Yes, black actors weren’t nominated for any Oscars this year — but that doesn’t mean you won’t see them at the ceremony.
Nearly every year, a tried and true mix of Hollywood royalty, like Sidney Poitier, and new, culturally relevant stars, such as Kevin Hart, are tapped to pass out awards, make jokes, and perform hit songs at the Oscars show.
This year alone, 25 percent of presenters and performers are black — yet black entertainers still rarely receive the actual award.
That 25 percent is likely an effort to compensate for the imbalance in the nominations. But some viewers might have a different overall takeaway: Black people can be entertainers, but they aren’t being acknowledged as artists.
The Washington Post analyzed more than 30 years of Academy Award programs from the Oscars databases, revealing that the number of black presenters and performers onstage has been consistently higher than the number of black winners.
Overall, black entertainers have averaged 11.2 percent percent of total presenters and performers since 1969. In that same time, less than 2 percent of awards were given to black people.
Black representation onstage at the Oscars is pretty close to the percentage of speaking roles given to black people in high-grossing films, ranging from 10 and 14 percent since 2007, according to a study done by USC’s Annenberg School. Those numbers are close to the U.S. population of black people as a whole — 13.2 percent, according to 2014 census records. It’s far more on screen representation than other ethnic groups in the United States. A cursory look at Academy records shows that other races, including Hispanic and Asian are rarely represented as presenters or winners.
Accounting for blacks among all nominees would have been quite a task. Another Post story looked at the percentage of black nominees just in the acting categories in each decade, and the highest it got was 11.0 percent in the first decade of the 2000s, but it’s dropped to 7.0 in the 2010s, and has been lower than that in every other decade since the Oscars began.
Using the presenters to compensate for the lack of recognition in the actual awards is nothing new. This year’s controversy is similar to what happened 20 years ago, when a coalition of the community and entertainment industry guilds, led by Jesse Jackson, called for a protest of the Oscars for its lack of diversity. In 1996, only one person of color was among 166 nominees for the awards that year.
The Academy’s response was a promise to at least have a program that was culturally and ethnically diverse, a sentiment echoed by then-Oscar producer Quincy Jones and host Whoopi Goldberg. Though there were no black winners that year, nearly 20 percent of presenters and performers at the awards ceremony were black.
This year’s Oscars conversation has been similar, with prominent actors such as Will Smith saying they planned to boycott, while actors such as David Oyelowo called for actors to stand behind acting Academy President Cheryl Isaac Boone in addressing diversity issues.
“I would like to walk away and say it doesn’t matter, but it does, because that acknowledgement changes the trajectory of your life, your career, and the culture of the world we live in,” Oyelowo said in a speech in January.
There are many aspects at play here — from movie audiences, to producers, studios and more — that contribute to racial imbalance in movies. And sometimes, to correct that imbalance, Hollywood decision makers can mistake hyper-visibility of underrepresented groups as a simple fix to diversity issues. Just because they’re onscreen doesn’t mean progress is being made. Think of last year’s Oscars, when cameras constantly cut to Octavia Spencer in a running gag about guarding Neil Patrick Harris’s briefcase — which some took as demeaning — while no black actors were nominated. This imbalance reflects how black people have been entertainers for decades, but haven’t always had a seat at the decision-making table.
The silver lining is that unlike in years past, the Academy responded to criticism almost immediately with institutional changes. In addition to ending guaranteed lifetime appointments, the academy said it will start a global campaign to recruit new members, hoping to double the number of women and “diverse members” by 2020.