Once regularly under fire for their lack of diversity, the Academy Awards have gained a reprieve in recent years as people of various ethnic backgrounds have received nominations and scored wins. This year, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o both earned acting nominations for 12 Years a Slave, while the film's director Steve McQueen was nominated as both a director and producer. Gravity's director Alfonso Cuaron was nominated in the same categories as McQueen, and Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) notched a nom for Best Supporting Actor. In recent years, there have been wins in supporting categories for Octavia Spencer and Mo'Nique, and in directing for Asian filmmaker Ang Lee.
Compared to the the majority of the Academy Awards history, where wins for actors like Sidney Poitier, Rita Moreno, and Jose Ferrer were very much the exception and not the rule, the Oscars are far more diverse. Of course, that's like saying that there have been strides made to curb global warming... any progress is great, but that doesn't mean that there isn't more work to do.
Publisher Lee & Low recently analyzed the first 85 years of Oscars to spotlight issues such as there being only one minority winner (Halle Berry) in the Best Actress Category, that only one woman (Kathryn Bigelow) has ever won for directing and that only six minority performers have won for Best Actor... and that's including Ben Kingsley, who is of Indian descent. The Los Angeles Times originally published a look at the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in 2012 and updated it in 2013 to show that 93-percent of those casting votes were white and about three quarters are male. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is a black female, helped spearhead a movement to add new members to the voting pool, but the Times found that the changes have had only a minimal impact on the percentages.
The makeup of the Academy's voting blocks are only partially to blame, however. While there are some women and minorities in top decision-making roles at studios, like Sony Picture's Amy Pascal and Warner Bros CEO Kevin Tsujihara, the majority of studio executives are still white males. The movies made by Hollywood, while perhaps more diverse than in the past, still feature casts and crews that are predominantly white and, particularly behind the camera, largely male. Adding to the problem, UCLA's 2014 Diversity Report showed that only a small group of talent agencies represent an overwhelming majority of the actors, directors and writers making movies for studios, but that their rosters were less diverse compared to all other agencies combined.
While there has been progress in films featuring black actors, there is still a gap when it comes to representing other minority groups like Asians and Hispanics. The last Asian actor to be nominated for a leading role was Kingsley in 2003. Not counting European-born actors like Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, or Joaquin Phoenix, who was born while his parents were living in Puerto Rico, only one Latino actor (Demian Bichir for A Better Life in 2011) has been nominated for a lead role in the last 10 years.
Until Hollywood starts telling stories that are as diverse as the nation as a whole, and employing casts and crews that represent that diversity, there will continue to be only minimal gains realized at the Academy Awards. After all, the prerequisite for earning an Oscar nomination is having the opportunity to do the work in the first place.
There might come an award season where an actual mix of nominees in all categories adequately represents women and minority groups, but it hasn't happened yet. Just being better isn't good enough.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.