Bombs away at the Times: Did Idris Elba deserve a Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance in last year's film, Beasts of No Nation?
We have no idea. We didn't see that film, or any of the films whose actors did get nominated. (Main problem: They charge admission.) If we had seen the films, we probably wouldn't be able to judge who the best actors were.
We assume that Elba is a fine actor. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor by the Golden Globes, but he didn't get nominated for an Oscar.
Presumably, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott knows a great deal more than we do about acting. In the recent statement shown below, he almost seems to say that Elba should have received an Oscar nod, that he shouldn't have been "ignored" by the Academy.
Scott clearly seems to think that the film Straight Outta Compton was unjustly passed over in some way—and that race explains the Academy's failure to give it more nominations:
SCOTT (1/15/16): I don’t want to let the Academy and its members off the hook. Or rather, I want to broaden the indictment beyond the specific complaints that they ignored Mr. Elba, “Creed,” “Straight Outta Compton” and Will Smith’s excellent Nigerian accent in “Concussion.” It’s not as if the 6,000 Academy members exercised the singular intention to ignore those contenders. The nominations are a numbers game, and in each case you can offer a nonracial explanation for the oversight. Other movies and actors just had a few more votes. “Beasts of No Nation” came from Netflix, which is a scary interloper in the hidebound, turf-protective world of the studios. The violence may have put off some voters. “Creed” did not get much of a campaign from Warner Bros., which may have figured that the seventh movie in a 40-year-old franchise with a mixed track record wasn’t exactly Oscar bait. “Concussion” is terrible. “Straight Outta Compton"—Damn Academy! Scott can find a non-racial reason to explain why Elba was "ignored." But when it comes to Straight Outta Compton, "race sneaks back into the picture."
I think it’s when you get to that one that race sneaks back into the picture. The Academy, in its function as the culture industry’s upholder of the ideology of Quality, has for a long time been open to African-American talent and even eager to promote and reward it. But at the same time, it has been consistently blind, indifferent and hostile to African-American culture, or at least to certain popular manifestations of blackness at the moment of their greatest impact elsewhere. A Ray Charles biopic in 2005 is unlikely to cause any Academy member the slightest discomfort. An N.W.A biopic in 2015 is another story.
The Academy "has been consistently blind, indifferent and hostile to African-American culture, or at least to certain popular manifestations of blackness at the moment of their greatest impact elsewhere," Scott thoughtfully explained. A Ray Charles flick causes no discomfort. A film about NWA "is another story."
On January 15, the conversation continued from there, with two other New York Times critics seeming to lament the Academy's treatment of Straight Outta Compton. In these passages, New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris and Times film critic Manohla Dargis discuss the fact that Straight Outta Compton failed to receive a Best Picture nomination:
MORRIS: So this brings us to the racism-of-math vs. math-of-taste portion of our conversation. For something like “Straight Outta Compton” to have been close to a best picture spot, enough voters would have had to think that a movie about the outfit that did “[expletive] tha Police” was the best one they saw last year. No matter how many Jennifer Hudsons and Jennifer Lawrences join the Academy, the numbers aren’t in the favor of a movie like that, not the way the voting works now, not with the field that can now include as many as 10 movies. It might have ranked somewhere on 1,000 ballots, just obviously not at the very top of the 300 or so necessary to make it rain eight balls for Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and the gang.Damn Academy! Dargis never thought that “Straight Outta Compton” had a real shot for a Best Picture nod! The Academy's too old and too white, she explained. They "just don’t see the racism and sexism in front of them."
DARGIS: Oh, I never thought “Straight Outta Compton” had a real shot for a best picture nod, even with the Academy’s recent—and laudable—attempts to diversify its membership. There’s just too much cussing, for starters, and the average age of the 94 percent white membership is 62 (as of 2012). And I’m guessing that when these dudes (77 percent) were teenagers, they were listening to the Beach Boys (nothing wrong with that!), whereas a new Academy member like Ava DuVernay knew exactly who Dr. Dre and N.W.A were when she was growing up around Compton. My point being that the lived, embodied experiences of the membership greatly matter and that sometimes even the most well-intentioned white people just don’t see the racism and sexism in front of them.
To readers ardent for some desperate glory, the comments by these lofty critics may have gone down quite well. Scott and Dargis, the two film critics, were rather plainly suggesting or saying that Straight Outta Compton got short-changed by the Academy on a racial basis.
That may be true, of course! We didn't see the film, and we don't know the basis on which the Academy's many members voted.
That said, we do know what Scott and Dargis did this winter when they listed their own Oscar nominations in the hard-copy New York Times. They did so on Sunday, January 3, just twelve days before they engaged in this hard-hitting conversation.
Uh-oh! Neither one of the lofty critics nominated Straight Outta Compton for Best Picture, or for Best Director! Scott nominated it for one acting award, out of the twenty slots available (Jason Mitchell, Best Supporting Actor).
Dargis completely "ignored" Straight Outta Compton's actors. She gave the film no nominations at all—not for Best Picture; not for Best Director; not in any Best Actor/Best Actress slot.
Dargis gave Straight Outta Compton no nominations at all. But so what? Twelve days later, there she was, seeming to trash Academy members for doing the same darn thing!
According to the inspiring Dargis, Academy members "just don’t see the racism and sexism in front of them." As a point of professional courtesy, her colleagues didn't ask why she gave the film no Oscar nods.
Should Straight Outta Compton have received Oscar nominations for Best Picture or Best Director, or in the four Best Actor/Best Actress categories? We have no idea.
But on Sunday, January 3, the New York Times' Manohla Dargis said she didn't think so. Twelve days later, Dargis was thrilling New York Times readers with a reversion to script.
(For the record, the Times' third film critic, Steven Holden, listed his own nominations on January 3, but didn't take part in the subsequent colloquy. Like Dargis, he didn't recommend Straight Outta Compton for any Oscar nods—none at all.)
While we're at it, let's note one additional fact. On January 3, for whatever reason, none of the Times' three film critics recommended Idris for an acting nomination. Twelve days later, there was Scott, ruminating on the reasons why Idris had been "ignored" by the Academy's voters!
Idris had been "ignored" by the Academy. That one additional fact was left unstated—days earlier, he had also been "ignored" by all three Times film critics!
In our view, that January 15 discussion is a remarkable document. It's hard to avoid the thought that Dargis and Scott were being less than obsessively honest as they dropped their R-bombs around. Consider this lofty oration, in which Scott continues from the material posted above:
SCOTT: A Ray Charles biopic in 2005 is unlikely to cause any Academy member the slightest discomfort. An N.W.A biopic in 2015 is another story.Damn Academy! The Academy failed to honor Creed because its characters weren't white—because "American cinema...still prefers to treat black people as symbols, problems and members of a 'niche' audience."
“Million Dollar Baby” and “Rocky” are both excellent boxing pictures and worthy Best Picture winners that breathed fresh life into perhaps the most cliché-ridden genre in all of cinema. “Creed” belongs in their company, but I think some of its particular virtues flew under the Academy’s radar, much as the glories of “Beyond the Lights” (2014) did. In addition to being a fight movie, “Creed” is a quiet, sweet love story about two people who happen to be young, gifted and black. It’s also suffused with hip-hop and Philadelphia street culture, but in a way that feels entirely organic. It’s not a film that is pointedly “about” race or class or any particular social problem. It’s not sending a message or teaching a lesson. It’s about the lives, feelings and aspirations of its characters.
Which, if those characters are not white, is apparently not enough. American cinema—more than television or pop music or literature—still prefers to treat black people as symbols, problems and members of a “niche” audience.
Apparently, so does Dargis! On January 3, she nominated Creed for one Best Actor award, nothing more. Somehow, that proved that she's part of an enlightened progressive caste, while Academy members aren't.
In our view, that January 15 colloquy is a striking document. Dargis and Scott battered the Academy, often in ways which were hard to square with their own nominations. At the start of the colloquy, Scott loftily offered this:
"At the movies, we may be in the age of Chi-Raq and Straight Outta Compton, but the Academy is still setting the table for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
Inevitably, such lofty remarks send thrills up the legs of Times readers. But on January 3, none of the Times' three film critics, Scott included, recommended Chi-Raq or Straight Outta Compton for a Best Picture nod.
As you might guess, it gets worse! Back on December 9, Scott had listed the 21 best films of 2015 in a typical year-end review. Are we in the age of Chi-Raq and Straight Outta Compton? Back in December, he included neither film among the year's 21 best!
One final, semi-humorous comment. It comes from Morris, a former film critic at the Boston Globe.
Morris is 40 years old; he went to Yale. He's socially defined as "black:"
MORRIS: There’s obviously a serious problem with regard to race, sexuality and gender in Hollywood. But it doesn’t begin or end with the 6,000 or so members of the Academy. The Oscars aren’t full-time jobs. To hear some voters talking about this time of year, it sounds like tax season or exam time. One problem is what the wider industry isn’t making. We’re mad at the Academy, but after Idris Elba playing that African warlord in “Beasts of No Nation,” Samuel L. Jackson in “The Hateful Eight,” “Creed,” and assorted aspects of “Straight Outta Compton,” which, for what it’s worth, I liked for about the first 40 minutes, what black people or “black films” did the Academy really miss?At the Times, Morris seems to feel he can say those things, perhaps because he's black! Translating, he seems to say that Straight Outta Compton was awful—and that there weren't a huge number of performances by black actors which deserved nomination.
In the case of both “Creed” and “Compton,” I just don’t think the campaigns were there for these movies. Just as I don’t think they were there for “Selma” the previous year. And as nauseating as that sort of thing can be, that’s how these things work: positioning, narratives, spinning, hype, overexposure, wanton whoring. So some of this is a matter of there not being enough movies in the pool. Some of it is the studios’ misunderstanding the worth of the movies they have. It strains credibility that “Creed” wouldn’t be a film the Academy would go for. But I also don’t think any voter wants to be told that he or she has to vote for a predominantly black film or: racism!
(Morris cites Elba, who Dargis, Scott and Holden all "ignored.")
Being black, Morris was able to say something else. He seemed to say that Academy members don't like to have people like Dargis and Scott telling them they "have to vote for a predominantly black film or: racism!" Are black performers possibly losing votes this way? Compare, contrast and discuss!
Voters don't like being hectored in transparently phony ways either. Our inspiring pseudo-liberal tribe sometimes seems to include the occasional person of that persuasion—the person who know exactly one play, and call that same play every time.
That colloquy was one for the ages. Or at least, so it says here.