Just in time for MLK Day, the Oscars once again prove how out of touch the film industry is with people of color.
For the second year in a row, and exactly one year after April Reign of ReignofApril.com started the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, every single person nominated for an acting Oscar is white, and unlike in 2015 where we at least had Selma holding down the fort for Best Picture, this year none of the Best Picture nominees features a nonwhite lead. In a year where Star Wars, the biggest film franchise in the world, rebooted to record-breaking numbers with actors of color in two out of its three leading roles, the Oscars are woefully showing their age.
What makes this year’s Academy snubs even more painfully obvious is that there was plenty of material to choose from. Idris Elba for his turn as a Commandant who trains child soldiers in Beasts of No Nation was the most glaring snub, but there were plenty of others as well. Oscar Isaac — Hollywood’s current golden boy and Star Wars superstar for Ex-Machina. Benicio Del Toro for Sicario. Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez for Tangerine. Samuel L. Jackson for The Hateful Eight. Will Smith and Gugu Mbatha-Raw for Concussion. Tessa Thompson for Creed. Michael B. Jordan just won the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Actor, but in a film by a black writer-director starring a black leading man, the only Oscar nomination for Creed went to its white supporting actor, Sylvester Stallone.
#OscarsSoWhite that Rocky got nominated in a movie about Apollo Creed's son.
— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) January 14, 2016
Many argue that Straight Outta Compton was the year’s best biopic, and in a time when our nation is rocked by mounting racial tensions and media attention on police brutality, it’s arguably the most relevant. However, the only nomination Straight Outta Compton received was for its four white screenwriters. Meanwhile, none of Straight Outta Compton‘s stars received acting nominations, having been bypassed in favor of actors in more traditional Oscar biopics like Steve Jobs, The Danish Girl, and Joy.
Since the debut of #OscarsSoWhite last year, the Academy itself has tried to combat the negative publicity by promoting diversity within itself. Chris Rock was chosen to host the Oscars this year, and considering that in 2014 he wrote a brilliant essay calling out how Hollywood is “a white industry,” it’s a safe bet to guess he’ll draw some sort of attention to the Academy’s diversity problems at the event itself. Internally, President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a black woman, was re-elected this year, and this past summer, the Academy added a record-setting 322 new members into its ranks with the deliberate intent of including more women and people of color. It’s a start, but considering the Academy has over 6,000 members, it’s like putting a band aid on a bullet wound.
#OscarsSoWhite is a real problem, and unfortunately, it’s not going to go away anytime soon. Of the 6,000 Academy voters, 93% are white and 76% are male, with an average age of 63 — so grandfathering in a couple of new brown kids each year isn’t going to fix the diversity problems overnight. For change to happen, it’s going to take a cultural shift in the way the film industry views storytelling. It’s going to take a conscious decision by people in power to refuse to be unconsciously racist.
I’m not stating that the voters in the Academy are racist — by their very nature as artists, I have to assume that most if not all of the voters, despite their age and demographic, are progressive, boundary-pushing people. However, as human beings, we tend to value most the stories that we are able to relate to — the stories that we are able to contextualize within our own narrative. Oscar voters aren’t choosing to eliminate people of color from the Academy Awards to be racist — they are doing it subconsciously because society and the media have chosen to value the stories of people of color less than we do those of white people.
There’s a clear disconnect happening between the types of films that Hollywood values making, and the kinds of audiences that are actually going to the theaters to watch the films. For example, a 2012 USC study discovered that though Latinos represent 32% of “frequent moviegoers,” they are actually the most underrepresented demographic on screen with only 4% of speaking roles in films. And this is considering the fact that most films are green lit in Los Angeles, which is 48.4% Hispanic. As Chris Rock wrote in his Hollywood Reporter essay, “You’re in L.A, you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans. It’s the most liberal town in the world, and there’s a part of it that’s kind of racist — not racist like ‘F– you, nigger’ racist, but just an acceptance that there’s a slave state in L.A. There’s this acceptance that Mexicans are going to take care of white people in L.A. that doesn’t exist anywhere else… You’re telling me no Mexicans are qualified to do anything at a studio? Really? Nothing but mop up?”
The 2014 Sony leaks made public some private emails that revealed how the industry’s leaders actually see race. (Hint: There were some bad jokes about President Obama and Kevin Hart.) Meanwhile, large roles in big, set-up-as-blockbuster movies that should have gone to people of color were given to white actors instead, such as with Emma Stone’s indigenous Aloha role, and the Gods of Egypt spectacle.
After last year’s #OscarsSoWhite fiasco, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs stated, “Action needs to be taken to make sure that the industry as a whole is more inclusive with the hiring and the mentoring and the promoting of diverse product and diversity among filmmakers.” But even when the roles are there, such as was the case this year, it’s important to be able to recognize their worth. After this year’s nominees were announced, Academy Awards Producer Reginald Hudlin, who is also black, stated, “In a year with an extraordinary number of great performances by black actors that were embraced by audiences and embraced by critics, for them all to get ignored is tragic.”
Audiences aren’t necessarily being underserved from an intent to be malicious, but from an uneducated understanding of what life is like outside of Hollywood’s secluded sense of self. White Hollywood is unable to contextualize the award-worthy pain of a person of color’s performance without fitting them into a box of oppression that is easy to understand. The first black actor to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel, who played a slave in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. At the Academy Awards ceremony, the Oscar winner and her escort were made to sit at a segregated table for two. Seventy-four years later, the most recent black actor to win an Oscar is Lupita Nyong’o, who also played a slave in the role she won for.
Hollywood has a history of not considering the stories of people of color award-worthy unless they are told through the bridgeable white gaze, and so our outstanding actresses of color do not get to win Oscars for being ballerinas and queens, but for being maids and slaves. I’m not by any means saying these are not stories that deserve to be told, because these are stories that need to be told, but I am saying they are not our only stories. We shouldn’t have to be defined by our own oppression.
Viola Davis said it best in her winning Emmy speech this past year: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” So, here are the facts: In 87 years of the Academy Awards, we’ve had exactly one black woman win Best Actress. Zero Latinas have won. Zero Asian women. The numbers for Best Actor aren’t much better: four black men, two Asians, and one Latino. But please, let’s all keep whining about poor Leo, who can’t catch a break.
It’s important that everyone — especially those who are privileged — watch, read, and listen to art that portrays unfamiliar experiences. Unfamiliar doesn’t mean uncommon — it just means something beyond one’s own life experience. It’s how we come to understand one another, and it’s how we learn to grow within ourselves. This year’s #OscarsSoWhite dilemma isn’t unique to the Academy, but when 20 famous white faces are starring back at you, it does bring to the forefront issues about the systematical way our society is set up and what its “best and brightest” have chosen to value.