Oscar Who? The Best Black Performances of 2015

Despite who was nominated by the academy (or who wasn’t), we know who the real stars were last year.

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Scene from the film Creed, featuring Michael B. Jordan (shown)

Creed

Ah, January—a month when we tried to stick to our New Year’s resolutions, endured crippling blizzards and hoped El Niño wouldn't bring flooding. It was also the month when the award season kicked off with the boozy dinner party that is the Golden Globes, followed by the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in response to what is unfortunately becoming a yearly ritual.

The 2016 Oscar nominations once again did not include one nonwhite actor. In fact, the only nonwhite nominee in a major category was the Mexican wunderkind Alejandro Inñaritu, who is up for best director for The Revenant (and was last year’s winner for Birdman). Ironically (and hilariously lampooned on Saturday Night Live), the nods given to two films featuring black lead actors were for whites—Sylvester Stallone for Creed and the screenwriters of Straight Outta Compton.

And like last year, the outrage was instant. Actors of all stripes spoke out for change, A-listers declared that they would boycott, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences swiftly announced (again) plans to increase the diversity of the membership, which currently stands at about 94 percent white and 77 percent male and has an average age of 62. (Which, to give you some insight, is actually less diverse than the Republican Party.)

And while the academy itself is taking the heat, the sad fact is, there’s an overall scarcity of roles for black actors. Out of Rotten Tomatoes’ 100 Top-Reviewed Films of 2015, only eight featured black actors in lead roles. So it’s not just an academy problem; it’s a systemwide failure of studios, production companies and talent agencies. Additionally, Hollywood as an institution has been slow to adapt or know how to market divergent narratives the way TV has.

So whether you plan to boycott the Oscars or you’re watching to see how Chris Rock handles it all, we here at The Root, with a little help from some of our Hollywood-insider friends, including Gil Robertson, president of the African-American Film Critics Association; Deborah Riley Draper, filmmaker of the upcoming documentary Olympic Pride, American Prejudice and founder of Coffee Bluff Entertainment; and Kelley L. Carter, pop-culture critic and senior writer for ESPN’s new site, the Undefeated, put together a list of noteworthy performances you won’t hear about on the show. Consider it a little awards-show gift for you. (Let’s just hope we don’t have to do this again next year.)

Best Actor

Michael B. Jordan, Creed

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Michael B. Jordan in the film Creed

MGM via YouTube screenshot

“We’ve been waiting to see who was going to step in and take the throne from Will Smith and Denzel—every year," explains Carter about Jordan’s portrayal of Adonis Johnson in the Rocky reboot. “Michael’s been around for a while, but this was his first chance to carry a major feature film. And, pun not intended, I think he knocked it out of the park.” “He was electrifying. It was a breakout performance in that he really embodied that character on every level,” agrees Robertson.

Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation

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Idris Elba in Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation

Netflix via YouTube screenshot

Elba’s smoldering portrayal of a brutal, charismatic African warlord garnered him a Golden Globe nomination and earned him a Screen Actors Guild Award, but went unnoticed by the academy—much to the shock of critics. “He seemed to be a shoo-in for the nomination, and I don’t know what happened,” says Robertson. Draper concurs: “It requires work to get to that place to be able to create and deliver a performance at that level and that raw. And he has does that, in my opinion, time and time again.”

Jason Mitchell, Straight Outta Compton

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Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton 

Universal Pictures via YouTube screenshot

The former New Orleans line cook wowed viewers with his portrayal of the late Eric “Eazy-E” Wright. “All the young men in that movie were fantastic, but [Jason] was charged with the most difficult task because he didn’t have direct guidance from Eazy-E to become this godfather of gangsta rap music,” says Carter. “And I thought he did that and then some. It was really a remarkable performance.”

Best Actress

Teyonah Parris, Chi-raq

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Teyonah Parris in the film Chi-raq

Amazon.com via YouTube screenshot

“Sadly, almost embarrassingly so, there were very few leading roles for black women in 2015,” Robertson laments, “but Teyonah is definitely a sister to watch out for. She possesses this spark, this fire, that really stands out. She was the receptionist on Mad Men, she was in Dear White People and she just keeps on impressing with her range.”

Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay

Ryan Coogler, Creed

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Ryan Coogler

Michael Buckner/Getty Images for CinemaCon

Although Coogler was glowingly reviewed for his direction by everyone from Variety to the New York Times, Creed’s lone Oscar nod was for Sylvester Stallone as best supporting actor. “I think [Coogler] should have been in an Oscar conversation this season; I was actually shocked that he didn’t get a Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay,” says Carter. Draper agrees: “To be able to take something that has become a franchise, to make it fresh and make it relevant and not make it a caricature was really a wonderful tribute to the director.”

Best Film

Dope

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Scene from the film Dope

Open Road via YouTube screenshot

The film about skateboarding, ’80s-hip-hop-obsessed teens in South Central, Los Angeles, dazzled when it premiered at Sundance, prompting a frenzied bidding war. In June, Time magazine included it in its list of best films of 2015. But both moviegoers and Oscar voters failed to pick up on it. “The entire cast of Dope was just a breakout performance,” says Draper. “I loved those young, talented actors in that film. I loved the way the characters were introduced with the mechanism of music and their love for something nostalgic to help them find their future. I just don’t know how you couldn’t just love the film.”

Honorable Mentions

Nick Cannon, Chi-raq

RJ Cyler, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl

Karidja Touré, Girlhood

Mya Taylor, Tangerine

Andréa Duncan-Mao is a Cali-bred, New York-based writer and producer who has written about entertainment, culture, beauty and race for Vibe, the Hollywood Reporter, TimeOut New York and XXL, and has written and produced specials for MTV and VH1. Follow her on Twitter

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