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Rob Edelman: Oscar Uproar

A nanosecond after the 2015 Academy Award nominees were announced, a controversy surfaced. Of the 20 contenders in the four acting categories, not one was a person of color. Such also was the case with the 2014 nominees. One glaring omission was David Oyelowo, who was skipped over despite his acclaimed performance as Martin Luther King in SELMA.

Two questions may be drawn from this hubbub. The first is a two-parter: Is 21st century-style racism at work here? Haven’t there been other black honorees? (I am not talking about Hattie McDaniel or Dorothy Dandridge or Sidney Poitier, who were among the rare nominees or winners of decades past.)

Well, a bit of research revealed that, during the past decade, there have been 17 persons of color who were nominees or winners. They range from established Hollywood royalty-- Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, and the legendary Ruby Dee, among others-- to such diverse talents as Viola Davis, ChiwetelEjiofor, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Taraji P. Henson, LupitaNyong’o, Mo’Nique, Octavia Spencer, and so on. With this fact on the table, one can come to one’s own conclusions.

The second question also is a two-parter: What actors of color were overlooked in 2015? Whom would they replace as nominees? Well, two of the current Best Actor nominees are Bryan Cranston for his performance in TRUMBO and Matt Damon for his work in THE MARTIAN. My feeling is that there was nothing in their performances to merit nominations, but that is just my view. Perhaps Johnny Depp should have replaced one of them, for BLACK MASS. Or perhaps Michael B. Jordan, for playing the son of Apollo Creed in CREED. Sylvester Stallone earned a supporting actor nod for CREED. Why not Michael B. Jordan as Best Actor?

Here is another example. In CHI-RAQ, a little-seen Spike Lee film that is well-worth discovering, Angela Bassett offers a relatively brief but nonetheless eye-opening performance. Might she have won a Supporting Actress nomination had CHI-RAQ earned more hype? And also, whom would she have replaced? Can anyone quibble with the five nominees: Jennifer Jason Leigh; Rooney Mara; Rachel McAdams; Alicia Vikander; and Kate Winslet?

Should Jane Fonda be complaining for missing out on a Supporting Actress nod for her brief but riveting presence in YOUTH? Would the LGBT community be indignant if Eddie Redmayne, Rooney Mara, and CateBlanchett were not nominated because they played transgender or lesbian characters in, respectively, THE DANISH GIRL and CAROL?

However, in my view, the one film that is most deserving of recognition is not STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, which is a good film and an important film-- and which deservedly earned a Best Original Screenplay nomination. It is BEASTS OF NO NATION: a powerful, disquieting drama about a young African boy who is forced into becoming a child soldier as civil war rages in his country. Idris Elba should have been cited for BEASTS OF NO NATION. The only debate here might be: Is his performance leading or supporting? Elba may be top-billed in the film, but he already is a Golden Globe nominee and Screen Actors Guild winner in the supporting category.

Now sure, BEASTS OF NO NATION debuted on Netflix, but it also had theatrical play this past fall and it did qualify for the Oscar race. But it received no nominations, in any category. My feeling is that BEASTS OF NO NATION merited not just of a nod for Idris Elba. It also should be a Best Picture contender. Why was it overlooked?

Rob Edelman as written several books on film, television, and baseball, and was a longtime Contributing Editor of Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide. He teaches film history at the University at Albany.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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