Status anxiety

The Oscars surrender to the golden age of protest

It has been accepted that the absence of black nominees for the Oscars is to do with racism … but is it?

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

Are we living in a golden age of protest? A bunch of aggrieved citizens only has to raise a murmur of protest, whether it’s about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia or Islamophobia, and the institution they’re targeting instantly capitulates. A case in point is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. No sooner had a group of prominent African-American actors and directors complained about the lack of black Oscar nominees this year — ‘whitewash!’ — than the president of the Academy announced she would be taking ‘dramatic steps’ to address the problem. The Academy will enlarge its membership to include hundreds of entertainment industry figures from diverse backgrounds.

To date, the only note of dissent has been sounded by Best Actress nominee Charlotte Rampling, who complained that the uproar over this year’s nominees was ‘racist to white people’. Not that outrageous a comment. After all, if you’re claiming that the only reason this year’s acting nominees are all white is because of racial bias and not because they’ve actually given the best performances, that is kinda racist. Certainly, if Jeremy Clarkson claimed a black actor had only been nominated for reasons of political correctness, the same figures who’ve been complaining about the whitewash — Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith — would be the first to denounce him as racist. Yet Rampling has been forced to produce a grovelling recantation, abasing herself at the feet of the professionally outraged Twitterati and begging for forgiveness. Her chances of winning an Oscar this year are now zero.

More or less everyone else has accepted that the Academy is guilty as charged, but on what grounds? The difficulty is that there are no objective criteria you can appeal to when deciding whether the absence of black nominees is fair or not. Should Idris Elba have been nominated for his performance in Beasts of No Nation? That’s an entirely subjective question. Had I been a member of the Academy, I would have nominated Elba and ignored the finger-wagging environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio, but I’m not so certain I’m right that I would accuse anyone who makes the opposite choice of racism. There is no right and wrong answer when it comes to matters of taste.

One way of assessing the accusation more objectively is to take more than one year into account, allowing for the fact that 2016 might be an outlier. And if you look at the number of black actors nominated for Academy Awards since 2000, it’s 10 per cent. Bearing in mind that African-Americans make up 12.6 per cent of the US population, that suggests there isn’t much bias. If anything, the bias is the other way. According to a study by the Economist, 9 per cent of the top roles in the highest-grossing films of 2000 to 2013 — the kind of roles that might lead to Oscar nominations — went to black actors. On that basis, it looks as though African-American actors are punching slightly above their weight when it comes to nominations.

Ironically, a big reason black actors don’t receive more recognition is because of politically correct casting. I remember buttonholing the late Alan Rickman at a party and asking whether it bothered him that he was only ever cast as the villain in Holly-wood movies — in Die Hard, for instance. Absolutely not, he said, and went on to explain that it’s much more challenging to play those roles because bad people are more interesting. As an actor, it stretches you in a way that playing a steely-eyed leading man never could. That’s why actors cast as villains are so often nominated for Oscars — a case in point being Tom Hardy, who’s been nominated this year for playing the baddie in The Revenant. (Idris Elba also played a villain in Beasts of No Nation and he’s been nominated for a Bafta, if not an Oscar.)

Unfortunately, African-American actors are rarely cast as psychopaths or murderers, presumably because directors don’t want to be vulnerable to charges of racial stereotyping. In Die Hard, for instance, the only African-American among the terrorists is a computer nerd. The black techie has become almost as big a cliché in Hollywood movies as the black judge — heaven forbid that black actors should be cast in less cerebral roles. But playing a brainiac in a supporting role isn’t going to get you nominated for an Oscar. Paradoxically, if Hollywood filmmakers were less anxious about being accused of racism, members of the Academy would be in a position to honour more black actors.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator

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Show comments
  • James Mitchinson

    Idris Elba wasn’t even eligible for a nomination. Beasts of No Nation was released on Netflix. The rules state that a film must be released in a movie theatre to be eligible for an award.

  • Ron Todd

    We can be sure there will be lots of black winners next year. And not one of them will ever know if they won on merit or not.

  • Picquet

    Let’s be honest about this. I don’t actually give a f about any Actor, nor how their ego is getting along. All I want is a good, believable performance for the money I paid on my ticket/Netflix/Telly. If black lesbians (or Javanese Firedancers etc) feel that they’ve been overlooked in their hunt for medals, it’s not merely possible that there is a reason, it’s highly likely, and it has a great deal to do with their black lesbianism (ability to dance on fire etc): very few people are entranced by black lesbians Acting as black lesbians on their screens; their enjoyment demands a lot more than that. And I won’t be paying to see them.

    Still, I’ve no doubt that there will be a full Quota at next year’s event. Not that I’ll be watching.

    • willybach

      Agree. All these awards are bestowed on actors by their profession just make the luvvies feel good and important to each other. The real test is the market: the results at the box office and the numbers of the viewing public.

  • Nick

    I felt really disappointed when I saw Idris Elba jump on the so called racist Oscars bandwagon.

    He seems like a really nice down to Earth bloke and I like him as an actor also.Not the type I thought to jump on the luvvie wagon.

    He’s better than this,better than the likes of Lenny Henry and Cumberbatch.

  • Sean Fleming

    Like fish bait, but for racists. Nice to see so many of you out in number.