Oscar nominations 2017: Diversity is not a simple black-or-white issue

Baby steps? Maybe. But Hollywood proved Tuesday it can do a better job honoring actors and actresses of color in Oscar nominations — and at the same time fall short in full inclusiveness.

The list of nominations for the 2017 Academy Awards, which cover movies released in 2016, makes clear this will not be a third year in a row in which all 20 of the nominated actors and actresses are white people — thus averting another year of online jeers and sneers of #OscarsSoWhite.

The list of acting nominees includes a black actor and an Asian actor — Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), who is African American, and Dev Patel (Lion), who is British of Indian descent — nominated in the best supporting actor category. And three of the best supporting actress nominees are black: Viola Davis (Fences), Naomie Harris (Moonlight) and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures).

The lead categories are the least diverse in 2017, but they're still not entirely white. Denzel Washington is vying for best lead actor for Fences and Ruth Negga was nominated for best actress for Loving.

Spencer made history, as the first African-American woman to win an Oscar for best supporting actress (in 2012 for The Help) and then come back to be nominated again. "I'm just over the moon," she said.

But she echoed the widespread reaction to the look of the nominees this year: Elation for black entertainers mixed with disappointment for Latinos, Asians and other minority entertainers.

"I don’t feel there’s a lot of diversity. There’s black and white," Spencer said in an email to USA TODAY. "But there are a lot more people of color than African Americans. ... There’s so much more to diversity than being black or white ... I’d like to see diversity in directing — there are brilliant women directors and cinematographers."

So is this the start of a permanent shift in nomination diversity or just a temporary break from the same-old, same-old? Is it the result of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' recent efforts to diversify and expand its voting membership?

Or is it the consequence of a powerful social-media campaign to shame Hollywood about the persistent lack of diversity in the industry and in those it chooses to nominate and honor with gold statuettes every year?

The immediate reaction from some activists was exultation, along with reminders that there is still far to go in improving representation of other minority groups: There were no nominations for Latino actors, or for women directors, for instance.

"In terms of the diversity of the list this year, we are so totally thrilled," says Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics Association. "There were 18 African Americans nominated across various categories, and that's something to celebrate. Hopefully, this is the start of something that will continue every year, and one day there won’t be a reason to have this conversation.

"Now we just have to make sure that Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, LGBT and others also are represented in the future."

The Twitter activist who created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, April Reign, was impressed. "I see y'all and I appreciate the support so much. Things are changing because our voices are strongest together," she tweeted.

But she, too, pointed out the continuing under-representation of other groups. "One year of films reflecting the Black experience doesn't make up for 80 yrs of underrepresentation of ALL groups," she added in another tweet.

Filmmaker Matthew Cherry echoed that view on Twitter. "And while we applaud all of the black nominees for Academy Awards this yr we know there is a long way to go for all underrepresented groups."

Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, said the film studios fell short — again. “Without question, the multidimensional portrayals of our community are what audiences want," he said. "Latinos are outraged: Our actors are not getting the opportunities to work in front of camera, and with few exceptions, in back of the camera as well.”

Sonny Skyhawk, founder of American Indians in Film and Television, congratulated "our African American brothers and sisters" but said he believes the nominations excluded "other people of color, especially when it comes to American Indians."

Daniel Mayeda, chair of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, applauded the increased number of black actors and actresses in the nominations list, but said Patel's status as the only Asian actor nominated reflects "the continued lack of real opportunities for Asians in Hollywood."

"Certainly it’s better than it has been, especially for African Americans, but Latinos were shut out again this year, and it’s a huge problem," Mayeda said. He said it's "obvious" that studio heads need more help in diversifying the industry, and should work more closely with multi-ethnic coalitions such as his to achieve that.

"We believe that the box-office results of Hidden Figures and Moana, which were huge successes, show that a general audience will respond to an authentic story, and that's what we're asking for — authentic stories that put us at the center," he added.

Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO and president of GLAAD, which monitors LGBT representation in the media, posted congratulations on Twitter and on the GLAAD blog for Moonlight, a coming-of-age story about a gay black youth. She also hailed Negga's nomination in Loving, the story behind a 1967 Supreme Court decision upholding the right to interracial marriage that many believe paved the way for the court's ruling upholding the right to same-sex marriage.

"This should be a signal to filmmakers to tell more diverse stories," Ellis wrote. "The global impact of inclusive and diverse stories is massive and changes hearts and minds. The Oscar noms are uplifting in these darker political times."

Jeetendr Sehdev, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies the challenges in improving diversity in the film industry, last year charged Hollywood had been "whitewashed." This year represents an improvement —.but not for all, he says.

"The Academy seems to have missed the point of #OscarsSoWhite," Sehdev said. "This movement isn't about pacifying black film critics because you were named and shamed by them for two years, but genuinely embracing diversity today as a necessary way of life that doesn't just include nominating black people but also including Hispanic, Asian Americans and LGBT people, who remain horrifyingly under-represented at the moment."

Mahershala Ali, left, and Alex Hibbert in 'Moonlight.' Ali was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor, and the film was nominated for best picture. (Photo: David Bornfriend, AP)

The lack of diversity in Hollywood movies and Oscar nominations
(and, thus, winners) is anything but new; it's been the rule since the invention of film cameras that most of the people working in front or behind those cameras have been white males.

But 2016 was the second year in a row when dissatisfaction with that status quo boiled over andfound a near instantaneous means of expression in the #OscarsSoWhite campaign .

In the 2014 nominations (announced in 2015) and the 2015 nominations (announced in 2016), all of the 20 major acting nominations, plus the best-picture category, went to a white person or to a white-themed movie. Black, Latino, Asian and Native American actors and stories were shut out, as were female directors and producers.

After the #OscarsSoWhite campaign took off at the end of 2015 and gained momentum at the 2016 Oscars ceremony in February, the academy responded. In July, the academy announced it had invited a record 683 filmmakers, actors and craftsmen to join the organization — the largest, most diverse class ever inducted by the academy: 46% were women and 41% were minorities.

While the move was historic, it was unclear whether the shift would be sizable enough to avoid an #OscarsSoWhite three-peat.

Moreover, an examination in February by USA TODAY of the slate of nearly 200 movies officially announced for release in 2016 by 14 studios, suggested the Oscars in 2017 would be just as pale and male as in 2016.

The analysis did not assess the Oscar viability of those movies. But it showed a discernible lack of minority and female faces in major roles and among the directors of the films being released between January and December 2016 — and a striking number of movies in which there were going to be only white faces.

Tuesday's nominations puts that issue away, at least for now. But it's not over.

Latinos, who can be black, white or Asian, make up the largest minority group in America, Sehdev says, but remain the least obvious in Hollywood. "Even with the academy's supposedly radical membership changes, the 7000-member group remains shockingly white and male," he said. "There is simply no excuse at this point."

The critically acclaimed musical, La La Land, tied with All About Eve and Titanic for the most nominations ever — 14 total — but its relegation of actors of color to insignificant roles will "only exacerbate the feeling that Hollywood's core values remain whitewashed," Sehdev says.

Hollywood activists pushing for more women to get a chance to operate at the top level of the industry were disappointed that no women were nominated for best director.

"It’s wonderful that we see much more diversity but at the same time I’m still dismayed that movies that women make can’t get into the Oscar conversations," says Melissa Silverstein, founder of WomenandHollywood.com, who said some women were nominated in less high-profile categories such as film shorts. "We’re still in a place where the default is always male and they don’t see the potential opportunity to hire women."

Martha Lauzen, head of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, says the nominations are a product of the mix of individuals in the industry in any given year, and the biases of the academy's voting membership. And her studies show that women still lag behind men in front and behind the camera, she says.

"Because women accounted for only 7% of directors, 13% of writers, 17% of editors, and 5% of cinematographers in 2016 (according to her latest Celluloid Ceiling study), the chances that they will receive nominations in these categories are slim," Lauzen says.

She thinks the overall number of black characters did not increase significantly in 2016. "I would also note that focusing on just a few high-profile actors can be incredibly misleading," Lauzen says. "They can lead us to draw conclusions about the representation of certain groups that are inaccurate.  Also, inclusion is not just a black-and-white issue, where are the Latino and Latina actors?"

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