2012’s Predictably (Mostly) White Oscar Nominees

We shouldn't be surprised that this year's crop of Oscar nominees largely ignored people of color. But it's still disappointing.

By Jamilah King Jan 25, 2012

Oscar nominations are out and there aren’t many surprises. Certainly, there’s the good–a meaningful uptick in nods for Latino actors and filmmakers, and one for the civil rights era documentary "Barber of Birmingham." But it’s more of the same in which Hollywood’s biggest awards show recognizes and perpetuates stories that it feels are important–and generally ignores nuanced stories by and about people of color.  

Michael Cieply, writing at the New York Times’ Carpetbagger blog, called the list "conventional."

"As for the directors behind those nominees, all are male, all are white, and most have been a presence at the Oscars before," Cieply wrote. "Their average age is somewhere in the vicinity of 57, nearly matching the average age, around 60, of members of the Academy’s governing board."

"The Help" is among this year’s favorites. It’s received a nomination for best picture, and two of its supporting actresses–Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer–were also nominated for best supporting actress awards. While the performances have been praised, the film itself has been widely criticized for its happy-go-lucky portrayal of black women’s lives in the Jim Crow South. The Association of Black Women Historians has twice come out publicly to condemn the film. (Though the Oscar nods have helped buoy modern-day domestic workers’ lobbying efforts in California).

For some who work in the film industry, this year’s nominations list was a mixed bag. While most of the films were made by and for whites, there’s still hope that the actors of color who were nominated will be recognized for their work. "I’d love to see Viola Davis win," says Tambay Obenson, chief editor and writer at IndieWire, a collective of black filmmakers. "Even though I didn’t particularly care for [‘The Help’], I’d be happy for her."

It’s a small, but symbolic hope that actors and filmmakers of color will be recognized for their work in an overwhelmingly white industry that values packaged stories and historically inaccurate blindspots over nuanced dramas centered in communities of color. 

Hollywood’s audiences are becoming more racially diverse, and it’s increasingly their buying power that drives box office success.

So which films should have also been included on the nominations list?

"Pariah," the coming of age story of a young black lesbian growing up in Brooklyn, was considered a long shot but deserved more attention, according to Obensen. The film’s star, Adepero Oduye, gave a critically acclaimed performance, one that was even acknowledged by Oscar nominee Meryl Streep in her speech at the Golden Globe Awards.

But Dee Rees, "Pariah’s" director, says she isn’t worried about winning awards.

"My work is on the screen," Rees told The Grio. "Being nominated or mentioned for things doesn’t make the film any better. Not being nominated or mentioned doesn’t make the film any worst. The film still is what it is and nothing can take away from that and make it better. The biggest affirmation is having people come see it on screen."