing their colleagues’ excellence. As a result, when artists of color are not appreciated for their work, the lack of recognition constitutes exclusion. Artists of color are implicitly being told that what they make is unimportant and insignificant.
To further understand how the Oscars are less about determining merit than they are about expressing appreciation, turn to Metacritic, a website that converts numerous reviews from film critics into a numerical score rating a film. Over the past several years, films that had the highest score on Metacritic, meaning those films that had the best aggregate reviews, did not win the Best Picture Oscar. A few notable examples include The Social Network (score of 95) losing to The King’s Speech (score of 88) in 2010 and Zero Dark Thirty (score of 95) losing to Argo (score of 86) in 2012. A similar trend is reflected by The National Board of Review’s annual awards. The Board, according to its website, is made up of “film enthusiasts, filmmakers, professionals, academics and students.” From 2009 to 2014, the Board has awarded Best Film to a movie that did not win the Best Picture Oscar. There are clear discrepancies between the critical acclaim films receive and the awards they win, negating the argument that films featuring people of color have not been of winning caliber.
The members of the Academy are also the insiders of the film industry. According to the Academy’s website, someone who wishes to become a member “must be sponsored by two Academy members from the branch to which the candidate seeks admission.” It’s an exclusive club that chooses its own members. According to the article from The Economist mentioned above, about 94 percent of the “Academy’s 6,000-odd voting members” are white.
As Variety reports, the Academy has changed its membership rules and announced plans to become a more diverse group. But the fact that the Academy is mostly white should not guarantee a failure to nominate people of color. The Academy calls itself “film artists.” One essential aspect of art is empathy, the ability to understand the experiences and perspectives of others. The best works of narrative art, such as novels and films, involve artists using their imaginations to enter the lives of different people and convey their experiences. For example, “Babel,” directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, powerfully captures the lives and intense crises of its diverse group of primary characters. Denzel Washington portrays a Union soldier in the Civil War film “Glory” so well that, when I watched him, I did not see him, but instead saw his character. The same is true for Michael Fassbender’s performance as Bobby Sands in “Hunger.” One would think that the “film artists” who make up the Academy would understand empathy and would use that ability to appreciate a diverse set of stories. Sadly, this does not seem to be true.
It may be naive to think artists are generally more compassionate and less biased than other people. But I firmly believe that good art requires empathy. The failure of the Academy is not just a failure in how the organization is run; it is also a failure of artists to apply their empathetic abilities in all areas of their lives. If Academy members have trouble appreciating the stories of others, then the prospects for people in general understanding each other are bleak. The Academy should not wait until it becomes more diverse. It should use its recent failures to understand its limited scope and work to broaden its appreciation.
Ameer Malik ’18 can be reached at email@example.com.