After the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced an all-white line-up of acting nominees last year, April Reign, managing editor of BroadwayBlack.com, started the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite on Twitter in response. Many participants hoped that a social media push might impact the way in which studios and Academy voters treated the nomination process this year, but most were not hopeful. They were right: For the second year in a row, the entire slate of Oscar nominees in the acting categories is white. “Creed” and “Straight Out of Compton,” two films with people of color in lead and supporting roles, got nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Best Screenplay — nods that also went to white people.
Reign tells me she’s disappointed but not surprised by this year’s nominees. “While Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs attempted to increase the diversity of the Academy by inviting over 300 new members last year,” she says, “more structural and systemic change must occur, not just within the Academy but Hollywood as a whole. The decisions about what films to green light, who tells those stories and how they are told must also be more inclusive of marginalized communities.”
This isn’t a new conversation in media, and often insiders respond with an assertion that the reason for the lack of diversity in films is financing (as Ridley Scott did when he defended the majority white casting for “Exodus, Gods and Kings”), an oversight (as was recently asserted by Lionsgate for “Gods of Egypt”) or a desire to focus on a character that the presumably white middle-class audience can identify with, instead of someone who might require them to step outside of their comfort zone.
Yet those same audiences have no problem turning TV shows like “Empire,” “Scandal,” “Blackish,” “Ugly Betty” and others with leads of color into ratings gold. In fact, one of the three highest-grossing films of all time is “Star Wars, The Force Awakens,” which boasts two men of color and a white woman as the lead characters. Meanwhile, “Exodus, Gods and Kings” failed to make back even half of its production budget in domestic sales. Instead of acting as a vehicle that could have opened doors for talented actors of color, it became a whitewashed flop.
Just as it is hard to believe that Ridley Scott could find no big name actors of color to play any of the major roles in “Exodus, Gods and Kings” (Oded Fehr and Rami Malek immediately spring to mind), it’s impossible to accept the idea that while the script for “Straight Out of Compton” was worthy of a nomination, none of the performances were, especially given the critical acclaim for Jason Mitchell’s spectacular performance as Eazy E. For Sylvester Stallone to be nominated for best supporting actor but his costar Michael B. Jordan and the director Ryan Coogler not to get nods in their respective categories sends a particularly ugly message about race and the Oscars this year. The problem goes beyond skin color: Eddie Redmayne got a nomination for playing a trans woman, yet Mya Taylor, an actual trans woman and the star of the lauded “Tangerine,” got no recognition. Neither did her film.
This is to say nothing of the exclusion of the universally acclaimed work of director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo in last year’s “Selma,” or the long line of actors of color who over the years have been passed over for nominations or awards, many of which in retrospect appear to be egregious oversights.
Studies show that studios focus overwhelmingly on the viewpoint of white males in films, limiting even the possibility of someone from a marginalized community getting a role in a production that might merit Oscar attention. As Viola Davis (who herself was arguably robbed of an Oscar win for her performance in “Doubt”) pointed out in her Emmy acceptance speech last year, the real problem for actors of color is a lack of opportunity, not a lack of talent. And as each year’s Oscar nominations are announced, if the resume building phrase “Oscar nominee” is only landing next to the names of white people, then what chance do actors of color have to break into those few roles that might become available? In a year that has shown actors of color can succeed and get recognition for their work in television, the peculiar whiteness of the Oscars is even more galling.
What impact does media that projects a mostly white past, present and future have on race relations in the United States? What messages are American movies sending about people of color when they are exported? Erasure is not equality, so media without black, Latino, Native American or Asian people isn’t making things better. When Effie Brown challenged Matt Damon’s assertion that diversity mattered in casting, not behind the camera, Damon was clearly upset that she didn’t agree with him. Yet Brown wasn’t arguing to choose a less talented or less prepared director; after all, in order to be a finalist you had to be good at your craft. Brown was arguing that they needed to pick the director who could handle the content of the movie in the best way.
The same is true here, as fans react to the idea that the people best qualified to win awards even for movies that star people of color are the white ones. The push to diversify what movies the Academy considers isn’t about a lack of quality; it’s about broadening the field and making sure the awards mean that the best possible people are being considered. The Oscars are still so white, but the push for diversity isn’t one for a reduction in quality, so why the resistance to change? It should be something that members of the Academy embrace. Unless of course, you consider the distinct reality that the Academy’s choices don’t reflect the biases of a U.S. audience, but instead reflect the biases of an American institution. Why are the Oscars so white? Because the Academy wants them to be that way. And as long as that’s true, at base the awards are essentially worthless.