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Op-Ed: And the Oscar Goes to… White Men

Background left to right: Tessa Thompson plays Diane Nash, Omar Dorsey plays James Orange, Colman Domingo plays Ralph Abernathy, David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King, Jr., André Holland plays Andrew Young, Corey Reynolds plays Rev. C.T. Vivian, and Lorraine Toussaint plays Amelia Boynton in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures and Pathé. Photo credit: Atsushi Nishijima / Atsushi Nishijima

So much for progress.

The 2015 Oscar nominations are out and the winner is… white men.

From the actors nods to directing and screenwriting, in the major categories the nominees are mostly white and male, save for the actress category, the only one they couldn’t physically be nominated in.

The result? The Oscars just posted the least diverse line-up of nominees in 17 years. Not since 1998 when “Titanic” reigned supreme has the Oscars been this white with no African American, Asian, Latino or Native American actors nominated. Fifty years since the passing of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 – it appears the awards ceremony is going with a throwback theme – Whites Only.

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This is a stark contrast from last year when Chiwetel Ejiofor and Barkhad Abdi were nominated for their acting turns in “12 Years a Slave” and “Captain Phillips,” while actress Lupita Nyong’o won for Best Supporting Actress in “12 Years a Slave.” Overall, “12 Years a Slave” was a big winner, also taking home awards for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.

It’s shocking that Ava DuVernay was not deemed worthy of a nomination. A rising star, previously known for her artistic turns in “I Will Follow” and “Middle of Nowhere,” DuVernay has the skills to be among the best. She directs with a lyrical and emotive style that has drawn accolades across the board. If she had received an Oscar nomination she would have become the first black woman nominated for Best Director, but the Academy deemed her, nor any other female directors or screenwriters worthy this year.

And no actors of color were nominated in any of the acting categories – meaning no nods for David Oyelowo, the British-born Nigerian actor who gained critical acclaim for his portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the mostly snubbed “Selma.”

While “Selma” did show up in the mass huddle of eight in the Best Picture category, the only other nomination the film received was for Best Song, where John Legend and Common’s “Glory” is lost in the shuffle with the only other black film to receive a nomination – Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Beyond the Lights.” Its song “Grateful” by The-Dream made the cut.

None of “Selma’s” other highly lauded attributes – acting, writing, cinematography, etc. – were honored with an Oscar nod. The film was good enough for Best Picture, but in the eyes of the academy, nothing else.

This is all coming off the heels of the Golden Globes where DuVernay was nominated, but did not win for “Selma.” The film ended up only taking home an award for “Best Song” that night despite nominations in the drama and actor categories.

What could “Selma” not have that other race relation related Oscar winners have had? Perhaps a “white savior.” What is different about “Selma” compared to Oscar winners “The Help,” “Lincoln,” “Glory,” “The Blind Side,” “Crash” and even “12 Years a Slave,” is there is not anything even remotely resembling a heroic white figure in the film. “Selma” is a story of the historic Selma-to-Montgomery marches and while white people were part of the marches (and this is shown in the film) they were not the stars. They were following the lead of African Americans. The closest to a heroic white figure in “Selma” could have been then President Lyndon B. Johnson, but he is portrayed as a reluctant actor in the film, a point that has been surrounded by much controversy.

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It’s an uncomfortable reality, but maybe films that feature African Americans seizing their own destinies instead of just being passive victims of racism disturb the status quo for the mostly aged, white and male members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. There was nothing in it for “them.” Just the cold reality that America had to be dragged, bloodied and shamed into protecting the rights of African Americans and that most of the progressive work involved African Americans themselves putting life and limb on the line, no one to play Bruce Willis to our 300 year nightmare version of racial “Die Hard.”

Despite recent gains in diversity, it may take the Academy a while longer to sink in that not every black story needs to come with racial hand-holding or even involve white people at all.

IN-DEPTH