It was only the second time in more than a decade that no black actor or actress has featured among the 20 nominees in the four acting categories.
Among those who missed out was David Oyelowo, the British actor who played Martin Luther King Jr in the historical drama Selma and was given significant praise by critics.
Ava DuVernay, the black director of Selma, was also not nominated. She had been widely expected to make Oscars history by being the first African-American woman nominated for best director.
Both DuVernay and Oyelowo were nominated at the Golden Globes earlier this month. Following the announcement of the Oscarnominations, criticism erupted on social media. The Rev Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader, said it was “incongruous” that the lack of nominations followed a spell of racial tension in the US, with riots after a black teenager was shot dead by a white policeman.
“The lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations is appalling. With all of the talent in Selma and other black movies this year, it is hard to believe that we have less diversity in the nominations today than in recent history,” he said. “The movie industry is like the Rocky Mountains, the higher you get, the whiter it gets.”
Spike Lee, the black director, said: “If I saw Ava DuVernay today I’d say, ‘You know what? F— ’em. You made a very good film.’ A lot of times people are going to vote for what they’re comfortable with, and anything that’s threatening to them they won’t. It’s not the first time it’s happened. Join the club.”
George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, said the nominations were “political” and had “nothing to do with artistic endeavour”. Lucas, who directed Oyelowo in Red Tails, about the Tuskegee airmen, called the 38-year-old, from Oxford, “truly one of the great actors of all time”.
Selma was nominated for best picture and best song. The film has been involved in a controversy over its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson, with an aide of the former president saying it falsely depicted him as being at odds with King.
The issue of race in Hollywood was highlighted during the Sony hacking scandal, when emails emerged in which Amy Pascal, the co-chairman of Sony Pictures, and the film producer Scott Rudin joked about President Barack Obama’s film choices, suggesting he would only like black-themed films.
Rudin has been nominated for an Oscar this year as a producer of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is up for best picture.
Last year, two black actors — Britain’s Chiwetel Ejiofor and Barkhad Abdi — were nominated and Lupita Nyong’o won best supporting actress for her role in 12 Years a Slave, which also won best picture. But Lee, who has twice been nominated for Oscars, said success for black film-makers at the awards happened only “once every 10 years or so. So I don’t start doing back flips when it happens”.
There were also no Hispanic or Asian acting nominees this year.
There are more than 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who vote for the Oscars and
94 per cent of them are white. The average age is 63 and 77 per cent are men.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African-American female president of the Academy, said diversity was improving. “We are very active about increasing diversity throughout the Academy, and recognition of talent, and it will increase.”
The nominations were announced on King’s birthday. DuVernay chose to celebrate the best picture nomination. She said: “Happy Birthday Dr King. An Oscar gift for you.”