By Shanda Glover
In January, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its 2016 Oscar nominees, only white actors and actresses were chosen in the top four categories.
For the second year in a row, all 20 actors nominated in the lead and supporting acting categories are white. Before 2015, this hadn’t happened since 1998. Furthermore, people of color are virtually absent from all the other categories as well. The controversy has reignited last year’s trending twitter tag, #OscarsSoWhite.
Today’s cinema has a problem with representation. Audiences are being shown a disproportionate world of visual fiction, a world where cultural differences are rare. Directors, writers, and producers share the responsibility to represent those who are underrepresented. Film needs to include role models and inspirational characters playing a variety of leading roles to show audiences that the role of ‘hero’ is not reserved for white men, but can be extended to women and men of color.
What’s needed from audiences and critics alike is the willingness to demand and support cinema that explores ethnic and gender diverse stories.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, issued a statement on the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations, which has become the subject of mounting criticism. “I’d like to acknowledge the wonderful work of this year’s nominees,” she said. “While we celebrate their extraordinary achievements, I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes.”
The problem with the overwhelming male whiteness of this year’s Oscars is not white males and their stories, it’s the millions of other people and stories that should be part of the powerful force of American cinema. Yet, these are constantly ignored and overlooked.
On top of the need for racial diversity, this year’s Oscar’s nominations also demonstrated the need for gender diversity in film. According to The Atlantic, 21 percent of those working behind the scenes, were women. Today, that number has only jumped 6 percentage points, to 27 percent. Similarly, the percentage of women on camera has seen little growth, increasing 3 percentage points from 39 percent in 1997 to 42 percent today. Putting a woman in the director’s chair makes it much more likely that the film will also achieve gender parity in other behind-the-scenes roles, according to a new study that examines last year’s top-grossing films. Unfortunately, women who do get to direct are often given smaller budgets and face an uphill battle even once their film is made.
The controversy and boycott have sparked a response just as heated. Others have chosen to defend the academy, pointing out that the homogeneous nature of the nominee lists is less a reflection of voter bias than of the homogeneous nature of this year’s films. Female writers and directors or actors of color should not be automatically nominated just to provide some politically correct vision of diversity.
People on Twitter are blasting the Oscar committee for not nominating a more gender and ethnically diverse group. Including BroadwayBlack.com managing editor April Reign, who created the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite last year. In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), she said “It happened because I was disappointed once again in the lack of diversity and inclusion with respect to the nominees,” said Reign, “and we see, despite all of the talk since last year, nothing has changed, and it looks even worse this year.”
Spike Lee, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith were among numerous celebrities who announced that they will not attend this year’s Oscars because of its lack of black nominees. April Reign is calling for a boycott of the Feb. 28 awards ceremony: “What we are saying is: If you are concerned about the lack of inclusion and diversity in Hollywood, don’t watch the program.”
Reign does not want to encourage those who have already agreed to take part as presenters to cancel their plans, but is urging them to use their presence to “speak out and take a stand about the lack of diversity in Hollywood. I don’t think there’s just one way accomplish it.” This year, Chris Rock is scheduled to be the host of the Oscars and Reign has stated her approval. “I think Chris Rock was chosen as the host in part because he has a biting political and social commentary. On his Twitter, he’s already called the Oscars the white BET awards, so I suspect he’ll be mentioning the overall issues as well on the broadcast.”
These are stories told by black writers, directors, actresses and actors. They are well received and yet they get little recognition or any chance of a nomination. Films like “Creed” and Straight Out of Compton, with people of color in lead and supporting roles. These films received nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Best Screenplay, however, these nominations were again only given to white people. Sylvester Stallone was nominated for best supporting actor in “Creed” but his costar Michael B. Jordan and the director Ryan Coogler did not get recognition in their respective categories. It sends a particularly ugly message about race and the Oscars this year. This is to say nothing of the exclusion of the much acclaimed work of female director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo in last year’s “Selma,” or the long line of actors of color passed over for nominations or awards.
In a year that has shown that men of color and women can succeed and get recognition for their work, makes the painfully, apparent whiteness of the Oscars even more upsetting. As audiences we need to stop limiting ourselves to the same characters and the same stories told over and over again.