Lack of Diversity at Oscars Points to Larger Issue

Considering the source of Hollywood’s inclusion problem

Award shows are places for lavish dresses, amusing hosts and apparently— as in this year’s Academy Awardsonly white nominees. Early this January, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its 2016 Oscar nominees, all 20 contenders for acting awards were white and films with black themes had been shut out of the best picture category. The furor was immediate.

The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag took over social media, outrage spread and there was even talk of an Oscar boycott. Celebrities, including Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith, were quick to take to Twitter, vehement in their disapproval. Fingers instantly pointed towards the Academy, who is responsible for handing out the Oscars. Critics blamed the lack of diversity in the Academy – whose members are 94% white, 77% male, and have an average age of 63 years old.

An Academy that is mostly made up of white men is not representative of the American movie-watching population, and very far from representative of the nation as a whole. With such a narrow pool of voters, it is no surprise that the nominees would be just as unrepresentative as the voters themselves. The irony of the matter is that Hollywood is often seen as a forward industry, not held back by conservative ideals of the past. However, many are accusing the industry of taking steps backward with such uniformity in its nominees. Accusations about the Academy have spread, yet the overall consensus has been that the Academy is not necessarily racist. It seems more likely that an Academy that is mostly white men may not have the same appreciation for actors and movies of a minority race. If there is a lack of minority representation in the voters, one can expect a lack of representation in the nominees.

While the Academy’s intentions are disputed, the one thing that can be agreed upon is that the best, most deserving movies should win. It is not as if there should be a “quota” of African American nominees. And if all white nominees were the best, all white nominees deserve a nomination. However, many argue that this season there were notable movies connected with people of color that were overlooked. When the list of nominees was unveiled, many had hoped that “Straight Outta Compton,”—a mostly African American, box office hit – would find its way to a best picture nomination. However, Compton managed to receive only one nomination, for best original screenplay— a nomination for the film’s white writers. Similarly, Idris Elba had been projected to get a best supporting actor nomination for his performance as an African warlord in “Beasts of No Nation,” and Michael B. Jordan for his role as the shining lead boxer in “Creed.” Yet despite many hopes, these African American films also neglected to receive such nominations.

Yet, as fingers are pointed here and tweeted at there, full blame cannot be placed on The Academy. In an industry that is vastly white, it is less likely to select someone who is of color. Lack of diversity in the nominees stems from lack of diversity in Hollywood itself. This is not an excuse—it is not to say Academy members are entirely innocent— but until we can provide a more diversified Hollywood, can we expect much more? The controversy around the 2016 Academy Awards has been huge. There is something superficial about the amount of attention we devote to an award show. Don’t celebrities get recognized enough for their success? Do we need to spend another day of the year basking in their glory? In essence, no. The award show is merely a form of entertainment and is very much trivial. However, the lack of diversity in the award show also represents a much larger is– sue. Award shows, and movies, are supposed to be what entertain the American people. It is 2016. We have elected an African American as our president, twice. Yet some– how, Americans are seemingly still watching movies that are mostly white. Not only do Americans rarely watch movies featuring minority actors and actresses, the movies that do exist are restricted. African American movies seem to be just that: African American movies. More often than not, the movies that gain even some recognition are about slavery and civil rights. It is rare that a romantic comedy centers around the lives of African Americans, or any minorities if that. And maybe we can blame the lack of opportunity for minorities. Between races there is a financial gap and the movie industry is not necessarily known for guaranteeing consistent money and a job.We can blame a lack of emphasis in the arts in minority communities. But we can also blame ourselves. The movies appeal to us. Writers and producers do their job to entertain us. And yes, we need more of the executives behind the movies to be people of color. But the current people making our movies feel that Americans want to see white movies, and that is exactly they are creating.
Just this past week, after months of outcry over the lack of diversity in The Academy, The Academy has declared it is doubling its diversity push and ending guaranteed lifelong voting rights. So The Academy is taking a step— a very small one—but still trying to do their part for a more diverse Hollywood. While the movie industry is moving in right direction, there is still much more that needs to be done.
Artwork courtesy of Eli Canter

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