Why has there been major backlash to Andrea Riseborough’s Oscar nomination?

Why has there been major backlash to Andrea Riseborough’s Oscar nomination?

It’s the moment that every actor dreams of: receiving an Academy Award nomination. But for Andrea Riseborough, last week’s Best Actress nomination has swiftly become a bit of a nightmare. The actor has become the focal point of an ongoing row over racism in Hollywood.

It hasn’t so much been her nomination that’s upset people – her performance as destitute Leslie Rowland in To Leslie is undeniably formidable – but the fact that Riseborough has, in some eyes, taken the place of a more deserving black actor. One who played by the rules of the award game circus, didn’t necessarily have well-connected friends to help promote their films, and who had to do more to get to the top in the first place, simply because of institutionalised racism in the industry.

Here’s everything to know about the controversy.

What’s happened?

Shortly after Riseborough was nominated for Best Actress last week, there was a major kickback both online and in real life, with directors, critics and other industry employees all weighing into the debate. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite also returned to Twitter. It was first used seven years ago when no actors of colour were nominated for performing awards.

There have been no black women nominated for Best Actress this year

This year the nominees’ list for Best Actress is Cate Blanchett for Tár, Michelle Williams for The Fablemans, Ana de Armas for Blonde, Michelle Yeoh for Everything Everywhere All At Once and Riseborough. Although Yeoh is Malaysian and recently spoke about the difficulty she found making it in Hollywood because of “this face”, while De Armas is Cuban-Spanish – there is a clear absence of black actors on the list.

Viola Davis, who played General Nanisca in The Woman King, and Danielle Deadwyler, who played Mamie Till in Till, were the actors expected to receive nominations for their performances.

After the nominations, Chinonye Chukwu, the director of Till, said: “We live in a world and work in industries that are so aggressively committed to upholding whiteness and perpetuating an unabashed misogyny towards Black women.”

Heated discussions continued online with hundreds of fans backing Davis and Deadwyler. “Viola Davis not being nominated for Woman King is wild. Almost as wild as Ana de Armas being nominated for Blonde,” said one, “This should have been Viola Davis’ like fifth nomination. She getting robbed more than the Home Alone house,” said a second, while a third said: “Danielle Deadwyler and Viola Davis missing for Ana De Armas and Andrea Riseborough is maddening. It could have been the rare (first?) year that we had a majority POC Best Actress lineup.”

Riseborough’s film bombed

To Leslie is about Leslie Rowland, a woman in West Texas who wins close to $200K on the lottery, but who then squanders it all on alcohol and drugs. Now penniless and living on and off the streets, there are some small glimmers of hope in Leslie’s life: she’s offered a job by a motel owner, and her 20-year-old estranged son James agrees to her staying with him.

To Leslie is the directorial debut of Michael Morris, who was the Director of the Old Vic theatre in London from 1999 to 2002. The film won Film of the Festival at Raindance Film Festival in November and Riseborough was herself nominated for several more awards. However, the film itself bombed at the Box Office, pulling in an astonishingly low $27,322 worldwide.

She hasn’t played the game

There is frustration around Riseborough’s nomination because apparently the 41-year-old hasn’t taken part in the awards circus in the way that some of her fellow actors have.

Film Critic Robert Daniels wrote: “What does it say that the Black women who did everything the institution asks of them – luxury dinners, private Academy screenings, meet-and-greets, splashy television spots and magazine profiles – are ignored when someone who did everything outside of the system is rewarded?”

Speaking to Deadline after her nomination, Riseborough said: “I’m astounded... It was so hard to believe it might ever happen because we really hadn’t been in the running for anything else. Even though we had a lot of support, the idea it might actually happen seemed so far away.”

Her famous friends apparently got involved

According to The Sun, To Leslie’s campaign involved more of a grassroots effort, as Morris and his wife actor Mary McCormack (The West Wing) asked their friends to hype up the film. It worked: Charlize Theron and Gwyneth Paltrow both held screenings of the film, while Kate Winslet, Jennifer Aniston, Amy Adams, Courteney Cox and Demi Moore apparently backed the film in their Hollywood circles. According to The Sun Winslet said Riseborough’s To Leslie’s performance was “one of the greatest performances I have ever seen in my life”.

ABC News called the To Leslie campaign a “groundbreaking way to circumvent traditional Oscar rituals” adding that stars such as Susan Sarandon, Rosie O’Donnell and Edward Norton had also praised her online.

This kind of star power is near impossible to rival and has fuelled accusations that Riseborough received the surprise Oscar nomination because of privilege and powerful friends.

Christina Ricci, in a now-deleted Instagram post, said: “Seems hilarious that the ‘surprise nomination’ (meaning tons of money wasn’t spent to position this actress) of a legitimately brilliant performance is being met with an investigation... So it’s only the films and actors that can afford the campaigns that deserve recognition? Feels elitist and exclusive and frankly very backward to me.”

The fallout

But all the pressure has been effective: the Academy Awards’ Board of Governors is set to meet today to discuss Riseborough’s nomination. It’s likely that the English actor will keep her place in the Oscar running, as it would undermine the Academy’s voting process if she was bumped. But the discussions around her nomination have blown open the politics around Oscars’ campaign ethics.

In a statement the Academy said it was, “committed to ensuring an inclusive awards process,” and that it would be, “conducting a review of the campaign procedures around this year’s nominees, to ensure that no guidelines were violated, and to inform us whether changes to the guidelines may be needed in a new era of social media and digital communication.”

A member of the Academy Documentary Branch anonymously told Variety: “It sounds to me that Andrea’s team accomplished something that angered many people because we know how much money goes into trying to get an Oscar. Her team got her there without 30 billboards on Sunset. Without an installation on Hollywood Blvd.”

An anonymous member of the Marketing and Public Relations Branch said: “[Riseborough’s] team didn’t do anything more than what I see yearly. They probably did it closer to the rules than not… she’ll be fine,” while an anonymous member of the Actor’s Branch said: “Do you know what I honestly think? I think this is a quest to find out why a woman from a movie no one had heard about was able to receive a nomination purely on the performance. Do you know how many of my colleagues are nominated because they’re in so and so’s movies? A lot. If she were disqualified from the awards, it would be a decimation of the Actors’ choice because it’s our choice to nominate someone.”

To Leslie was released on October 7 in the US, and can now be rented on YouTube, Prime, Google Play and Apple TV