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.

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

“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