Oscars 2016: Diversity Must Play a Role, But Not the Lead

It's fair to expect host Chris Rock — who called Hollywood "a white industry" in a 2014 essay — to address the diversity issue up front

Sunday's Academy Awards promise a three-way race for best picture, performances by Lady Gaga, Sam Smith and the Weeknd, and the likelihood of first Oscar wins ever for Leonardo DiCaprio and Sylvester Stallone.

But no one is talking about it.

Oscar host Chris Rock and telecast producers Reginald Hudlin and David Hill — who would typically be promoting the show this week to inspire tune-in — have gone silent. Academy officials are staying mum. Hollywood's diversity issue is dominating buzz, demanding airtime and threatening to overwhelm the industry's biggest night.

That leaves Hudlin and Hill with the unenviable challenge of presenting a show celebrating the best of the movie business when its worst features have been in focus. The producers declined interview requests from The Associated Press, as did Rock and film academy representatives.

It's fair to expect Rock — who called Hollywood "a white industry" in a 2014 essay — to address the diversity issue up front, and industry experts say he's perfectly suited for the job.

"That opening Chris Rock monologue is going to be key to how the overall telecast is perceived," said Dave Karger, chief correspondent for Fandango.com. "He's the kind of guy who can treat all of this with the perfect amount of edge and humor."

"This is not the year you want Ellen DeGeneres or Billy Crystal up there," said Steve Pond, awards editor for TheWrap.com and author of "The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings at the Academy Awards. "That would be awkward."

Hollywood's lack of diversity has taken center stage since last month's Oscar nominations revealed a second consecutive year of all-white acting contenders.

Producers have assembled a diverse array of presenters for Sunday's show, including Morgan Freeman, Sofia Vergara, Kevin Hart, Whoopi Goldberg, Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, Kerry Washington, Quincy Jones and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" director J.J. Abrams and star Daisy Ridley. Last year's winners Eddie Redmayne, Patricia Arquette, J.K. Simmons, Julianne Moore, John Legend and Common are also set to appear.

Then there are the nominees, who've been somewhat overshadowed this awards season by the industry's larger issues. "The Revenant" leads with 12 nominations, including best picture, and it's locked in a three-way battle with the investment dramedy "The Big Short" and the journalism tale "Spotlight" for the night's top prize. Other contenders are "Bridge of Spies," ''Brooklyn," ''The Martian," ''Room" and "Mad Max: Fury Road."

The leading best-picture nominees split the guild awards: "Spotlight" claimed the Screen Actors Guild's top prize, "The Big Short" won with producers and "The Revenant" brought Alejandro Inarritu a second consecutive Directors Guild of America award. Many academy voters are also guild members, which means Inarritu could also take home his second directing Oscar.

He's up against Adam McKay ("The Big Short"), Tom McCarthy ("Spotlight"), George Miller ("Mad Max: Fury Road") and Lenny Abrahamson ("Room").

DiCaprio ("The Revenant") and Brie Larson ("Room") have swept the acting categories at other awards shows this season and are favored to win on Sunday. DiCaprio faces Redmayne ("The Danish Girl"), Bryan Cranston ("Trumbo"), Matt Damon ("The Martian") and Michael Fassbender ("Steve Jobs"). Larson is nominated alongside Cate Blanchett ("Carol"), Jennifer Lawrence ("Joy"), Charlotte Rampling ("45 Years") and Saoirse Ronan ("Brooklyn").

Regardless of what the Oscars' host and producer may add to the diversity conversation, they plan to present the traditional 24 awards and feature musical performances by original song nominees Gaga, Smith and Weeknd and a special appearance by Dave Grohl.

"The show can't solve the diversity problem in the academy, and the academy can't solve the diversity problem in the entertainment industry, which is really the bigger problem — not what gets nominated for Oscars, but what gets made and who gets hired," Pond said. "The show can address the issue, as I'm sure it will. Beyond that, it's not their job to convince the world that the academy has changed its tune and will have a diverse slate of acting nominees next year."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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