White Out

Oscars fail to recognize people of color again, spur boycotts

The Academy Awards have long represented and recognized greatness. For 79 years, the Academy has bestowed small golden statues to the best actors, actresses, directors, and talent in cinema. Unfortunately, there’s a caveat here.

In the past two years, the Academy has nominated zero people of color in those major categories. Several major films have people of color in lead roles, so it isn’t an issue of slim pickings.

The most glaring sign of this “white out” is the demographics of the Academy voters. 94 percent of voters are white, 76 percent are men, and the average age is 63 years old. Come on folks, it’s 2016… even Congress is more diverse (80 percent white).

In response to the disparity in diversity, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite has dominated social media and some big names including Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Will Smith have announced that they would boycott the awards.

Why support a system that fails to recognize the work of great actors and actresses of color? Actors and actresses of color give performances that are in no way shape or form less than that of their white counterparts, and often better. Why support a voting demographic that is nearly all white men?

Even Congress is more diverse.

This year’s Oscars host is Chris Rock, which means there’s a pretty good chance that the issue will be discussed at large throughout the show. It’s even possible that award presenters and award winners will bring it up in their speeches. Either way, it’s time to have a real discussion about Oscar diversity, and where better than in front of 30 million television viewers?

Illustrator: Max Smith

Illustrator: Max Smith

It’s a disgrace that the only nomination that “Straight Outta Compton” received went to the writers… who were white. What about the director, F. Gary Gray? And speaking of directors, no female directors were nominated, continuing the trend in which only one woman has won best director in Oscars history.

In response, the Academy has announced “substantive changes designed to make the Academy’s membership, its governing bodies, and its voting members significantly more diverse.” The Academy plans to limit voting membership to 10-year terms, which are only renewed if the voter is active in motion pictures during that time. They also plan on “launching an ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity.” Changes are expected to take effect by 2020. With less old white men, maybe more awards will go to those who truly deserve them.

But the blame can’t all be put on voters. In a general sense, people of color are still vastly underrepresented on the screen. While that is still no excuse for no nominations, it is certainly something of concern. Hollywood needs more roles for people of color, period. According to a diversity study done by the Bunche Center, white actors/actresses outnumber those of color at a rate greater than 2-1 in film leads, 3-1 among directors, and 3-1 among writers. For women, men outnumber them 2-1 in film leads, a staggering 8-1 among directors, and 4-1 among writers.

Disparities are even higher in executive positions, with film studio heads being 94 percent white and 100 percent male. And it’s not just numbers. Hollywood has created a false sense of diversity. Black males have had high levels of representation whereas Latinos are underrepresented. People of color often played roles in comedies as whites played in dramas. LGBT characters played mostly secondary and minor roles.

White actors/actresses outnumber those of color at a rate greater than 2-1 in film leads, 3-1 among directors, and 3-1 among writers.

Actress Charlotte Rampling called the boycotts “racist to whites,” saying, “Sometimes maybe black actors did not deserve to make the final list.”

The argument that this affirmative-action style of integration is stifling creativity misses the point, because by limiting major roles and positions to white people, the creative voice of people of color are pushed to the margins.

The Oscars represent the film industry to the general public, although it’s clearly not representative at all of reality. The academy says 2020, but the time for change is now.