MOVIES

Oscars 2015: Diversity is the biggest nomination snub

Film academy is criticized after all 20 acting nominations go to white performers

Since its arrival in theaters last month, the civil rights drama "Selma" has earned critical praise and predictions of Oscar glory.

But when Academy Awards voters on Thursday revealed their choices, the film was mostly overlooked. "Selma," about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s staging of 1965's Selma-to-Montgomery march, did land among the eight best picture nominees and also nabbed a lower-profile nomination for original song. But despite all the acclaim, its director, Ava DuVernay, and star, David Oyelowo, were omitted from the more elite groups of five in their respective categories.

By snubbing the pair, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences once again opened itself to criticism that it turns a blind eye to minorities. Equally notable, the Oscars' 20 acting slots will be composed entirely of white performers for only the second time since 1998.

"It really does speak to this disconnect between the industry and America," said Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA and coauthor of the Hollywood Diversity Report, which examined the quotient of minorities in recent films and TV shows. "The academy is overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male and most membership is in their 60s. There's a certain taste and culture there, and a particular type of storytelling that isn't very inclusive of diverse points of view."

Oscars 2015: List | Top nominees | Reactions | Snubs/surprises | Oscar Ballot | Full coverage

Three years ago, a Times study revealed that the academy was 94% white with a median age of 62. Partly in response, the academy has added more women and minority group members. But the percentage of older white men has dipped only about 1 percentage point, according to the most recent survey, largely because there are more than 6,000 people in the academy and members get lifetime terms. Diversity will take years to accomplish.

The nominations were also a contrast from last year, which featured three black acting nominees and a best picture win for "12 Years a Slave." But that film, an unsparing look at slavery in the antebellum South, was clearly set in another era. "Selma" evokes the "Black Lives Matter" protests of the present moment.

That point compounded the insult to some. "Given the environment right now socially, you'd think [academy voters] would be more conscious," said Gil Robertson IV of Los Angeles' African American Film Critics Assn. "There seems to be little thought or consideration on how 'Selma' in particular really does provide an opportunity for people to have some real dialogue about race relations. But once again, that opportunity may not happen."

In passing over DuVernay, meanwhile, the academy's directors' branch passed up the opportunity to nominate a black woman for the first time.

The "Selma" snubs were a further surprise given that two Hollywood power players — Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey — were involved in a producing capacity. "Selma" is the first major Hollywood film to focus on King, whose birthday was Thursday and who will be celebrated on Monday's holiday.

Many on social media Thursday viewed the academy's moves as a step backward from the "12 Years" win.

Oscars 2015: List | Pundits' picks | Timeline | Top nominees | Video: Hollywood Sessions | Full coverage

"When voting boards are made up of retirees, awards can never reflect the present, let alone the future," Jill Soloway, the creator of "Transparent," a newly minted Golden Globe TV winner that centers on a transgender person, wrote on Twitter.

Shortly after the "Selma" omissions, a meme also began to circulate on Twitter that showcased photos of black female Oscar winners with captions like "Maid" and "Slave," suggesting that even previous winners may be evidence of a racist subtext.

"I am disappointed at the lack of diversity in the Academy Award nominations announced this morning," filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who made the documentary "Miss Representation" about female filmmakers, said in an email to reporters. "Not a single female director, screenwriter, or cinematographer were nominated. In addition, no people of color received acting nominations."

Activist Al Sharpton went so far as to call for an emergency meeting with Hollywood leaders.

"The lack of diversity in today's Oscar nominations is appalling," he said, also addressing voters' nomination of "Selma" for best picture. ““It’s ironic that they nominated a story about the racial shutout around voting," he said, "while there is a racial shutout around the Oscar nominations.”

DuVernay, who is often outspoken on social media, took the high road. "Happy Birthday, Dr. King," she tweeted, then offered an apparent nod to the best picture nomination. "An Oscar gift for you. To SELMA cast + crew led by our miracle David Oyelowo! To Common + Legend! Kudos! March on!"

To be sure, the "Selma" omissions may have as much to do with internal awards-season dynamics as cultural truths. Because the film arrived so late in the season, Paramount Pictures neglected to send screeners to the guilds that, through their own nominations, can help build awards momentum.

It would also hardly be the first fact-based movie to run into trouble with awards voters. "Selma" was caught up in a controversy in recent weeks over its portrayal of President Johnson, with some scholars and former aides saying the film shortchanged his pivotal support of civil rights. Another Washington brouhaha, over CIA torture, enveloped and ultimately doomed the prospects of "Zero Dark Thirty," a movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden, in 2013.

"Selma" also is not out of the running for best picture, and a backlash over the snubs could fuel support for the film in Oscar's top category. Two years ago, Ben Affleck was not nominated for director for his Iranian revolution film "Argo." Sympathy for Affleck followed, and the film wound up winning best picture.

A lack of minority nominees might also not be entirely laid at the doorstep of the academy, and may speak to more systemic issues in Hollywood. Voters, after all, can choose only from the movies in front of them, and there was a dearth this year of viable contenders with minority players.

Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is black, said that the group has made significant strides in the last few years.

Oscars 2015: List | Top nominees | Reactions | Snubs/surprises | Oscar Ballot | Full coverage

"We are very active about increasing diversity throughout the academy and recognition of talent, and it will increase. We're very much dedicated to that," she told reporters after the nominations. "I think what is important and what we cannot lose sight of is the fact that the discussion of motion pictures and filmmaking has gotten broader, and we are very happy to be involved in that discussion."

The rapper Common, who stars in "Selma" as the activist James Bevel and also was nominated for "Glory," the song he co-wrote with John Legend, was diplomatic when asked in an interview about the "Selma" snubs.

"'Selma' is very relevant to today's issues, and for it to be nominated for best picture acknowledged that," he said.

Still, he added, "You look at 'Selma,' and I am disappointed that David and Ava were not nominated. You don't have a best picture without a performance like that and a director like that."

Times staff writer Nardine Saad contributed to this report

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