Oscars 2016: Here's why the nominees are so white -- again

It's another embarrassing Hollywood sequel: For the second year in a row, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated an all-white group of acting nominees.

This year's list of Oscar nominees passes over popular, well-reviewed performances in the movies “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton” and excludes prominent actors of color in 2015 films including Idris Elba, Samuel L. Jackson and Will Smith.

Oscars 2016: Full Coverage | Complete list | Snubs, surprises and reactions | Top nominee photos 

The news again provoked an outcry and raised fresh questions over a familiar issue: whether an industry that prides itself on its progressiveness remains stubbornly stuck in the past.

“For the two black movies that made over $100 million at the box office, touched a nerve and are artistically fresh, only white people were nominated. How does that work?” asked producer and academy member Stephanie Allain, referring to “Creed” and “Compton.”

The homogeneous group of 20 acting nominees comes as the academy is in the midst of a major push to diversify its membership and is fighting to remain relevant in a demographically changing world.

For the academy, the issue isn't just about perception, but also business — the nonprofit relies on television rights to the Oscar telecast as its primary source of revenue and wants to draw the broadest possible viewership.

The academy drew a strong backlash last year after it selected an all-white batch of acting nominees. The group's acting branch, which makes those choices, bypassed David Oyelowo, who gave what many thought was the best performance of the year as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma.”

The civil rights film also failed to land a slot on the director list, spurring the social-media movement #OscarsSoWhite and a pledge from the academy to do better.

But where the 2014-15 controversy mainly involved one film and could be explained away by campaign-specific factors, the feeling in Hollywood this time around is different. Academy members this year had numerous movies to draw from and still ended up with an all-white ballot.

In June, the academy invited 322 new members, an unusually large and demographically broad group that reflected a move toward “a normalization of our membership to represent both the industry and the country as a whole,” academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs said at the time. And in November, Boone Isaacs announced a new initiative, A2020, designed to promote inclusion within its staff.

The academy's board of governors has also tapped a black host for its Feb. 28 telecast, comedian Chris Rock, and a black producer, Reginald Hudlin, who is sharing duties with David Hill. This fall, the group honored African American director Spike Lee with a governor's award.

But despite the academy leadership's very public efforts at inclusion, the larger body has proved slow to change. On the subject of diversity, the film world is lagging television, where a record 18 black performers were nominated for Emmy Awards last year.

“On every measure, film is a couple steps behind TV,” said Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. “This is, unfortunately, a reflection of the academy itself. The academy is white and male, so we have a taste culture that's only going to recognize certain types of projects.”

And the academy will continue to be dominated by older white men for years to come. The 6,261 Oscar voters serve for life, so even large new classes only move the needle incrementally.

“I do think it's a reflection of the unique makeup of the academy,” said “Compton” screenwriter Jonathan Herman, who with Andrea Berloff was nominated for original screenplay, when asked about the “Compton” best picture snub. “It's started to change, and hopefully it keeps changing.” But, he added, “it does take time.”

Even with a revamped base, it remains unclear whether the academy could ever fully effect changes at the ballot. Nominations are chosen by relatively small groups known as branches — the biggest, actors, is still made up of fewer than 1,300 people — and the question of how to increase the inclusiveness of their voting is a tricky one, particularly in an industry where friendships and loyalties run deep.

“I thought ‘Compton' was going to get a picture nomination and was disappointed it didn't,” said producer Steve Golin, a best picture nominee for both “Spotlight” and “The Revenant.” “But part of the problem I think is there are not that many movies that have a racial mix. I don't think people vote [based on] race. It comes from the movies — if there were more that were racially diverse, I think we'd see more balance at the Oscars.”

For now, the academy faces an optics challenge when the ceremony is telecast on ABC to millions around the world on Feb. 28 — many hosts and presenters are black, but the winners to whom they are handing out statuettes are overwhelmingly white.

At last year's telecast, host Neil Patrick Harris attempted to defuse that awkwardness when he opened the show by joking, “Tonight we honor Hollywood's best and whitest. Sorry, brightest.”

The whiteness of the academy's choices this year are particularly notable because they stand in contrast with those by the major industry unions — both the Screen Actors and Producers guilds nominated “Straight Outta Compton” for their top prizes, and SAG also nominated the Elba film, a child-soldier drama titled, “Beasts of No Nation,” for its cast and Elba for supporting actor.

When movies driven by black actors and directors were nominated by the Oscars, however, it was for the work of their white colleagues.

Sylvester Stallone was nominated for supporting actor for his performance in Warner Bros.' “Creed,” but the film's black writer-director, Ryan Coogler, and black star, Michael B. Jordan, were not.

Despite Universal Pictures mounting a robust awards campaign for its summer blockbuster “Straight Outta Compton,” neither that film's director, F. Gary Gray, nor any of its black lead actors was nominated.

The academy also passed over Jackson, who had campaigned for Quentin Tarantino's “The Hateful Eight” and Smith, who fronts the movie “Concussion.”

“Look, it's dismal,” said director Liz Garbus, who was nominated for her documentary feature “What Happened, Miss Simone?” “The numbers are dismal.... But it's also truth. It's the truth about where the money is going and who's getting the jobs and who is getting the support.”

April Reign, a former attorney and managing editor of BroadwayBlack.com who created the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in response to last year's nominees, said she feels social-media activism around the issue is having an impact.

“Instead of watching the Oscars last year, we live-tweeted ‘Coming to America,' and we're going to be doing something similar this year,” Reign said. “The Oscars telecast was the lowest ranked in the last [six] years, and we like to think we had something to do with that.”

Times staff writers Tre'vell Anderson and Mark Olsen contributed to this report.

MORE:

Full coverage: Oscars 2016

Oscars 2016: List of nominees

How much do you know about Academy Awards history? Take our quiz

Photo gallery: Awkward Oscar moments

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

5:42 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with more details and background.

1:36 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional details and background.

This article was originally published at 6:49 a.m.

62°