Oscars not just a man but, white

The Academy Awards have backpedalled to their dull reputation of a lack of recognition towards black and minority actors, sparking outrage with the snubbing of the late Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman. 

In the spirit of saving the best for last, the Oscars always saves the most prestigious honour of the ceremony, Best Picture, as the final award. But that was not to be this year.

This year’s final award was best actor, a preempt that being the last category to be awarded, it would be honouring 43-year-old Boseman who died last year following a four-year battle with colon cancer.

After all, no one else from the nominee list screamed, "pick me" loud enough to warrant a break from the norm. That, plus the fact that Boseman won at the Critics Choice Awards, SAG and the Golden Globe Awards, was a clear indication that this was supposed to be a landslide win for an actor who we will never see again in action.

Following this, it is hard to tell why the best actor award was moved to the last position and why Anthony Hopkins won it other than that, at 83, he is the oldest actor to ever win an Oscar. Not that his performance in the movie, The Father, for which he won the award was not worthy. Worse was the fact that he was not at the ceremony to receive it. 

Boseman is a household favourite, having been known for his grace and charm, as well as exemplary performances on Marvel Studios films Black Panther, Get On Up, Da 5 Bloods and 42, among other films.

Oscars in numbers. [Graphics: Standard]

A question of race?

Black Panther film grossed over 1.3 billion dollars (Sh140 billion) worldwide. The film notably premiered in Kenya in a colourful event in Lupita Nyong’o's hometown of Kisumu, where locals flocked in awe of the cast of African superheroes, a first of such tales.

The hashtag #oscarssowhite took over the internet in 2016, hot on the heels of #blacklivesmatter, drawing attention to the matter, which had been casually swept under the rug since the award show’s inception.

That year, there were notable people of colour eligible for nomination, including Idris Elba, Michael Jordan and Will Smith for various major roles. It, however, went down in history that of all 20 nominees that year, there were no black actors.

“Although black actors have done better at the Oscars than some realise, ethnic minorities as a whole have not. Hispanic actors have secured only three per cent of the nominations, although 16 per cent of Americans are Latino. Asian-Americans (six per cent of the population) have had to make do with one per cent. The Oscars may not be anti-black; but they are definitely hideously white,” wrote The Guardian.

A history of racism

Hattie McDaniel’s who became the first black actress to win an Oscar for Gone With The Wind in 1940, was forced to sit at a segregated table away from her white fellow nominees.

Since 2016, the Academy Awards has made visible efforts to reclaim its acceptance with minority groups, nominating record levels of black and minority group actors in 2017.

Denzel Washington, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer all scooped nominations that year. Not only were black actors recognised, but producers and directors too, with Kimberly Steward and Oprah Winfrey being nominated.

The years 2018 and 2019 also saw an improvement in diversity. Jordan Peele, Ugandan-born Briton Daniel Kaluuya, Spencer and Mary J Blige were nominated in 2018 alongside multiple other minority actors Mahershala Ali and this year’s Kaluuya, who won the Best Supporting Actor for his role in biographical drama Judas and the Black Messiah. 

In 2019, the minority nominations for Academy Awards hit an all-time high with 15 nominations.

“Since the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences began celebrating excellence in film in 1927, fewer than 200 black creatives have been nominated across all categories from a possible 10,000 slots, approximately. Among the non-acting awards, only 23 black nominees have won,” wrote IndieWire, a film industry and review website.

Gender inequality

The question of race is not the only one rocking the Academy Awards, as gender has been brought up too, most recently by actress Issa Rae, who sarcastically commentated on the nominee list last year.

“Congratulations to those men,” Rae said, after announcing the all-male, all-white contenders on the Best Director category.

Take for instance the award for Best Director, the most prestigious award that is open to men and women alike. Since the Oscars inception in 1929, there have been 449 nominations for this award. Of this, just five have gone to women. Of the five, only one has been won. That was in 2010 by Kathryn Bigelow as director of The Hurt Locker.

This is not the only category that has been marred by gender inequalities. Of the 379 nominations for Best Film, a category which until 1950 had only been awarded to production studios as opposed to individuals, women have been nominated 13 times, and none has gone on to win the Oscar.

In the 23 music categories over the years - including Best Score, Best Musical and Best Song - there has been 1,238 nominees. Female only representation account for 1.6 per cent of the nominees.

The striking imbalance of all is in the Cinematography category. Out of a possible 609 times, it has nominated a woman once. And she didn't even win!

However, the steady inclusiveness over the past few years is slowly coming undone, with a decline in 2020. The year also saw the Academy Awards face backlash for failure to nominate any female directors. Only five black people were nominated.

While a gender imbalance still exists, the percentage of women nominated, whether on their own or as part of a team, has certainly improved. Women or mixed teams have doubled in nomination - 22 per cent in 1930 compared to 44 per cent in 2020, the highest in the history of the Oscars.

But still, men dominate in the prestigious ungendered categories — best directing, best picture and adapted and original screenplay.