Film Nominations

Film and race: How racially skewed are the Oscars?

by J.T.

FOR the 20 actors nominated for an Oscar all to be white could at best be seen as a surprise. For that to be true two years running is, to many, a scandal. While there will be no empty seats at the 88th Academy Awards ceremony on February 28th—live television does not permit such things—there may be a lot of missing faces. Confronted with what is seen as a “whitewash”, many prominent black Americans are saying they will boycott the ceremony.

In fact, as our analysis of film casts and awards shows, the number of black actors winning Oscars in this century has been pretty much in line with the size of America's overall black population. But this does not mean Hollywood has no problems of prejudice. As the data show, it clearly does.

The issue has come to a head because over the past two years some films with a particular emotional resonance were passed over. The original “Rocky” (1976) won three Oscars, and Sylvester Stallone was nominated (though he did not win) for both acting and writing. Critics and fans alike have heaped praise on 2015's new addition to the Rocky franchise, “Creed”, which sees a black fighter as the hero. But the star and the black director, Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler, will have to make do with fans' appreciation and more than $100m at the box office: the film's only nomination went to Mr Stallone, this time for Best Supporting Actor. “Straight Outta Compton”, a hit film about a black hip-hop group with a black director and producer, was nominated only for its screenplay, the writers of which were white. “Beasts of No Nation” delighted our reviewer, and fans of its star, Idris Elba, hope he will be the next James Bond. It also brought a horrifying phenomenon, child soldiering in Africa, to Western audiences. But the Academy ignored it. All this happens in the shadow of last year's nominations, in which “Selma”, a film about the civil-rights movement which our reviewer found “remarkable”, was nominated but did not win Best Picture, as many thought it should. Neither its director, Ava DuVernay, nor its star, David Oyelowo, were recognised by the academy.

Fingers are pointing at the Academy’s 6, 000-odd voting members, 94% of whom are white. Spike Lee, whose “Do The Right Thing” is considered one of the great movies not to have won an Oscar, has lamented “another all-white ballot”; Don Cheadle, who got a Best Actor nomination in 2004 for “Hotel Rwanda”, has joked dryly about parking cars at the event. It is possible that the only black actor onstage will be Chris Rock, who is hosting. He has already said that the Oscars seem to have become a white equivalent of the Black Entertainment Television awards.

These years are far from the first whitewashing in Oscars history: no actors from ethnic minorities were nominated in 1995 or 1997, or in an extraordinary streak between 1975 and 1980. Throughout the 20th century, 95% of Oscar nominations went to white film stars. It is an embarrassing anachronism that the prevalence of white Academy electors has been allowed to continue into the 21st century, a trend that the Academy's (black) president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, has vowed to end.

Could the “whiteout” be a statistical glitch? If the data were random, such a glitch would be hugely unlikely. A 2013 survey of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), an American union for film performers, suggests that 70% of its members are white. If all of the Guild’s members were equally likely to receive Oscar nominations, regardless of race, then over a two-year period 28 out of 40 nominations would be of white actors. The chances of no single person of colour being nominated across two ceremonies would be exceptionally small—even during a 15-year span, the odds of seeing at least one sequence of back-to-back whiteouts are around one in 100, 000.

Of course the data are not random. Yet, despite the 2015-2016 whiteout, an analysis of Oscar selections since 2000 suggests that the imbalances are industry-wide, not primarily to do with Academy voters. And they affect all ethnic minorities. Oscar nominations have not dramatically under-represented black actors. Instead, they have greatly over-represented white ones. Blacks are 12.6% of the American population, and 10% of Oscar nominations since 2000 have gone to black actors. But just 3% of nominations have gone to their Hispanic peers (16% of the population), 1% to those with Asian backgrounds, and 2% to those of other heritage (see chart).

Black actors get speaking roles in rough proportion to their percentage of America’s population, according to a study of 600 top films from 2007-2013 at the Annenberg Center for Communication and Journalism. (See “film roles” in the chart above.) Again, Latinos and Asians do much worse. But blacks are under-represented in the roles that count for the Oscars, getting just 9% of the top roles since 2000, according to our own analysis. (We define “top roles” as the top three names on the cast-list on IMDb, an online film database, in films with a rating of 7.5 or greater, an American box-office gross of at least $10m, and which were neither animated nor in a foreign language.)

The numbers indicate that, whereas the film industry most certainly fails to represent America’s diversity, the whitewashing occurs not behind the closed doors of the Academy, but in drama schools (shown in the SAG membership) and casting offices. For most of the past 15 years, the Academy has largely judged what has been put in front of them: minority actors land 15% of top roles, 15% of nominations and 17% of wins. Once up for top roles, black actors do well, converting 9% of top roles into 10% of best-actor nominations and 15% of the coveted golden statuettes, a bit above their share of the general population.

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