What's Diversity Got to Do with The Oscars?

Feature Hannah Bonner
2/28/2016 at 12:21PM

We examine why #OscarsSoWhite is not only a fair question, but just one of the many failings in the entertainment industry.

The Academy Award’s Oscar nominations for 2016, 2015, and, let’s face it, decades, seem like another George W. Bush fumble. The (in)famous “Fool me once…Shame on, shame on you. You can’t get fooled again” comes to mind, which singer J. Cole resurrected and remixed in his song “No Role Modelz.” But Oscar actor nominations in the last two years reveal a shameful lack of acknowledgement of people of color and diversity in general, hence the trending hashtag: #OscarsSoWhite.

Apparently some audiences and spectators can be fooled to think that only the performances of white actors are worthy of accolades and press while those helping make #OscarsSoWhite go viral provides a varying thread to the narrative of what is (and should be) critically acclaimed.

Director Spike Lee’s Instagram post on Jan. 18 addressed the issue of diversity (or lack thereof) most directly and succinctly when he wrote, “How is it possible for the 2nd consecutive year all 20 contenders under the Actor category are white? And let’s not even get into the other branches. 40 white actors in 2 years and no flava at all. We can’t act?!”

A picture is worth a thousand words, but so are the numbers and statistics that most glaringly illustrate the utter disregard of representation in the media. Dylan Marron’s open letter to the Academy bitingly calls the nominations “a dystopian game of musical chairs.”

Actress Lupita Nyong’o reflected, “the Awards should not dictate the terms of art in our modern society, but rather be a diverse reflection of the best of what our art has to offer today.”

Actress Jada Pinkett Smith released a video on Martin Luther King Day conceding that the Academy “has the right to acknowledge whomever they chose, to invite whomever they chose.” Yet, as Pinkett Smith continues, “maybe it is time we pull back our resources and we put them back into our communities, into our programs, and we make programs for ourselves that acknowledge us in ways that we see fit; that are just as good as the so-called ‘mainstream’ ones… begging for acknowledgement diminishes dignity and diminishes power. And we are a dignified people. And we are powerful.”

Pinkett Smith’s probing and persuasive criticism highlights both the agency and autonomy of the Academy while also respectfully challenging their status quo. That mainstream culture is still primarily regarded as ‘white’ and films or actors of other cultures, or races, are regarded as ‘other’ illustrates a dangerous binary within our culture, especially in the midst of movements like #BlackLivesMatter and the increasing scrutiny involving police misconduct and their violations of African-American bodies and rights. It is due to these violations, and it is due to the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards, that gives these conversations about race at this time in our history such significance.

Though some might dismiss the Academy Award season as purely fodder for tabloid magazines and fashion satorialists’ best-dressed lists, staff writer Rebecca Keegan of the Los Angeles Times noted on NPR that “people have a tendency to say – oh, it doesn’t matter; it’s the Oscars; it’s a silly award show; it’s about what you’re wearing on the red carpet. But the truth is, people around the world take cues about culture from an event like the Oscars. If 40 million people are tuning in, they’re getting an idea about what our culture values. And if our culture is saying, actually, we just value white people… I think it affects people at a deeper level than we realize.”

What we watch and what we herald has direct implications for the ways in which we understand the culture we live in. Let’s not forget, too, that it was on the red carpet where actress and writer Rashida Jones had to correct an interviewer for praising her ‘tropical tan’ with the quippy, but pointed comment, “I’m ethnic.”

Though much of the Academy Award season is replete with articles on the glitz and glam of the actresses, it is undeniable that awards and accolades shape the filmic canon. Many films taught in standard or introductory film studies classes are decidedly Eurocentric and Western – the film classes on Asia or Latin American Cinema tend to be areas regarded as ‘specialization’. UC Berkeley student Summer Mason drew attention to the issue of how film (and race) is taught when she was profiled in East Bay Express this past December for protesting professor Jeffrey Skoller’s avant-garde film class after he screened Our Trip to Africa (1966).

The Express quotes her as saying, “’I was told that these images are important, that they provide a critical view of racism… and I ask you for who? Not for me… I don’t need older white males to explain to me how malleable the world has made my image, how violent the world has made my image, how hyper-sexualized the world has made my image.”

When there is a dearth of diverse representation, the conversation becomes less of a dialogue and more of a monologue. As critic and theorist bell hooks writes in her engrossing Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies, “the process by which any of us alter the way we look at an image is political.”

For those not suffering from Academy Award déjà vu, recall that in 2015 the Academy came under fire for snubbing Ava DuVernay’s direction of Selma during Oscar season, as well as ignoring David Oyelowo for his stoic portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. However, Selma wasn’t the only film with a cast of primarily actors of color to come out in 2014.  Beyond the Lights, a drama directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (who achieved critical acclaim for her directorial debut with 2000’s Love and Basketball), only received one nomination for Best Song. Prince-Bythewood’s Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights both feature powerful performances from actresses of color, actresses whose characters are imbued with nuance and complexity.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays a Rihanna-esque pop star crumbling under the pressures of capitalizing on her sexuality, rather than her talent. The scene where she sings Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” at a karaoke bar in Mexico evokes so much emotional resonance and inner turmoil that you hold your breath, waiting to exhale at the culmination of her final note.

While I do not believe the Academy colluded in ignoring two female directors, it is noticeable that both of these women were primarily ignored during the previous award season. Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director, won it for her captivating The Hurt Locker (2010). Also while utterly deserving, Bigelow’s careful and candid investigation of wartime features a cast entirely of men. Her accolades are necessary in increasing the visibility of female directors, but fell short with a lack of female face-time onscreen.

Last summer, it seemed like George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road alleviated the issue of female representation with Charlize Theron barreling across the screen with the ferocity of a XR1200 and the eyeliner of singer Siouxsie Sioux. Feminists heralded the film for ushering in a new era where action-packed blockbusters could be comprised (almost) entirely of women – and make a profit to boot.

The scene where the gang of bikers rides up to meet Furiosa and her posse in a seemingly threatening manner, only to dismantle, taking off their helmets to reveal a group of women illuminates our preconceived ideas of gender roles and norms. Prior to seeing their faces, we assume this group is a 21st century Hell’s Angels where women are on the sidelines, not revving the motor behind the wheel.

It’s an incredibly refreshing moment where we get to see women in a way that defies stereotypes, instead of reinforcing them. Yet, the film is directed, written, and produced by men. In our current climate where actresses like Jennifer Lawrence are speaking up about the discrepancy in pay between men and women (just last week it was announced Gillian Anderson was offered half of David Duchovny’s pay for the new X-Files revival), it is critical that we constructively engage with issues of representation, both on camera and off.

This is not to accuse the Academy of being overtly racist or sexist, but it is to highlight that the Oscar voters are nearly 94 percent Caucasian, 77 percent male, and the median age is 62. It is unlikely that the lack of inclusion is in any way insidious or even intentional, but it draws attention to the fact that in 88 years, there have only been three directors of color nominated for Best Director, all men, and out of the four acting categories, there have only been 15 actors of color who have won awards.

This is simply to engage with and contribute to the ongoing conversation regarding representation and diversity in our culture today. There are certainly performances this season that feature strong women (Brooklyn, Carol, Room, Star Wars, to note a few) and strong performances from critically acclaimed actors such as Will Smith, Idris Elba, and newcomer John Boyega (who blazed onto the scene in his acting debut in Attack the Block).

Socially conscious and bitingly funny comedian, actor, and director Chris Rock will undoubtedly be a key figure for teasing out the complexities, components, and challenges of #OscarsSoWhite as he takes the stage to host the 88th Academy Awards in February. And as we listen and contribute to the conversation, let us, as Spike Lee coined, do the right thing: the revolution can be televised.

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