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When the nominations for the 88th Academy Awards were announced, the outcry came out almost immediately. There were no acting nominees of color, and two critically-acclaimed films featuring actors of color – “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton” – were snubbed for Best Picture.
Here & Now‘s Robin Young talks with Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, about some of the changes that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is considering.
On the Academy potentially increasing the number of nominated films
“I’m thinking barn door and horse. I think this is too late. If they had done something like this after last year’s ‘Oscars So White’ protest and folded that into this year’s nominations, that would have been different. But I think adding nominees now is only going to spark ferocious backlash and that’s not fair to the nominees.”
If there were eight films and ‘Straight Outta Compton’ was the ninth film added to the nominees, what would that telegraph to you?
“I think that would just embroil the whole process in the Oscars this year and the debate, controversy and fury in some cases because there would be a lot of speculation about was ‘Straight Outta Compton’ the actual ninth Best Picture nominee according to the existing voting, or was it an attempt to kind of stanch the hemorrhaging that’s going on right now around these nominations? So I don’t think it would be fair to that ninth nominee, I don’t think it’s fair to the Academy. I think the Academy, by and large, is trying to do its best but the larger problem is the demographics of the members reflect an America that, I think, never existed and certainly doesn’t exist now. As a result we get nominees that don’t reflect what’s going on in movies either.”
If it turns out ‘Straight Outta Compton’ was in fact the ninth nominee, and is corroborated by the votes, then why was the number of nominees not already 9?
“I think there’s no way to win. If it was statistically the ninth nominee in the voting that happened, if they add it now that will look bad on the Academy for not adding it before. If they can’t prove it that will also look bad and it will look like they are just trying to add a black film. Either way it is not a good look for the Academy and I cannot see them winning.”
Are we putting too much on the Academy?
“We absolutely are. This is not really about the Academy. The Academy is a reflection and a symptom of a very deep problem in Hollywood and, I would say, in American popular culture generally. I am fortunate enough to do a lot of my work in Los Angeles. I go to many meetings at studios in L.A. and you see, by and large the decision makers at the top of departments and organizations are almost uniformly white and largely male as well. The demographics are not the only story. The key there is not just the color of people sitting behind important desks, it’s the thought process. It’s what are deemed important stories. It’s what are deemed merely entertaining stories. I think when ‘Straight Outta Compton’ was green-lit and produced, people saw it only as an entertaining movie, not as an important movie because it was only about a hip-hop group. As opposed to seeing it as telling a story about a defining chapter in recent American history, which it actually does. It’s not just about hip-hop, which is important in and of itself, but it’s about the Rodney King riots, racial conflict and police brutality and all of these things make it important. Same with ‘Creed’.”
On the idea that nominating actors portraying certain roles (‘gangster rappers and warlords’) would send the wrong message
“I think that’s insane. Forrest Whitaker won an Academy Award for playing Idi Amin, not exactly a pleasant individual. The great roles are roles of great dramatic content, they’re often bad guys. People win Academy Awards for playing bad people all the time. It’s not for Academy voters to judge whether or not a role is an appropriate representation of African-Americans or black people in general. That’s just silly. I do think that Idris Elba was robbed. I think he gave one of the best performances that I saw all of last year. In would say the same for Michael B. Jordan in ‘Creed,’ and one thing I think was interesting. If you follow African-Americans and black people around the world on social media, their response to ‘Creed’ is about the beauty of the love story, the beauty of Michael B. Jordan’s performance. Sylvester Stallone’s character is peripheral, but I think many other people saw ‘Creed’ and saw the return of Sly Stallone and the reinvention of the Rocky franchise, so for them Sly Stallone is the center of ‘Creed.’ For a lot of African-Americans, Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson are the center of ‘Creed,’ and I think that disconnect and difference between how people watch movies and where we identify when we watch characters, that’s what needs to be addressed.”
On critics’ claim that Will Smith’s performance in ‘Concussion’ was not Oscar-worthy
“I’d say, let’s dispense with the idea that the Academy Awards, or any similar awards, are awarded purely on merit. They’re just not. These things come together through a result of many different factors including what people think is important, when it’s ‘time’ for someone to win an award. Let’s remember Stanley Kubrick, one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema; never won an Oscar. Let’s also remember that the year Spike Lee’s ‘Do The Right Thing’ came out, one what I think is the most important films in cinema, the Academy Award for best picture went to ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ which is not exactly a film that has stood up well. So the people who say ‘let’s just keep it to merit,’ I think that’s just a false argument once you begin to look at what’s won over the years.”