Oscar Nods Show 'Black & White' Year In Hollywood

The Oscar nominations are in! "American Hustle," "Gravity," and "12 Years a Slave" scored big. But did anything really surprise critics? Host Michel Martin speaks with actor and producer Rick Najera about the nods.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. So we still like to hear about firsts so today, we'd like you to meet Paul C. Lo. He is believed to be the first person of Hmong descent to be appointed as a judge on any U.S. court. We'll meet him later in the program. But first, we look to Hollywood where the nominees for this year's Academy Awards were announced this morning. Joining us to tell us more about those is Rick Najera. He's a writer, actor and producer. He's also author of the memoir "Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood." Rick Najera, welcome back. Thanks for joining us for this.

RICK NAJERA: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So we've got this list and I think a lot of the nominations were expected. Here's a clip of Chiwetel Ejiofor who's up for best actor for his role in "12 Years a Slave."

(SOUNDBITE OF "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) Now you tell me all is lost. Tell no one who I am. That's the way to survive. Well, I don't want to survive. I want to live.

MARTIN: You know, the film scored nine nominations including best picture. The other heavy hitters were "Gravity" and "American Hustle" with 10 nods each. So does this - is there any theme suggested to you? Is there anything that these nominations tell us about the kind of the mood of the Academy this year?

NAJERA: Well, I mean, the themes are always kind of the same in America. It tends to be black and white, which you see this, although I'm surprised, you know, "The Butler" really didn't do as well as I thought it might have. But I think it's a little bit of a nostalgia. It's looking back in different times of our history. "American Hustle," I mean, that was the '70s. "12 Years a Slave," you know, during the time of slavery. There was a lot of looking back - even "Captain Phillips," that film, "American Hustle."

So I think what the mood is is we're looking at our time in America. We're trying to rediscover ourselves and figure out really who we are. And where we're going forward in this. I think it's a really unique time in America. It's like we have Obama as president, but there's still the issues of race and ethnicity in America, and they're really still strong. And some of it also, you don't see people of color - like Latinos, of course - in a lot of these films.

MARTIN: You know, well, to that end - a lot of people talked about given the sort of - the large presence of actors of color, particularly people of African descent in the movies this year, some people we're saying that 2013 was the year of the black film. But a lot of these nominees were not successful at the Golden Globes, which some people see as kind of a harboring of things to come. Do you see it that way?

NAJERA: Well, I think the Golden Globes is always kind of a little different because it's really the Foreign Press. And with them - you know, Hollywood is a very insular place. A lot of people know each other. I mean, if you're looking to vote there's - I mean, I think the of world Tom Hanks. I've met the man. I think he's a great guy. And I think sometimes that sways the Academy. If you look at Bruce Dern - really looked into Bruce Dern for best actor, the man has had such a body of work, and has done such great things. I think a lot of Hollywood is going to be rooting for Bruce Dern. And his performance was amazing in "Nebraska." So we do - everyone does kind of know each other. Even in the Writer's Guild, we're voting for best screenplay. And that's - also, part of it is slightly a popularity contest. And the Academy, especially, has had a problem of lack of people of color.

MARTIN: You know, I don't think Tom Hanks did make the cut for best actor. So...

NAJERA: No, no he didn't. To me, that was my big surprise 'cause I thought he did an incredible job in "Captain Phillips." And partially, sometimes you overlook the people you think are already successful and doing quite fine. And you might have someone else like, say a Bruce Dern that pops up and you go, wait a minute. You're rooting for him on a personal level. So I think that sometimes happens.

MARTIN: Do you think that that tends to box out people of color who don't have the same level of connections or relationships? Or...

NAJERA: Yes it does. Of course it does. I mean, you vote for who you know. You do those sort of things. And Hollywood is as normal as anyone else. I mean, you - if you see someone you honestly like and feel for, you're going to vote for them. You really are.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about what you had to say about the fact that it's a very black and white year. But can I just ask you about one more thing that's kind of getting some buzz on the - among the people who talk about these things? There's been some - a little bit of controversy around "The Wolf of Wall Street." This is Martin Scorsese's film. Here's a clip featuring Leo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill who were nominated for best actor and best supporting actor.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "THE WOLF OF WALLSTREET")

JONAH HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) Is that your car on the lot?

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Yeah.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) It's a Jag?

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Yeah, yeah, yeah.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) You make a lot of money?

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Yeah I do all right for myself.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) I'm trying to put it together - nice car. We live in the same building. I don't understand. How much money you make?

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) I don't know, 70,000 last month.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) (Laughs).

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) I'm serious.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) No. I'm serious too.

MARTIN: So there's been some kind of buzz around - you were saying that this is a year in which a lot of the films look back and some people were thinking, well, is this glorifying this excess or is it criticizing it, is it glorifying, is it celebrating it? What's it doing? Can I ask you how you respond to this question?

NAJERA: You know, I think for everyone, you're looking at something like that - it's really - it's a personal thing. If you're looking at "The Wolf of Wall Street" or something like that, you may say it's glorifying it if you agree with it. It's not glorifying it, it's is a morality tell if you look at it. I mean, there's controversy behind it that a lot of people were upset that this story was being told almost. You know, this is something - you know, it's funny that in our recession, our downturn the people got messed up and the bankers got praised, you know. Basically, they - a lot of them got out of it. And I think that's what they've seen.

They've seen the excess of - Hollywood looks at that and is as ashamed and aghast as anyone else, but we're also the kind of people - it's entertainment. We're going to see stuff that's sexy, it's excess because that's also what people look to. Is part of it - it's the bread and circus mentality. You know, you want to watch that train wreck.

MARTIN: You want to watch that train wreck. OK, fine. But can I just end our conversation - we have about a minute and a half left. Where we started - where you started, you said this was a very black and white year. Did you mean that ethnically or did you mean that in the terms of a values? I took it to mean that there still isn't - yes, it's true that a lot of people are saying yes there's more presence of people of African descent on both sides of the camera. Hooray. But there still is not a depiction of other ethnicities like the Asian-Americans not as - you don't really see...

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...As major characters Latinos - not really seeing as characters. Is that going to change anytime soon?

NAJERA: I hope it'll change.

MARTIN: Is there anything coming down the pipeline that would - that we might be calling the year of Latino in film, for example?

NAJERA: I would love to be the year of Latino. In a strange way, it kind of is. I mean, Alfonso Cuaron with "Gravity," his film. It's amazing all the accolades he's getting. It's well-deserved. It's not necessarily a film that has a Latino subject matter, but it happens to be a Latino film because the people behind it are definitely Latino. So that's the good story. I mean, that's the good takeaway. But I think there's still a lot to be done, and part of it is the people behind the camera tend not to be African-American or any other ethnic group. It tends to be white males. And that's a statistic from the Writers Guild of America, which even though I'm a member for 15 years and proud of it, I call it the whitest Guild of America.

MARTIN: Point taken. So thank you for sharing. Maybe you'll come out of your shell next time we speak to you. Final thought from you, just very briefly, Who are are you voting for for best screenplay? Do you mind if I ask? You get to vote because you are a member of the Writers Guild.

NAJERA: Yes. I have to say that I'm looking at "Nebraska" in a lot of ways.

MARTIN: OK. We will see. We'll be checking in with you. That was Rick Najera. He's a television and film writer, actor and producer with us from NPR West, which is in Culver City, California. Rick, thank you.

NAJERA: Thank you.

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