Understanding the #OscarSoWhite Issue

For the past week it seems that everyone has had something to say about the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations. The difficulty I find is that a lot of what people are saying does have a lot of truth to it, so it’s left me feeling a bit confused about whose right and whose wrong? Maybe it’s not that easy when it comes to this issue. I decided to break the nomination issue down, to help me understand it better and to perhaps help you form an understanding of it.

What’s the issue?
In early 2015 Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the black president of the Oscars invited 320 people from different backgrounds to increase diversity in The Academy, after last year’s all white nominations. Then, in 2016, it happened again.

To give you an example Creed, Straight Outta Compton, Chi-raq, Beasts of Nation, Girlhood were all well-reviewed films about black lives, but weren’t nominated for Best Picture. Straight Outta Compton received a Best Original Screenplay nomination, for its two white screenwriters.

It’s the second year running that 20 white actors and actresses have been nominated at the Oscars and there has been a limited amount of nominations from people of diverse backgrounds, not just black people but also people of different sexual orientation, social class and pretty much everybody else who doesn’t fall into that white 20-45 category. There has been a series of backlashes and calls to boycott the Oscars.

A user of the controversial message board 4chan brought up these statistics after looking at the Oscar winners ethnicity over the past 20 years:

Oscar chart

According to the chart, 12.5% of the Oscar winners in the last 20 years have been black people. Black people represent approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population and have received 12.5% of the acting awards in the last 20 years, the writer of the article that I got this chart form goes on to smugly state :”Apparently most Oscar recipients are white because we live in a country that’s predominately white. Who would’ve thunk?”

It seems the rhetoric in the online conversation is that increased diversity equals to more black people. As a black man I have sometimes fallen into this same line of thinking, when in reality diversity means having a range of different things. Not Just black people, but also people from other ethnicities, social classes, sexual orientations and gender. I think this idea has been lost to a lot of people discussing the issue and the focus is on black people only.  Yes, discussing the issue from a black perspective, you can relate it to various other people from different backgrounds. It just seems like the black people in Hollywood are the only ones being vocal about the issue, which is a good thing I guess but I wonder why no one else is? I rarely ever hear about boycotting the Oscars when they also make up a large percentage of the American population.

The Oscars has never really been diverse and neither have big blockbuster movies, it’s the way things have always been. But I believe that the industry is definitely more diverse than it was 50 years ago and I think that people need to step back and acknowledge that. That is not to say that they should keep quiet either, ruckuses like this one act as drivers to increase diversity within the industry.

Bear with me on this one but this theory just came into my head, some people might disagree but here it goes:

Are people from other backgrounds so used to having white leads/or leads of a particular type (young and beautiful) that seeing something that we are not used to or did not expect perhaps subconsciously  perturbs us. Have we begun to associate good acting with white faces only, the same way that some ethnic minorities associate lighter skin with beauty? Is it difficult for us to associate anything other than a relatively good looking man or woman with an Oscar winning performance? This was just a thought that these subconscious biases may live in the 320 people from diverse backgrounds selected by the Academy, who have all been fed through the same movie system that is predominately white. It is something to ponder on a deeper psychological level that this way of thinking could create a self-perpetuating endless loop.

What Questions came up?
First of all I’ve already answered why diversity on our screen is important here

Other questions that come up relate to if there were any movies about black people that were actually worthy?  Which is a question that is too subjective for me to answer because what one person might think is good another might think is bad, for instance I thought Charlotte Rampling’s performance in 45 years was boring, but she still got nominated. The Oscars is just a couple of hundred of people’s opinion, after all.

Another question that comes up is whether diversity is more important than merit. This would be a legitimate question if merit was the only factor that determined the Oscars. Other factors come into play, such as if a movie is backed by a big studio, it’s more likely to receive more Oscar nominations. It’s no surprise The Revenant, The Martian, The Big Short all received nominations. The big studios aren’t going to pick up stories about minorities, because they are financially riskier, so this could be a factor as to why there aren’t that many nominations of people from diverse backgrounds.

Merit has always been the frame around the picture, rather than the other way round. I would even say that media favouritism sometimes plays a part in determining who wins an Oscar, for example, Jennifer Lawrence who won for her mediocre performance in Silver Linings Playbook. When I think she should have won for her performance in Winter’s Bone the first time she was nominated, she gutted a squirrel on screen for goodness sake.

Why do the Oscar nominations matter?

Chris rock shrugging

Well that’s for you to decide if it matters to you or not. Generally if movies, movie stars and what happens in Hollywood interest you then the Oscars should matter to you.

Yes you could argue that making a fuss about who wins the Oscars is a #firstworldproblem, which to a certain degree it is. But are you not supposed to care about things just because there are more serious things going on in the world? Sometimes you just need a little break and just allow yourself to indulge in your #firstworldproblem #guiltfree the third world problems are still going to be there, unfortunately.

The argument that there are bigger things to worry about is so pretentious and soap boxy, because you’re basically telling a person to not be interested in what they are genuinely interested in.

Let’s face the facts we live in a society that values entertainment and glamour, it’s kind of silly, but after all it is a multibillionaire industry and where there is money there is value.The Oscars like the Grammys, are a pinnacle of the entertainment industry, filled with the cultural taste makers, so we value them as source of information. They dictate to the rest of the population what is in and what’s not, what’s hot what’s cold, what is acceptable and unacceptable.

The Oscars have the power to legitimize something and someone as sanctified in the public arena; basically if you win you’re the best. This is the issue with the Oscars; it holds so much power over film tastes and acts as a reflection of the state of the industry. The Oscars are in the public arena, so it’s not just about individual talent or merit, it’s got other things attached to it and if you play in the public arena you have to play by certain rules, you’ve got to make things equal. If the Oscars were just some event for industry insiders then this probably wouldn’t matter as much.

The public, me included have put the Academy awards on such a pedestal; we are more likely to go see movies by Academy award winning actors and directors. Perhaps we have made our expectations too high and therefore will always be disappointed by what happens with the Academy awards.

What are the celebrities saying and doing?
Celebrities are saying a lot of interesting things about the #Oscarssowhite issue, some of which has some truth to it.

There are some celebrities who are taking some extreme steps by not attending this year’s Oscars e.g. Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Will Smith.

Check out Jada Pinkett’s speech here:

I think there’s definitely some truth to what she is saying but perhaps it might have been a knee jerk response to the nominations. The video did make me wonder if the tables are turning in that black people are becoming racist towards white people, intensifying the ‘them and us’ culture by continually chastising them for their current mishaps and past wrongs.

If a white actor said he wasn’t attending the awards ceremony because there weren’t any white actors nominated. He would be deemed as a racist, so it’s a bit of double standard. I think what creates the difference between a white actor not attending an event that had predominantly black nominees and a black actor not attending this year’s Oscars, is history. Black people have a history of being marginalized so therefore it changes the tone from being an act of racism towards a fight for inclusion and diversity.

Here is Janet Hubert (Aunt Viv from Fresh prince of Bel-Air) response to Jada Pinkett Smiths video that I thought I should add for comedic value and to provide some balance to the other side of the argument:

She is obviously a bit burnt after being fired from show, but I think she’s right in saying that Will Smith is perhaps part of the system as well.  you probably have to be part of the system if you want to be as successful as big Will.

Last but not least I think Whoopi Goldberg has some wise words even though she is a little self righteous:

Here are some things other celebs are saying see if you agree:

“Boycotting doesn’t work and it’s also a slap in the face to Chris Rock”Whoopi Goldberg

“I have never used the word boycott … All I said was, my beautiful wife Tonya [and I], we’re not coming. That’s it, then I gave the reasons, so I never used the word boycott. Everyone else can do what they want to do.”-Spike Lee

 “To imply that this is because all of us are racists is extremely offensive. I don’t want to be lumped into a category of being a racist because I’m certainly not and because I support and benefit from the talent of black people in this business. It was just an incredibly competitive year.”–  Penelope Ann Miller, Member of the Academy

“I have a lot of sympathy for [the boycott] and I completely understand why people are protesting. They have to. Except I’m in a movie that’s representing a whole other group of disenfranchised people who have no voice in the world and this movie means so much to them. And so… I have to demur and I have to stand up for the people I have to stand up for.”Mark Ruffalo, 2016 Actor in a Supporting Role nominee,

“There is a position we hold in this community, and if we are not part of the solution then we are part of the problem. And it was [wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith’s] call to be a part of the solution. There’s probably a part of that in there. But for Jada if I had been nominated and no one else was, she would have made the video. This is so deeply not about me. This is about children who are going to sit down and see the show, and not see themselves represented”Will Smith

Most of it is just saving face and trying to say the right thing, what I also feel is that people are unsure of what action to take and if they are taking any action, it’s an action filled with doubt. As expected celebrities’ like most people are giving an awkward response to an awkward situation.

Shouldn’t Movies be fun?
This is a question that sprung up in conversation, aren’t movies supposed to be a fun form of entertainment, to offer us respite from the struggles of daily life?

It’s a shame that it has become so politicized and serious; it’s not as light hearted as I imagine it once was. As mentioned earlier when anything becomes industrialized and a multi-billion dollar industry, it usually begins to be critically analysed.  The more valuable the movie making business becomes the more seriously it’s taken. There is nothing wrong with movies being taken seriously, but it should be done on a scale and now its tipping too much to one side, it’s like every film has to be politically correct, so now nothing shocks us.

This is not to say discussing these issues in film isn’t important, but perhaps it would be nice if things were more relaxed and not so tense.

You could say that the #oscarsowhiteissue isn’t really about the Oscars at all, but is a metaphor for the bigger issue of diversity and inclusion in all industries, not just film.

What are the next steps?
The president of the academy stated the following in a response to the current hoopla:

In an emergency meeting on Thursday (1/21) the Academy changed the design of the academy membership, in a bid to increase the amount of women and diverse members, you can find out all the changes here.

If the academies mandate for next year is inclusion in all its facets: gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation, there’s not much we can do but wait till next year to see what happens.

The argument on diversity in nominations and awards is so complex and can literally probably go on for decades as the reasons change.

You might have heard the saying: “Success is when hard work meets opportunity”.  I pondered on this and realized that success can’t exist for a large amount of actors or directors from diverse backgrounds. This is because the same amount of opportunity just doesn’t exist for them, compared to their white male or female counterparts from a higher social class who have a better education and access to the industry.

So I think the problem is rooted in the amount of opportunity actors and directors from diverse backgrounds are given. If the amount of  opportunity they get increases I believe that this will lead to more diverse work, which would lead to an increase of  better stories about people from different backgrounds  being created and therefore more nominations.

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