Erasing Race from The Oscars… Again

Lifestyle, Pop Culture

Oscars

(This article was originally written for The American Word)

Who will take home a gold statue at this year’s Academy Awards? This question is usually debated at length, but the focus this year will be on who won’t be taking home an award.

The Problem

In the weeks since the Oscar nominations were announced, the lack of diversity in this year’s acting field has dominated the conversation. For the second year in a row, all 20 of the actors nominated in the lead and supporting categories are white. Before 2015, this had not happened since 1998. BroadwayBlack.com managing editor April Reign created the trending Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite as a response to last year’s omissions, and the popular hashtag was revived this year.

Based on the amount of praise and awards that movies such as “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton” received, many expected these movies to get multiple Oscar nominations. However, each movie only received one Oscar nomination each. Sylvester Stallone received the supporting actor nomination for “Creed,” and Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff received the screenwriting nomination for “Straight Outta Compton.” The problem? They are all white. Many were also shocked to see that “Beasts of No Nation” was shut out from the nominations entirely – Idris Elba, who won a Screen Actors Guild Award for his role in the film, was expected to receive a nomination for supporting actor.

The History of the Oscars’ Lack of Diversity

Only 14 black actors have won an Academy Award in the show’s 88-year history. The first to win was Hattie McDaniel for “Gone With the Wind” in 1940, and the most recent was Lupita Nyong’o for “12 Years a Slave” in 2014.

For other minorities, there are even less Academy Award winners. Only five Latino actors and three Asian actors have ever won an Oscar.

Looking at past viewership data, the lack of diversity in nominees has had a noticeably negative effect on the Oscars’ ratings.

The Daily Beast did a study on this topic using ratings data that broke Oscars viewership down by race. They found that the largest percentage of non-white viewers tuned in to the Academy Awards in years when the most nominees of color and films featuring people of color were nominated.

They also found the years with the highest percentages of non-white viewers also had the highest rated Oscars telecasts overall, which means that people of color have been a major force in providing big ratings for the Oscars.

One example noted by The Daily Beast was the 2005 Oscars telecast. This specific telecast had the highest ratings among black viewers, with 5.3 million people tuning in, amounting to 12.5 percent of 2005’s total viewers. It was also one of the highest rated Oscars ceremonies in the years that The Daily Beast writers examined, with 42 million total viewers. Six nominees were actors of color that year: Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo (“Hotel Rwanda”), Morgan Freeman (“Million Dollar Baby”), Catalina Sandino Moreno (“Maria Full of Grace”), and Jamie Foxx, who won for “Ray” and was also nominated for “Collateral.”

Simply put: history has shown that the more diverse the nominees are, the better the Oscars’ ratings will be.

What To Expect At This Year’s Show

At this year’s ceremony, there will be some notable absences from some of Hollywood’s most famous black actors. Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith and Tyrese Gibson are among the African American stars who will not be attending this year’s event.

Will Smith, on a recent Good Morning America appearance, called diversity “the American superpower” and said that attending the Oscars, given the lack of diversity among the nominees, would be “awkward.”

“[There are] so many different people from so many different places adding their ideas to this beautiful American gumbo,” Smith said. “At its best, Hollywood represents and creates the imagery for that beauty. But for my part, I think I have to protect and fight for the ideals that make our country, and make our Hollywood community, great.”

But, there are also unknowns as to what will happen at this year’s ceremony. Will the winners address the controversy in acceptance speeches? Will curiosity attract a whole new crowd of viewers who might not typically tune in?

However, it’s what Oscars host Chris Rock does that might turn out to be the most exciting part of the night. Many people have speculated about how Rock will address the controversy during this year’s telecast.

Rock, who is one of the sharpest comedians when it comes to race observations, previously wrote an essay about Hollywood’s race problem. In December 2014, he wrote, “It’s a white industry. Just as the NBA is a black industry. I’m not even saying it’s a bad thing. It just is… But how many black men have you met working in Hollywood? They don’t really hire black men. A black man with bass in his voice and maybe a little hint of facial hair? Not going to happen. It is what it is. I’m a guy who’s accepted it all.”

Should People Care?

The question is simple: Should people care that there are no actors of color nominated for the Oscars in the acting categories?

Russell Williams, a professor of Film and Media Arts in AU’s School of Communication and a two-time Academy Award winner for his sound work on “Glory” and “Dances with Wolves,” said that the response to the Oscar nominations is not without merit.

“The tone seems to imply, if not explicitly state, that the only reason these actors were nominated is because they are white and not talented,” he said. “Even with the handful of roles that were played by diverse cast members, there were of course even more ‘non-diverse’ actors whose names weren’t called that morning either: Tom Hanks being one of them, for example.” In other words, there were also other white actors who were deserving of a nomination but ultimately left off the ballot.

Many people would argue that the Oscars’ struggles with diversity are important because of the issue of representation. Roger Streitmatter, a Journalism professor in the School of Communication, said that the biggest problem with having no nominees of color is what that means for young people.

“Movies are enormously important in this country, as well as around the world,” he said. “If you’re a young African American girl or Latino boy and you’re sent the message that all the best actors in Hollywood are white, that pretty much says that this isn’t a field for you.”

Williams, a voting member of the Academy himself, agreed. “As the commercial, artistic and entertainment worlds have blended seamlessly, many viewers and listeners take their cues from these various presentations to evaluate their own self-image,” he said. “If this ‘looking glass’ does not appear to value your contributions to society, it can have a negative influence on how you see yourself.”

However, Williams said he does not favor having more diverse stories on screen just to have them on screen; they have to be told as well as other stories.

Although receiving acclaim through awards and nominations is a part of representation, it is important to remember that the biggest issue within the industry is not the number of nominations but the number of opportunities that minority actors and filmmakers actually get in order to be nominated in the first place.

There is only one way for there to be better representation for people of color when it comes to award season: making more movies by, with and about people of color.

It is also important to remember that the issue of lack of representation and opportunity is not something that only matters during awards season; it is a problem 365 days of the year.

So this outcry, anger and rage will only be useful if there is some kind of action behind the emotions year-round and not just in the form of Oscars boycotts.

Solutions?

After the enormous amount of backlash that the governing body of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which officiates the Oscars, has received, they knew that they needed to take action, and take it quickly.

They recently announced plans for a “sweeping series of substantive changes” to help increase diversity among its members.

The board said in a statement that their goal was “to commit to doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.” The changes also include 10-year limits on the voting abilities of new members of the Academy, which will be removed if the member is not “active in motion pictures” in the intervening time.

“The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who herself is African American, said in a statement. “These new measures regarding governance and voting will have an immediate impact and begin the process of significantly changing our membership composition.”

But, is it enough?

“That’s definitely a step in the right direction,” said Streitmatter.

However, many also believe that there needs to be additional changes because of the increasing role of diversity in American society.

One potential change is to bring back the Black Oscars.

Officially, this ceremony was called the Tree of Life Awards, but most people remember it by its informal name, “The Black Oscars.” This annual event was launched in 1981, a time when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rarely recognized black achievements. By 1981, only 27 African Americans had been nominated in the 52-year history of the Oscars, with only three winners.

The Black Oscars became a way for black actors ignored by the Academy to receive acknowledgment of their talents and accomplishments. In addition to the The Black Oscar nominees, many other important and influential members of the black community were also attended. The Tree of Life Awards ended in 2007.

However, Streitmatter believes that one solution is as simple as making choices to see certain films.

“Hollywood is all about the bottom line,” he said. “If we go see movies that feature actors of color, more movies with actors of color will be made.”

Williams echoed similar sentiments: “None of this is sustainable though if the audience doesn’t show up.”

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