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Old white actors don’t get the Oscars’ diversity problem. That’s why it’s a problem.

Michael Caine.
Michael Caine.
Robin Marchant/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Michael Caine, everyone's gentle grandfather and one of the best parts of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight franchise, has weighed in on the Oscars' lack of diversity. And his comments, like the Cars franchise he also appears in, are something people wish didn't exist.

"You can’t vote for an actor because he’s black. You can’t just say, 'I’m going to vote for him. He’s not very good, but he’s black. I’ll vote for him.’ You have to give a good performance," Caine told Nick Robinson for BBC Radio 4, explaining that black actors and actresses should "be patient" because "it took me years to get an Oscar."

Giving Caine the benefit of the doubt, it's possible that he's completely misunderstood the issue, because the outrage the Academy is currently facing isn't what he's describing. Caine appears to believe that nonwhite actors, actresses, and filmmakers want special treatment.

But the reason black actors, actresses, and directors, including Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith, as well as white actors, actresses, and directors, including George Clooney, have come out against the Oscars is that no people of color were nominated in this year's acting categories. Black actors, actresses, and directors did turn in "good performances"; they just weren't recognized.

For example, Idris Elba's stunning performance in Beasts of No Nation (which Caine says he saw) was snubbed. And this is the second year in a row that all of the Oscars' acting nominees are white, despite the existence of worthy performances by people of color. Last year, Ava DuVernay wasn't recognized for her powerful work in Selma.

It's not like the Oscars happen in a vacuum. Wins and nominations matter, especially when they tend to favor white actors, actresses, and filmmakers.

"An Oscar or a nomination gives an artist’s career a boost, and for now, those boosts — those roles, that financing — remain limited mainly to white filmmakers and actors," Richard Brody wrote in the New Yorker.

Caine suggests that black actors and actresses be patient. But that's a lot easier said than done if you're not being affected by a broken system and if you, like Caine, have already enjoyed the career boost afforded by a couple of Oscar wins.

And Caine can be as patient as he wants, but the conversation about diversity in Hollywood won't be quieting down anytime soon. On Friday, just as Caine's comments started to draw attention, 2016 Academy Award nominee Charlotte Rampling said, according to a translation bythe Guardian, that the Oscar protests were "racist to whites."

"One can never really know, but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final list," she told the French radio station Europe 1.

Perhaps something's been lost in translation, but it's disingenuous to paint the discussion about the Oscars' lack of diversity as "racist to whites." No one has said that Rampling or any of her fellow white nominees didn't deserve their nominations. Rather, people are upset that the nominations aren't more representative and diverse in whom they recognize. The outcry is about deserving candidates who have been snubbed — despite what Caine and Rampling are saying.

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