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‘Straight Outta Compton’ and five other Oscar snubs a more diverse academy might have avoided

‘Straight Outta Compton’
An image from the 2015 film “Straight Outta Compton.”
(Universal Pictures)

Time machines exist in many realms, but unfortunately the Hollywood awards show isn’t one of them. (If it were, perhaps Seth MacFarlane’s Oscars opening number might have gone differently.)

Still, it’s tempting to wonder how the Oscars might have looked if the Motion Picture Academy’s recent push for diversity – which on Wednesday resulted in 683 new invitees, highs for both African Americans and women – had happened earlier. We’re not talking at the dawn of the civil rights movement, either – just, say, in 2012, after The Times published its landmark report that found the academy was overwhelmingly white and male.

Would the last two years have seen a person of color in any one of its 40 acting nominations? Would the number of female-won best directing awards have been higher than one? And would Latino actors have won more than a single Oscar since the Eisenhower administration?

There were, of course, worthy candidates in many of these overlooked years. But like Satchel Paige and other great Negro Leaguers unlucky enough to play before baseball integration, these entertainers had the misfortune of turning in great work just a little too early. Had the academy changed its ways just a little sooner, all could have been different. (Of course, if some of these people had gotten nominated we might not have had the #OscarsSoWhite movement in the first place, so their sacrifice wasn’t entirely in vain, though that may be cold comfort to them.)

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Now, it’s important to remember that women and minorities don’t vote in a bloc. And it’s equally significant to bear in mind that voters can choose only from the films made, as the academy is wont to remind; all the membership changes in the world won’t increase Hollywood’s number of worthy minority-led films, which are still lacking, or the number of executives and agents of color.

Still, the push for diversity was meant to correct oversights up and down the chain. And while one hopes they’re remedied in the future, it’s hard not to wonder how the recent invitees – Wednesday’s class is expected to up the voting body by about a whopping  10% – would have affected hot-button races already completed. Here are six that might have gone differently with the academy additions.

‘Straight Outta Compton’
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Video: Dre and Cube on the streets for 'Straight Outta Compton'
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Video: 'Straight Outta Compton' and Eazy-E's legacy
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“Straight Outta Compton” for best picture (2016): The best picture nomination process is such that even a small passionate group of voters can overcome the consensus--it’s likely how bubble candidate “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” made the cut in 2012. And “Straight Outta Compton,” as a portrayal of a searing time in music and race history, certainly had its ardent backers. (It also was a massive hit, which never hurts.)

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In short, if the film had just a few more champions, it might have found its way on to the best picture list, which saw only eight of 10 slots filled this year. While some (if not enough) white voters no doubt put it on their lists, support from among hundreds of new African American voters could have done the trick. The academy may itself have recognized this. On Wednesday the group invited nearly a half-dozen people who count the movie among their credits, as if belatedly recognizing the movie’s virtues.

David Oyelowo for best actor in “Selma” (2015): To many it was the most compelling performance of the season — the British actor playing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. not only as the soaring orator but the shrewd tactician. But when the nomination of five lead actors was announced, Oyelowo wasn’t among them, making for one of the biggest snubs — of any color — in recent years. Even in a competitive year, a greater preponderance of minority voters could have edged him onto the list.

Tom Wilkinson, left, as President Lyndon B. Johnson and David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.”
Tom Wilkinson, left, as President Lyndon B. Johnson and David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.”
(Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures )

Ava DuVernay for best director of  “Selma” (2015): It was nominated for best picture in the very year when the OscarsSoWhite hashtag began. But DuVernay, who had earned plaudits for her direction of the period civil rights tale, missed the chance to become the first black woman to win best director — indeed, the first black person to win best director, period — when the directors branch left her off the list. (Dark horse Morten Tyldum of “The Imitation Game,” considered a long shot, nabbed a spot.) DuVernay in particular would have benefited from an academy that includes this year’s changes --the director’s branch added to its group of several hundred nearly 100 invitees, the overwhelming number of them women, people of color or both.

Kathryn Bigelow for best director of “Zero Dark Thirty” (2013): The same shift toward more female directors in a historically male branch could have helped Bigelow in 2013. This was a year, you may remember, that saw some rather odd choices--Ben Affleck was left off the director list for “Argo,” which then rode the attendant publicity all the way to best picture. But Bigelow was already beloved by the academy--she was the only woman to have ever won the directing award, for “The Hurt Locker” in 2010. Could a branch that included as much as 15% more women have shifted enough votes to get her on the list? Common sense says yes.

Oscar Isaac in Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
Oscar Isaac in Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
(Alison Rosa )

Oscar Isaac for acting in “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2014), “A Most Violent Year” (2015) and “Ex Machina” (2016): Of all the ethnic snubs, it’s hard to imagine many as deep as those of Latino actors. There has been exactly one – one! – Latino male win since the 1950s. (Benicio del Toro, and that was for “Traffic” 15 years ago.) Isaac provides a glorious opportunity, turning in dynamo, shapeshifting performances season after season. And he’s yet to even land on a nomination list. To be fair, the Guatemalan-born actor was up against some stiff competition in the lead category the year of “Davis.” Let’s remind people of that film in which he played a wandering folk singer. Ditto for his turn as a tightly coiled immigrant heating-oil magnate in “Violent Year.” Still, his lack of inclusion in the lead actor category that season, coupled with the absence in the supporting category this year for his role as a swaggering tech magnate in “Ex Machina,” adds up to a dispiriting absence of Oscar nominations for one of the best actors working today. An actors branch composed of dozens more people of color could have pushed him to a nomination.

Suraj Sharma for actor in “Life of Pi” (2013), Gong Li for actress in “Coming Home” (2016) and many other working Asian actors: This one’s less about Sharma and Li – though both gave standout performances that barely rated a mention – and more about an entire group. If the Latino actor snubs sound bad, Asians and Asian Americans arguably have even larger grounds for complaint. Not counting Ben Kingsley (of partial Asian heritage), an Asian-descended actor hasn’t been nominated for an Academy Award in a decade (Rinko Kikuchi, from “Babel”) and hasn’t won in more than three decades (Haing S. Ngor of “The Killing Fields”).

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In fact, in the entire history of the Oscars, only two other Asian actors besides Ngor have ever won. And an Asian woman has not even been nominated for lead actress since… 1935. (It was Merle Oberon, if you’re curious.)

But there’s some hope: With the focus on Asian Americans after a Chris Rock joke prompted an outcry – and a new injection of Asian-descended voters – that could change, and make the next Sharma, Li or other glaring minority omission a little less likely.

@ZeitchikLAT

MORE:

5 burning questions raised by the largest academy invitee class

Commentary: Why the academy’s focus on international writers and directors matters

What the academy’s new diverse class will mean for Oscar voting — will it change anything?


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