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#OscarsSoWhite: Where It Came From & Why It Matters

CNN, “CNN/ORC Poll: Most Opposed to Oscar Boycott”

How much is too much? When it comes to racial diversity at the Academy Awards, or the lack thereof, I believe that two years in a row with an all-white list of nominated actors is a serious issue if we as a society value all forms of equality. Indeed, there are twenty nominated actors each year— five each for the awards of Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and Best Actress in a Supporting Role— and in both the 2015 and 2016 ceremonies, every single nominee without exception has been white. This is an increasingly prominent issue (hence the trending hashtag #OscarsSoWhite) thanks to a recent surge in discussions and movements to promote racial equality, but it is not by any means a new issue. Since the Oscars started in 1929, the nominees and winners have been overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly male in the categories which are not exclusive to female nominees. This is an upsetting reality, but not necessarily surprising when one considers that the voting body of the Academy is 93% white and 76% male.

This voting body evidently has little regard for the many recently-released movies featuring black actors, many of which address black lives and black culture, and many of which which have been acclaimed by viewers and reviewers alike as poignant and powerful expressions of the issues that face black communities. In fact, even when these films about black lives were recognized by the Academy, they were praised for their white actors and writers, while the black actors and directors were snubbed entirely. Michael B. Jordan’s performance in Creed, an addition to the Rocky franchise, was hailed by critics and fans as meticulously chiseled while compellingly powerful. However, the Academy failed to recognize either Jordan or the black director Ryan Coogler for their masterful accomplishments, and instead nominated white co-star Sylvester Stallone. Straight Outta Compton, about the influence of the group N.W.A. on the future of hip-hop, was another powerhouse of a film released this year, applauded by Rolling Stone as “an amazement, an electrifying piece of hip-hop history that speaks urgently to right now.” High praise – but the only nomination for this film full of incredibly talented and accomplished black directors, producers, and actors was two white screenwriters for the Best Screenplay award. The list of black filmmakers and actors snubbed by the Academy goes on: no nominations were given to Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation or Will Smith for Concussion. I do not mean to imply that the nominated actors, directors, and screenwriters did not deserve recognition, but it is worthy to note that all of them were selected over black artists who did arguably equivalent work.

Additionally, I’ve noticed that the Academy, if it must recognize films about black characters, seems to prefer praising an entire concept rather than focusing on the triumphs of the black actors and filmmakers who conceived and executed that concept. For example, despite nominating Selma for best picture – a film about Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic march across Alabama for black suffrage – last year’s Academy voters failed to recognize the particular achievements of either the black director Ava DuVernay or the star David Oyelowo. Selma’s nomination for best picture, compared to the absence of any films about black lives in this year’s same category, also suggests some interesting questions: what depictions of black life are acceptable to the Academy? Which cinematographic representations of American racism qualify as good films, and which ones don’t? We can certainly look to the films with black actors, or about issues faced by the black community, that have been nominated for best picture in the last few years, and we can see a trend. Django Unchained and Lincoln: both about slavery, and the latter film about the white president who fought it. Is that form of racism far enough back in our history that the members of the Academy don’t feel forced to confront its vestiges that persist today? Selma: about Martin Luther King Jr., the educated, eloquent, Christian leader of the black civil rights movement— of course one of the most admirable figures in history, and of course deserving of the telling of his story, but nevertheless his is a story of a struggle fifty years ago. King’s struggle does not wholly embody the reality of black culture and the black community today, such as the hip-hop movement, that many of the movies this year force viewers in the Academy to confront.

It is clear that the reasons for the lack of racial diversity on the Oscar nominee roster are numerous and complex. Nevertheless, the answer is not, as some suggest, that there simply aren’t films with black roles being made. While this is another valid issue, and there is certainly a push for a higher availability and diversity of non-white roles in Hollywood, there are clearly a number of films this year prominently featuring black actors, and they’re good films, too. For this reason, many actors have chosen to speak out against the Academy and the clear homogeneity of the event. Some have even made the decision to boycott the ceremony altogether.

But why the uprising of anger, frustration, and disappointment towards the Academy over the past year? Why now? In my view, we have come to realize that we are entitled to expect more from America than this, whether our focus is on race-based incarceration or the exclusion of non-whites from prestigious cinematic recognition. Additionally, the desire for equality has become significantly more thorough; we have come to expect not only there should be equality in the workplace and the justice system, but also that all people deserve an equal shot at recognition for their artistry and accomplishments. Much of the Hollywood community, and much of the country in general, has simply realized that it is no longer acceptable to wait until a black child is murdered in a senseless act of gun violence, until the murderer is acquitted by a predominantly white jury, before rising up in grief and anger – because at that point, it’s too late to save that victim. Of course it is crucial to express our frustration at a system that allows such racism. And of course it is painfully moving to see the outpouring of grief that invariably follows each tragedy; I in no way intend to diminish the importance of the demonstrations that have taken place in response to the losses suffered by black communities. In fact, several people, across racial lines and both within and outside the Hollywood community, have declared that these demonstrations protesting police brutality, incarceration, and racial profiling are what really matter; they argue that protesting the lack of Oscars diversity is petty, and overall a waste of time.

However, I see the Oscars boycott as part of a movement that doesn’t detract from the aforementioned demonstrations, but instead actually complements it: it is part of a movement to address the racism, whether nuanced or blatant, that occurs every day in popular culture. This is a form of racism that, while perhaps less directly threatening to the safety of black lives, is equally impactful in perpetuating the norm of inequality that results both in the de facto legalization of murdering black victims (to put it bluntly, but arguably realistically) and in the refusal of the Academy to even recognize black artists for their work. Black lives matter, and to secure this basic right to life is understandably and rightfully at the core of the movement of racial equality. But if we as a nation really want to boast a free and equal society, we can’t just stop at the securing of black lives. For us to really tackle racism in a meaningful way, America, beginning with the Academy, must understand that yes, black lives matter first – but also that black art matters, and black culture matters, and black achievements matter too.


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