Oscars nominations — not so white this time

Diverse stories: Left to right — the nominated stars of Lion, Hidden Figures and Moonlight.

After two years of all-white nominees, the Oscars have honoured seven non-white actors in 2017 — a record. But do the glitzy achievements of Hollywood stars really matter to the rest of us?

In February last year, Chris Rock was standing on a stage in Hollywood, looking out at the biggest names in the film industry. ‘Well I’m here at the Academy Awards,’ he began with a grin. ‘Otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards. You realise, if they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job!’

There was awkward, relieved laughter. It was the second year in a row that only white actors had been nominated, and the controversy had been building for weeks. At last it was finally being addressed.

Things will be different this year. Yesterday six black actors received nominations — a record — plus the British-Indian actor Dev Patel. It is the first time in history that black actors appear in every category. And hopefully, said the nominee Mahershala Ali, it is ‘a start to something that becomes really normal’.

The Oscars began in 1929, as ‘talkies’ took the world by storm. There was trouble from the beginning — not over race, but over whether a beloved German Shepherd named Rin Tin Tin could win the first ever award for Best Actor. He had the most votes, but in the end the Academy decided to hold a second round for humans only. (Its winner, Emil Jannings, went on to make Nazi propaganda films in Germany.)

The golden statues quickly became legendary, their recipients revered around the world. In 1940, Gone With The Wind star Hattie McDaniel became the first black actor to win an award — but she had to get special permission to defy the venue’s ‘no coloureds’ policy, and she was asked to sit apart from other guests at the back of the room.

Only 12 black actors have won awards since then. And it is not just African-Americans who feel left out; in 1973, Marlon Brando refused his award due to the industry’s treatment of Native Americans.

Despite its controversies, the ceremony still draws millions of viewers. But ratings have dropped in the last two years.

Some critics blame the racism row. Others argue that the awards no longer matter — regardless of diversity.

Acting out

That’s right, say some. These days most ‘Oscar bait’ movies are mediocre biopics about worthy but dull social issues. The truly dynamic work is happening elsewhere, ignored by the Hollywood elite. And anyway, does anyone really enjoy watching celebrities walk down a carpet and congratulate themselves on their own success?

So cynical! cry others. The Oscars are still a joyful celebration of the very best that culture has to offer. That is why seeing a diverse range of faces is so important. They are also an opportunity to draw attention to causes the actors care about — don’t be surprised if some of this year’s winners follow Meryl Streep in taking a pop at their new president.

You Decide

  1. Are you more likely to watch a film if it has been nominated for an Oscar?
  2. Is Hollywood racist?

Activities

  1. As a class, take it in turns to nominate your favourite films and acting performances of the last year. Let us know the winners in the Comments below.
  2. In groups, write and film the opening scene of your own movie about life in your hometown.

Some People Say...

“The public should get a say in who wins the Oscars.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why are there so many black nominations this year?
The Academy was clearly embarrassed by the last two years, and its president has begun a five-year plan to increase diversity within its members. (These are well-respected people from the film industry, plus former nominees). This probably helped, but a simpler answer is that more good films with diverse casts were released this year. There were more to choose from.
Will it make a difference?
Those who argue in favour of more diverse films would definitely say so. It is important that people can see reflections of themselves on screen, so that they can relate to the characters and understand themselves better. It is also important to see people from different backgrounds to your own, which can make everyone more tolerant and open-minded.

Word Watch

The Oscars
Technically these are known as the Academy Awards, as they are hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But the Oscars nickname has been around since the 1930s — possibly because one of the Academy’s original librarians, Margaret Herrick, remarked that the trophies looked like her Uncle Oscar.
Talkies
The first major film to synchronise its sound with its pictures was The Jazz Singer in 1927. It was a huge success, and the technique soon overtook silent movies.
Rin Tin Tin
The dog was rescued from France during the first world war, and became a huge Hollywood star, appearing in 27 films.
Emil Jannings
There is a story that Jannings held out his Oscar while approaching the Allied forces at the end of the second world war, hoping they would spare him. (They did.)
Dropped
Around 43.7 million watched in 2014, compared to 34.3 million in 2016.
Meryl Streep
The actress broke her own record for the most nominations yesterday — she has now received 20. She made headlines at the Golden Globes this month by using her speech to criticise Donald Trump.

Subjects

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