The Revenant is a great movie and surely deserves the 12 Academy Award nominations it received this week, but it also seems like a typical Oscar movie for all the wrong reasons.
It's the story of American frontiersman Hugh Glass, who crawled across South Dakota to seek revenge on companions who abandoned him and stole his kit after he was savagely mauled by a grizzly. In Hollywood's version, Glass is sympathetic to native people and even had a native wife at some point: She is one of only two women who appear, briefly, in the film. Mainly Glass is a lone white guy battling other Europeans, other natives, the grizzly and the elements. It's the kind of story the Academy likes; one in which we can all agree that a hero is a white man who triumphs against long odds.
As soon as the nominations were released Thursday morning, Twitter lit up with the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, just as it did last year: On both occasions, the acting categories did not include a single person of colour. Last year, the awards snubbed the cast of Selma (although the film was nominated as best picture); this year it's worse, since The Hateful Eight, Creed, Straight Outta Compton and Concussion all offered strong black performances for Oscar consideration.
Analysts can always find explanations for particular Oscar snubs and nods – Concussion was poorly reviewed, which may have hurt Will Smith's chances; Sylvester Stallone's nomination for Creed is probably sentimental recognition for lifetime achievement, not a racist oversight of his co-star Michael B. Jordan – and putting artistic accomplishments to a vote always produces weird vagaries. Of course, the fault lies as much with the industry from which the Academy draws its nominees as with the Oscars themselves: White men completely dominate Hollywood on both sides of the camera.
But the issue matters because, however tired, unrepresentative or stupidly sentimental the particular choices may be, the Oscars symbolize the movies and the movies in turn symbolize popular culture. For good or for ill, the stories told by Hollywood are the myths and legends of our time.
As it polls annual numbers on Hollywood's lack of diversity, San Diego's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film argues that getting more women and minorities behind the camera will change the movies themselves, and so it focuses not only on minority representation in films – its researchers memorably concluded you are almost as likely to see a female alien in a movie as you are to see an Asian woman or Latina – but also on the number of women and minorities directing, producing and shooting movies. Most of us, however, know and judge Hollywood simply by what we see on screen. In that regard, women fared much better this year than last, since three of the Oscar Best Picture nominees – Room, Brooklyn and Mad Max: Fury Road – all feature female protagonists.
On the other hand, there is precious little racial, ethnic or even national diversity in this week's nominees. It's revealing that when the Irish and the Canadians got together to make movies in 2015, they wound up telling a classic American immigration story (Brooklyn) and choosing to set a harrowing contemporary drama (Room) in the United States. Other people and other places have limited roles to play in Hollywood.
In an age that values both diversity and transparency, you have to wonder how long the movie industry can remain this ignorant of the world around it. Hollywood currently earns 70 cents of every box-office dollar outside of the so-called domestic market (Canada and the United States). So far, that business reality seems mainly to produce action blockbusters that can be easily understood through subtitles and aren't going to get Oscar nominations, while cultural sensitivity means changing the invaders in Red Dawn from Chinese to North Korean rather than risk offending an important international audience.
More sophisticated changes may be slow to emerge. After all, how is Hollywood ever going to reflect the world if it does such a lousy job reflecting the United States?