Does it matter? Certainly not as much as any number of other events in the news, but, well, I have opinions, and I’m going to share them with you.
1. Who exactly are these nominees?
Let’s take a look at the list of actors and actresses, all based on following the wikipedia links from the above link.
Bryan Cranston — mostly of German descent, with a bit of Irish and Jewish ancestry.
Matt Damon — English, Scottish, Finnish, and Swedish ancsetry.
Leonardo DiCaprio — German and Italian descent.
Michael Fassbender — Irish and German (grew up in Ireland, began his career in London)
Eddie Redmayne — English (native of England and began his career there).
Cate Blanchett — Mostly English, some Scottish (grew up and began her career in Australia)
Brie Larson — French Canadian.
Jennifer Lawrence — not specified.
Charlotte Rampling — English (native of and began career in England)
Saoirse Ronan — Irish (dual citizen, grew up and began career in Ireland)
Those are just the “Best” nominees, not the “Supporting” ones, but it’s already apparent that they are not just “white” but fully half of them began their careers in other English-speaking countries. Prsumably this is because Oscars predominently go to artsy-type films, and these films are more likely to cast actors from overseas, or perhaps actors from overseas are more likely to seek out artsy films, but it makes sense.
And this hadn’t occured to me when I set out to look this up, since I fully expected my Thought #1 to be “these actors are ‘white’ only because we’ve defined them as such” and then to list the various sorts of ancestries that would have been considered “non-white” a century ago, but this isn’t as interesting as I thought it’d be — it’s slim pickings with Italian, Jewish, and Irish ancestry.
2. The voting system itself doesn’t lend itself to quotas. Academy members pick their top choice for each of the categories, and then, in a process that seems nearly as complex as sorority “matching”, second or third choices are plucked as needed, but only one vote per voter is actually “counted.” (See this description, for instance.)
This means that no individual voter can say, “these are my 5 favorite” and among them be sure to include a “quota” nonwhite actor. A votor would either have to truly believe that a nonwhite actor had indeed given the best performance, or would have to be willing to vote for a “non-best” individual for the sake of hoping to boost the case of a “diversity” nominee. Perhaps an alternate voting system in which academy members specify, say, five choices, and all are counted equally, would improve numbers, but would likely be a logistical nightmare or have other disadvantages.
3. Consider that, in principle, there are no “objective” reasons to split Best Performer awards into male and female, but it’s done anyway. Perhaps it’s a vestige of a time when women’s acting and men’s acting was thought of as categorically different, somehow. Perhaps either men or women were felt to be the “better” actors so that, if you didn’t have separate categories, one or ther other sex would lose out. Or, due to fewer roles for women, it was thought that they wouldn’t be able to compete in a non-sex-specific category? Or perhaps it was just a desire to have a larger number of headline award categories for the sake of industry promotion.
But in principle you could make the same case for a further split: Best Performer from a Majority European Ancestry and Best Performer from a Majority African, Asian, or Indigenous American Ancestry?
Oh, sure, you cringe at the thought. But, objectively, why?
4. And here’s the more reasonable solution, a different sort of split: what if there were two categories of Actor/Actress awards: Best Actor in an Artsy-Fartsy Picture and Best Actor in a Picture Marketed to Mainstream Movie Audiences? OK, fine, they wouldn’t be called that, and you’d have to have some objective metric, say, revenues, or number of screens, but it seems to me it would solve the problem neatly — and, as a bonus, maybe I’d have hear of or even seen more of these movies.