I've said for a long time that these big awards shows--the Oscars, the Tonys, the Golden Globes, the Grammys--are my version of the big championship game. I'll sit there with way too many snacks and hoot at the screen while the awards are handed out. I'll stay up as late as I need to and call out of work the next day if necessary. But this year, my own love of such spectacle surrounding mass dissemination of artistic recognition in the United States was overwhelmed by some truly poor choices by the Academy as a whole.
The most recognizable and insidious one is the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards this year. Four of the largest, most recognized and talked about categories (Lead Actor, Lead Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress) are comprised entirely of white nominees. Women, once again, were left out from the field of Best Director, though Alejandro González Iñárritu does prevent the category from being all white English-speaking men. None of the Best Picture nominees focus on characters of color in any significant way, and one of them uses Indigenous People as props moreso than characters (the bear gets more character development in The Revenant). The Academy also skipped out on Best Picture for Carol, perhaps the best queer representation in contention for the top prize.
Then you get to the next layer of bad in the diversity issue: cis straight white representation for more diverse stories. The only nomination for Creed is Sylvestor Stallone, the most recognizable white actor in a film starring African American actors. Eddie Redmayne received an Oscar nomination for playing a transgender woman in a role that could and should have been cast with a transgender actress. Though Straight Outta Compton grabbed a major nomination in Original Screenplay, all of the writers of the story of rap group N.W.A. are white.
There are incredible films from 2015 that feature strong work from writers, directors, actors, and film artists who identify as LGBTQ or people of color. None of these films received any major nominations; most received zero nominations. Even limiting it to films that met the arbitrary standards for Oscar consideration, you wind up with a list like this: Creed (1 nomination), Dope, Tangerine, Beasts of No Nation, Chi-Raq, Girlhood, The 33, Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter, Concussion, and Straight Outta Compton (1 nomination).
Then you hit on the Music Branch. I'm a musician. I respect film music. I believe it deserves recognition. Yet every year, the Academy Awards as a whole and the Music Branch, specifically, make horrible decisions.
The most high profile blunder comes down to, once again, allowing performances from Original Song contenders. Last night, you could watch The Weeknd, Sam Smith, and Lady Gaga perform their Oscar nominated songs. You could not, however, see Japanese opera singer Sumi Jo perform "Simple Song #3" from Youth or transgender musician Anohni perform "Manta Ray" from Racing Extinction. The official reason was time constraints, but they had no problem announcing Dave Grohl as a performer when he's not nominated.
This decision has two layers of disappointment. First, The Academy, once again, undermined the Original Song category that people question the validity of in increasing numbers each year. If you can't be bothered to represent all the nominees in the one film category that should allow for spectacle at your ceremony, just get rid of it.
Second, even after being rightfully criticized through the second year of #OscarsSoWhite, The Academy thought it was a great idea to ax two diverse performers from the telecast for "time." Anyone want to place bets on whether The Weeknd would've been cut for "time," too, if he wasn't a popular musician? Yes, "Manta Ray" and "Simple Song #3" are long, but longer songs have always been abridged when performed on the telecast. That wasn't even presented as an option here, as who would complain about singers who aren't household names in America not performing songs from films that weren't widely seen? That appears to be the real logic and it sickens me.
And, on the most insular level, the Music Branch once again decided to arbitrarily disqualify a clearly Original Score from consideration after ballots already came in. I did not particularly care for The Revenant, but I'll be damned if the massive, fascinating score composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and Bryce Dessner wasn't great. The Academy arbitrarily ruled that they could not prove that one composer was responsible for a certain percentage threshold of the score, so it was ineligible.
They pull this kind of nonsense every year when they don't want someone to have a nomination. Last year, they said Antonio Sanchez's percussion score for Birdman wasn't sufficiently "musical" enough to be eligible. They also disqualified Carter Burwell and Karen O for Where the Wild Things Are because the song "Worried Shoes" was used in the film, so obviously they didn't actually write an original score. Other scores are deemed ineligible if too much of a recognizable orchestral classic is used in the score (though there is no set limit, and many nominees feature less original music than adapted music). Neither is there actually a set ruling for score collaborators, as duos, trios, and groups have been nominated in the past.
In other words, don't set up rules if you're only going to selectively enforce them. Make everyone jump through the hoops or burn them to cinder.
Also, notice how the only ineligible after nominations score this year came from a composer of color? Surprise, surprise.
Rather than put another set of eyeballs on a ceremony that has repeatedly tripped over itself (through its voters' statements, through its nominations, through its abysmal diversity statistics, and through its actions again and again) when it comes to diversity, I chose not to watch last night. I worked on my music for rehearsal, read a couple books, and worked on this article while listening to the exquisite soundtrack to Racing Extinction.
Perhaps 2016 will result in a better set of nominations. I'm not holding my breath. The Academy has, historically, only been interested in diverse narratives when straight actors give "brave" performances as gay or transgender characters, or when African American actors play slaves, housemaids, prostitutes, or abusive family members. The industry needs to do better and not just offer lip service to diversity. Put up or shut up.