The Academy Award Nominations Are the Whitest They’ve Been in Years, and Then They Can’t Even Correctly Identify "Selma" Actress Tessa Thompson

In 2015, there is not a single person of color nominated for an acting performance at the Academy Awards.
Publish date:
January 19, 2015
diversity, Oscars 2015, academy awards

When the 2015 Academy Award nominations were announced last week, much digital ink was immediately spilled on the “lack of diversity,” but let’s call it what it is: They’re white.

The word diversity has been corrupted and shat upon by an industry, my industry, which just keeps wringing its hands and repeating that word as though the word itself can summon change without action. We’ve made it to the actual year envisioned as “the future” in Back to the Future Part II, yet mainstream Hollywood theatrical releases look more like they’re from the decade visited in the original Back to the Future. Television struggles as well, but there have been great strides there, as well as whole new outlets for content creation that are putting black and brown faces in the spotlights that we deserve to share.

Over at movie studios and in the world celebrated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, however, it’s a white, white, white, white world. In 2015, there is not a single person of color nominated for an acting performance at the Academy Awards. Mind you, it’s not usually looking like an NBA All-Star Game after-party up in there, but this is the first year since 1998 that it’s just flat-out all white.

We can write your soundtrack singles, and Chris Rock and Whoopi Goldberg have both rocked as hosts of the often interminable ceremony. But to be routinely recognized for stellar achievement in the major categories? LOL. We already know that the Academy is made up of mostly old white men, so as bothered as I am by the nominations’ “lack of diversity,” I’m more hurt by the ways that stunning lack is expressed every day.

By the way, the president of AMPAS is Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a black woman. Elected in 2013, she is the first black person and the third woman to hold the position. She read the nominations on Thursday and they were met with such objection to their whiteness that she spoke to the Associated Press on Friday evening.

She made a politically correct speech befitting her awkward position about having made “greater strides than we ever have in the past toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization” and spinning the lack of acting or directing nominations for the historic civil rights drama Selma by urging people “not to lose sight of” its Best Picture nomination, calling Best Picture “an award that showcases the talent of everyone involved in the production of the movie."

If that’s the case, then why bother with any other categories? Just award a Best Picture each year and let “everyone involved in the production” feel appropriately “showcase[ed]” and celebrated, no? No.

Ms. Boone Isaacs also reminded us that the Academy branches vote individually to nominate within their own categories, but they all vote on Best Picture. In the “peer-to-peer process,” as she describes it, directors nominate directors, actors nominate actors, and so forth. This is also how new Academy members are recruited; so if the Academy’s chosen ones have traditionally been white men, and there is no retirement requirement, they just keep filling the ranks with their “peers.” Until they open that word up to possibly include women and people of color who are also peers because they, too, are making excellent motion pictures, we’ll get more PR department–approved speeches about strides toward diversity than actual change.

I saw the nominations and declined requests to write an essay about them, because I was too busy trying to carry on with my day and keep my cheeks dry as a black actress in an industry that repeatedly tells me it doesn’t give a shit about me.

Lawyer and blogger April Reign created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and Black Twitter roasted the nominations to bits with jokes so scathingly funny that if they were written by white men they’d lead to a network pilot offer in the time it takes to hit “tweet.” But they weren’t written by white men, they were written by us, in yet another effort to laugh through the tears, to cope by at least amusing ourselves and showing solidarity and coming together when the establishment once again tells us we don’t belong.

I’m so fucking sick of laughing through this pain. I’ve done the hashtag jokes in the past, and I even created one, but the cycle of insult-outrage-hashtag with no significant results/accountability/change is getting to be a bit much for me.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t do the hashtags or joke through the pain. I’m saying that on that day, I didn’t personally have a single thing to say about it, serious or funny, beyond, Yeah, that’s a really white list, and it’s upsetting but not surprising, and I kinda wanna cry, for many reasons.

And then I saw this:

Of course the Academy has an Instagram account, and of course it's posting pictures of nominees since announcing them. And of course, in a sea of white faces, they misidentify the one black one.

Pardon my jaded tone. I say “of course” because it just keeps happening.

I’m certain there have been pictures of white celebrities misidentified as well; mistakes happen. But it happens consistently to people of color, and the entertainment industry stakes are undeniably different.

Even when we are recognized by the Academy, it is disproportionately for playing a maid or a slave (or for being Denzel Washington). Now that speaks to a big ol’ layer cake of issues about what movies get made and who’s cast in them in the first place. It’s a long and winding road that has led us to these blindingly white Oscar nominations.

We get it, Academy. You’ve made it crystal clear what we are to you and what you’re comfortable seeing us as. But since, by your own design, there are so few faces of color involved with your precious awards this year, if your social media account is going to post a picture of one of them, you’d better damn sure not identify her as the other one.

I'm not suggesting that someone helming the Academy’s Instagram page posted that image with pure evil and racially motivated malice, screaming “Fuck Tessa Thompson and the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and all black people forever MUAHAHAHA!” before incorrectly tagging that picture.

I think it was just a mistake that some might call innocent, but it matters because representation matters. You’ve essentially opened your massive iron gates just enough to let one or two of us sneak in, and then once we’re inside you treat us like The Help.

The name was swiftly corrected, but the screenshots of the original post are still going strong. Being casually cast aside or mistaken for someone else hurts, regardless of the details. In the context of the Instagram post from the Academy, it’s despicable. They misidentified the lone black face among the whitest nominees in years; the face of a person who herself is not even nominated, but I guess the dehumanization would be too obvious if they just posted the word Selma with no image of a human being.

Tessa Thompson and Carmen Ejogo are both black actresses who are great in Selma. As we already know, neither of them are nominated, but they do still have the honor of giving great performances in such an important film, one that also contains a massive performance by non-Oscar nominee David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Also not nominated, for her fine work in directing Selma, is Ava DuVernay. If I may doff my intersectionality cap for a moment, by not nominating Ms. DuVernay, the Academy missed the chance to nominate only its fifth woman and the first ever black woman in its directing category. But, oh well. Instead, they see Selma as an immaculate film conception that somehow burst forth great with no effort from people who made it that way that might also deserve recognition.

I've read more than one op-ed about the nominations’ “lack of diversity” that also praised DuVernay on her grace in tweeting way up on the Twitter High Road with a lovely message of gratitude at the Best Picture nomination.

This is where we are: The woman makes great art, and “journalists” are parsing her tweets because how she will (or won’t) address a huge slight by a bastion of her industry has become the story. Not how fantastic she is or her consistent greatness, but the insult and how she will respond.

We may remember when I wrote here about the disgusting jokes centered around former Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis. That was two years ago.

Ricky Gervais, on stage at the Golden Globe Awards, jokingly made mincemeat of her name. That was this past Sunday. At 11 years old, this beautiful little black girl is repeatedly used for punchlines by grown white men as though they’re on equal footing.

On the night when Wallis attended the Oscars as a nominee, she and her parents had to choose to take the high road in the face of insults on what should have simply been a great night. Just like all of these women who are misidentified around what is supposed to be a celebratory occasion. Just like Ms. DuVernay.

Oh, to achieve at a high level in your field and have an entire social justice movement pinned to your back as well, whether you like it or not.

I’d like to take a moment to send out a hearty fuck you to these inept social media accounts. I don’t know the exact hiring structure of these networks and agencies, but I imagine that for reasons of equating youth with being tech-savvy, and also not necessarily commanding the highest salary, perhaps the people handling these accounts are not the most seasoned employees.

Maybe they’re handed a list of names, and they have to find the pictures and label them. They need to do better. With all the information available at our literal fingertips, and the millions of eyes these posts are seen by in literal seconds, THEY NEED TO DO BETTER.

Last year I was innocently cruising the ol’ Twitter timeline when I was shocked to see this:

My timeline lit up immediately with people sharing it and scolding it, and I chose in that instance to directly engage the Mother Jones Twitter handle, since I had considered Mother Jones to be a progressive site/publication and in always considering the source, this one shocked me.

The tweet was changed, an apology was tweeted, and I got swift personal apologies from both the Mother Jones handle and the (white, male) editor who had actually posted it. (I’m choosing not to name him here because the incident is what I want to describe, not a personal attack on him with a digital footprint.)

It was one of those situations that Just. Plain. Sucked. The editor was very apologetic and said that it was simply a mistake. One of carelessness and moving hastily and multitasking, and that he knows who Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday are, but he’d just messed up. His tone was kind and contrite, and all I could do was ask him to take better care in posting images of icons from here on out.

Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday are individual icons to me. I can't even fathom how anyone could confuse them, but I’m sure people do it in the privacy of their own homes or when not representing large establishments. Please — I don’t expect anyone to know everyone’s names, and the nature of fame is far less universal than some people think. Tom Cruise, President Obama, and a handful of other folks are instant-name-recognition famous; everyone else is well-known to certain groups.

But as with the Academy’s Instagram issues, the fact that this happened on a public platform from a verified account with a huge following is appalling. I don’t want some diversity initiative that rings hollow and I don’t want a bullshit apology. I want real change and sometimes I just throw my hands up and cry and wish I cared about doing anything with my life as much as I care about acting and entertainment.

We already have to run twice as fast to get half as far. When we get there, get our names right.