There’s been an understandable amount of outrage around this year’s Oscars, one that, for the second year in a row, has been criticized for only nominating white actors in each category. What’s worse, some films in contention, titles like Creed and Straight Outta Compton, received nominations, but only for the white members of their productions. This issue is not new. The same controversy was mounted following last year’s group of nominees, but this year’s nominations seem even worse, simply because there seem to be so many eligible films which were left out of the conversation.
There are many ways in which this group is worthy of these complaints. Eight films were nominated for Best Picture this year, and complaints related to diversity can be leveled at at least half of them. They aren’t all worthy of these complaints, though. Let’s break down which films have diversity problems, and what their displays (or lack thereof) say about where we are in Hollywood right now.
The Big Short
Oh boy. This movie is a complicated one. On the simplest level, The Big Short is an enormous failure. It’s a film directed by a white guy that features exclusively white guys in major roles. Close examination does reveal that the film itself provides a sort of ironic commentary on the very existence of a male-dominated culture. Our protagonists are men, sure, but so are the hundreds or even thousands of investors responsible for the complete financial breakdown which the film depicts. This film gets credit for its attitudes toward the men it depicts, outsiders who ultimately bet against the American economy. This does not absolve the film of its problems, though. This is still a movie about white guys, and it’s one that contributes more to the problem surrounding this year’s films than it works towards commenting on them. C
Bridge of Spies
Among the nominees, Bridge of Spies is one of the more conservative films, and as a result, it tells the story of white men working in government, as white men so often do. The film itself is deeply interesting, but it does very little to work against criticisms relating to a lack of diversity. The story itself is thoroughly gripping, but the one female character in the film is largely there to worry about the Tom Hanks’ character. This film is white, so it fits in well at the Oscars this year. D
Brooklyn is a deeply delightful film, one that is period-specific and deals with the struggles of immigrants and the tenderness of youth. It’s centered around a young woman, one who is forced to choose between her homeland and the new life that she has built for herself in America. The cast is filled with more women than men, and while the men are crucial to the story and its development, they never detract from the woman at the center of the drama. This is not a diverse cast by any means, and so it does contribute to the problems surrounding whiteness, but it at least chooses to posit a woman’s struggles as deeply rich and worthy of our time and consideration. B
Mad Max: Fury Road
Fury Road has been talked to death, and for good reason. It’s wonderful from start to finish. It tells a subversive story, one which suggests that men will be at the fore of the story, only to reveal the many ways in which they are inadequate when compared with women. Men are seen to be at the heart of a corrupt society, one that can only be fixed by their radical and complete removal. This film meets the quota for strong women and then some. While the cast is mostly white, the film does make room for Zoe Kravitz, and it’s a movie which feels so deeply interested in representation that it’s difficult to fault it too heavily for its whiteness. A-
Easily this year’s most diverse nominee, The Martian’s cast is so large that it’d be amazing if it wasn’t diverse. These people all work together behind a singular mission, which is admittedly to rescue a white guy. That’s not to say the film is at all reductive, though. The women in this film have as much to do as the men, and they are never sidelined the way they might be in Bridge of Spies or The Big Short. On top of that, the cast includes names like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, and Michael Pena. The Martian’s cast is deep, and thankfully it’s also diverse. A
The Revenant did very well at the nominations, and it holds up when scanned for diversity. The film places a prominent light on Native Americans, a group that is largely underrepresented in cinema as a whole. The Revenant does fail in its roles for women, which are entirely one dimensional and largely exist to motivate the film’s men toward one goal or another. Men are definitely the focal point in this outdoor piece, and this leaves little room for complexity among any characters that are not white and male. B
Room is a harrowing story, but it’s also deeply intimate. There are some supporting players, but the film is really carried by the mother and son pairing, who spend five years together inside a tiny garden shed. The story’s intimacy does not allow for a wide range of diverse characters, but the film does as much as it can with its small and deeply engaging story. All of the characters are treated with equal levels of complexity, and it doesn’t feel as though any individual within the film is treated as a mere token. It’s not as diverse as it could be, but it also isn’t misogynist or white-washed. B+
Spotlight is great. It’s an important film, and one that is absolutely worth your time. It’s also white. The cast is almost entirely composed of white men, ones who are deeply competent and incredibly capable, but don’t represent the widest color palette. Rachel McAdams is the only female in the bunch, and her role is key, but ultimately only one piece in a much larger whole. The victims of the crimes which the film depicts are also largely white and male. Spotlight is constrained by the truth of the events it depicts, so it can’t be entirely blamed for its lack of diversity. Still, in a year when this issue has been so much at the fore, Spotlight’s whiteness doesn’t help. B-