During an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's "Awards Chatter" podcast that was recorded on Monday, the three-time Oscar winner expressed "surprise" about the fact that the Academy did not nominate "Straight Outta Compton" for best picture or "Beasts of No Nation's" Idris Elba for best supporting actor. He also criticized the organization for responding by "taking votes away from Academy members who have paid their dues and maybe are retired now."
"I'm a huge supporter of the Academy Awards," says Spielberg. "I was surprised at some of the individuals who were not nominated. I was surprised at [the exclusion of] Idris [Elba] — I was surprised at that. I think that was one of the best performances in the supporting actor and the actor category, was Idris. I've seen 'Straight Outta Compton' — my wife and I saw it when it first opened, the first weekend, and it just rocked our world. It was incredible. I was very surprised to see that omission."
However, the filmmaker suggests, recent history should rule out racism as an explanation for those omissions.
"You have to look back a couple of years," he says, "where Lupita [Nyong'o] was recognized for '12 Years a Slave' [and] '12 Years a Slave' won best picture, you know? I don't believe that there is inherent or dormant racism because of the amount of white Academy members. I'm also not 100 percent sure that taking votes away from Academy members who have paid their dues and maybe are retired now and have done great service — maybe they've not won a nomination, which would have given them immunity to the new rules, but they have served proudly and this is their industry, too — to strip their votes? I'm not 100 percent behind that."
Spielberg, whose longtime publicist Marvin Levy is a member of the Academy's Board of Governors that enacted these changes, continues, "I do think that what the Academy is doing, in a proactive way, to open up the membership to diversity, I think that's very, very important. But it's not just the Academy, and I think we have to stop pointing fingers and blaming the Academy. It's people that hire, it's people at the main gate of studios and independents. It's the stories that are being told. It's who's writing diversity — it starts on the page. And we all have to be more proactive in getting out there and just seeking talent."
Is someone's race or gender a consideration for Spielberg when he hires people to work in front of or behind the camera? He says, "Look, I have two black children, you know? I've been colorblind my entire life." And, he adds, "when you just look at the films I've made, and look at the people who've worked on those films — look at the diversity within the crew, within the cast — I've always [had it]."
Spielberg, whose "Saving Private Ryan" was part of one of the most cutthroat Oscar seasons in history when it competed against "Shakespeare in Love" 17 years ago, also called for the Academy to reform its rules for Oscar campaigning.
"There's a lot of money being thrown at it," he said. "I'm not gonna sit here and say we should have campaign finance limits the way John McCain was asking for them a couple of years ago during a political cycle. But I do think think the amount of, let's just call it 'gifts,' the amount of 'enticements,' should be reduced to zero. I think the thing I'm against the most are enticements — people sending elaborate brochures and baskets. I think sending out a DVD of your movie is all we should be doing and nothing beyond that. Not the dinners and anything else — I just think that's a little bit different than the way it used to be."
He continued, "[But] I don't think there's anything I can say that's going to stop that from happening, because everybody likes to go to a good party. I don't want to say I'm against having a good party, but there's something about actual campaigning, where what you're campaigning for has been forgotten and it's [about] the power of persuasion over the power of the story and of the contributions ... that's what I'm sad about."