Is this progress?
Monday morning's Oscar nominations delivered more frustrating certainties than happy surprises.
Black British actress Cynthia Erivo was the lone person of color nominated across 20 acting categories. And out of five directing nominations, all nominees were male.
Or as Oscar nominations announcer Issa Rae put it: “Congratulations to those men,” a subtle dig after she and actor John Cho revealed the list of directing nods.
Voters lauding "Harriet" star Erivo while leaving equally worthy people of color behind "smacks of tokenism,” says Tom O’Neil, founder of awards prognosticating site Gold Derby. "It just does. To have snubbed Eddie Murphy in one of the marquee performances of his career was outrageous. And no 'Parasite' actors – none of those Asian actors got nominated! That's a slap.”
Spanish star Antonio Banderas, whom the U.S. Census identifies as European, also surprised with a nod for best actor for "Pain and Glory."
Biggest Oscar snubs: Jennifer Lopez, Robert De Niro shut out of nominations
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But the snubs. They span Jennifer Lopez ("Hustlers"), Eddie Murphy ("Dolemite Is My Name"), Awkwafina ("The Farewell"), Lupita Nyong'o ("Us"), Song Kang-ho ("Parasite"), Alfre Woodard ("Clemency"), Jamie Foxx ("Just Mercy") and Zhao Shuzhen ("The Farewell").
To put the shock in perspective, 28 out of 32 industry experts on awards prognosticating site Gold Derby predicted Lopez would receive a nod, and 20 out of 32 predicted Awkwafina's name would be among nominees.
The rest of the acting nominations were white. Riding two critical hits, Scarlett Johansson was double-nominated for best actress ("Marriage Story") and supporting actress ("Jojo Rabbit"). (An even more potent fracas erupted last week with the British Academy's BAFTA nominations, when Margot Robbie was double-nominated for "Bombshell" and "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" but zero people of color were tapped for acting nods across four categories.)
“This is the up-and-down part of the work. Everyone who got nominated is completely worthy," says academy governor-at-large DeVon Franklin, while acknowledging "disappointment" around the snubs.
He notes that a record 30% of nominees overall this year were women, while 20% of nominees were people of color (on par with last year). “There’s the feelings and the facts. The facts are there is progress and that progress is sustaining itself," Franklin says. "The feelings are, with every Oscar season, there are going to be these surprises that remind us that there’s still more work to be done.”
On social media, users were quick to laud Erivo but point out that she was acknowledged for a film that depicts slavery.
"I am happy for Cynthia but another biopic (and about a slave) over an original horror movie where Lupita has to pull double duty? Ideally both should have been recognized but if I was forced to pick one, it’s 100% Lupita," @ArchAndTiger tweeted.
"Hollywood loves a slave tale," @PushaCee observed.
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Filmmakers share a responsibility
When reading the tea leaves, consider how Oscar watchers parse nominations.
"The Oscars is a good annual cheat sheet on what Hollywood is doing," says O'Neil, noting this year's crop provides proof of a "continuing crisis" within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "Once a year, we get a snapshot of the real quality movies, we see there’s an absence of diversity and we get outraged by it. The problem needs to be solved all year-round on an ongoing basis."
But the answer, experts say, is more convoluted than pointing fingers at the membership of the academy. It's also on filmmakers to make sure movies – particularly stories set in present-day – look like the world as we know it.
Compare it to television.
"You would never see what you see in 'Marriage Story' on any television show now," says Melissa Silverstein, founder of the Women and Hollywood website, which advocates for parity across the entertainment industry.
She points out that along with the leads, even all of the film's lawyers are white. "Think about it. Any television show, there are people of color everywhere in all different jobs. What we’re seeing on television is a deep understanding of how you need to be reflecting the society that’s watching your shows. ... What I think the film business is constantly fighting is this white, male sensibility of our (everyday) culture."
How the academy has diversified its membership
The academy has made strenuous moves since #OscarsSoWhite became a siren call for change within the industry five years ago, annually diversifying its membership and adding more women and people of color.
After the first #OscarSoWhite scandal, the academy announced a goal of doubling the number of women and minority members by 2020. Including 2019's new invitees, the academy said 32% of its members would be female (up from 25% in 2015) and 16% would be people of color (8% in 2015).
Still, this year's best director nominations featured just one person of color, Bong Joon-ho ("Parasite"), and four white male directors: Sam Mendes ("1917"), Quentin Tarantino ("Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"), Todd Phillips ("Joker") and Martin Scorsese ("The Irishman"). All five tales deal with war or violence.
The nominations made no room for Greta Gerwig, who helmed the successful "Little Women" remake, "The Farewell" director Lulu Wang and "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" director Marielle Heller, among other notable entries.
The shutout, which follows "a stellar year where films directed by women have seen such great success at the box office as well as critically, it seems that the awards season is a place that is continually stagnant for women," Silverstein says.
Ocean’s Nine where JLo joins the squad (Awkwafina is already there) and the ladies steal Oscars from straight white men who don’t deserve them.— Sam Stryker (@sbstryker) January 13, 2020
Directed by Greta Gerwig.
Which brings us to the inevitable bias toward content, and how that content finds an audience.
Failed campaigns and technical difficulties
Who gets to decide what an awards-worthy movie looks like?
Vanity Fair's Mike Hogan wonders "what the word 'best' means to many (Academy) members" on Twitter. "I think Greta Gerwig nailed it when she said there is a hierarchy of what 'matters' and 'male violence' is at the top," he wrote. "And I think the unconscious nature of the belief system makes it all the more stubborn."
And there remains confusion behind the scenes in Hollywood on how to market smaller, powerful films that feature minorities like "The Farewell," "Queen & Slim" and "Waves," says Claudia Puig, a festival programmer and president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (and formerly USA TODAY's film critic). " 'Queen & Slim' is a great movie that just fell by the wayside. Ditto for 'Waves,' one of my favorite movies of the year. A lot of people don’t know about it."
Similarly, "Us," which marked another hit for filmmaker Jordan Peele, was more overtly a horror film than his directorial debut "Get Out" (nominated for four Oscars, including best picture), which made it "harder for people to embrace it," she says.
Technical difficulties also played a factor this year, with the nominations process hobbled by a confusingly shortened season.
With the Oscars telecast moved up two weeks to Feb. 9, a compressed awards season meant balloting closed two weeks earlier than normal. That left many of the academy's about 9,000 voting members scrambling prior to the close of voting Tuesday, just two days after the Golden Globes.
Did some members miss the memo? IndieWire editor-at-large Anne Thompson thinks so. "I think a lot of (voters) didn’t see all the films," she says.
It's not all bad news: The South Korean comedy "Parasite" earned six nominations, including best director, best original screenplay and best picture.
"The bottom line is you’re not going to please anyone and I don’t think the Academy wants to get in the business of pleasing groups of people," says Gil Robertson, co-founder and president of the African-American Film Critics Association.
But experts agree there's a two-pronged solution to the annual #OscarsSoWhite hand-wringing: Keep Hollywood's feet to the fire on delivering movies year-round that embrace inclusion. And put more women and people of color in leadership positions.
"It’s about having enough people so that it’s not about just one person holding the candle for everybody," Silverstein says. "This is about changing the culture."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oscar nominations and snubs: Why is the list still so white?