Oscars Not So White: Is the Academy’s Race Problem Solved?

Things are improving, but we are not quite there yet.

Never be a hashtag. When was the last time something or someone spawned a widely used hashtag that wasn’t negative? Twitter can be an overwhelmingly negative place — a repository for frustration, condemnation, and protest. Last year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign certainly didn’t make the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science look particularly good. Worse yet, instead of the media using the weeks between the nominations and the ceremony to celebrate our collective love of cinema (which is allegedly the point of the Oscars) we debated the hows and whys of an industry governing body that didn’t seem interested in reflecting the true diversity of our world.

I got to attend the Academy Awards ceremony last year, and it was about as diverse as you’d expect, in that I was one of about three minorities in my section. That section was, as you might imagine, somewhere in the vicinity of the Hollywood sign in relation to the stage. The only other black person near me was very chatty about race relations in Hollywood until I told her I was a journalist and she informed me that she was a member of the Academy.

To AMPAS’s credit, they’ve made strides in how diverse their membership is. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaac is African-American, and the first black president in the history of the organization. She was out front during the days of #OscarsSoWhite and her leadership led to a public statement promising more diversity in membership going forward. 

What pundits and concerned audiences wanted last year wasn’t just assurances that there would be more variations in skin tone and gender in the Academy. It was about the Oscars themselves, and a desire to see a greater number of minorities on the ballot when January rolls around. This year’s list of nominees feels like a reaction to that in many ways. Six black actors were nominated, which is a record number. Moonlight director Barry Jenkins is the first African-American filmmaker to receive Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay (in this case, Best Adapted Screenplay) Oscar nods in the history of the award. It was a stellar year for African-American cinema, and the artists who made those films were appropriately rewarded for their masterful work.

But, what diversity is really about isn’t flashy press releases about records, nor is it simply about black movies getting nominations (or even wins). Diversity isn’t an issue that starts and stops with one group of people. Diversity means the widest range possible of stories being told in unique, compelling, and thought-provoking ways. How many years has it been since The Joy Luck Club or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Why was Tangerine such an outlier rather than the start of a sustained trans film movement? Why is the Fast and Furious franchise one of the only times moviegoers see a Hispanic female protagonist on the big screen?

The typical retort to these questions is that only certain stories are profitable, especially where overseas box office is concerned. White actors and the stories that white writers and directors generate are what audiences want to see in places like China or India. Unless your name is Will Smith, they won’t bother buying a ticket to see your movie. This assumes there is some inherent racial bias in the moviegoing public, which was the same sort of attitude the music industry took for decades. Radio airwaves were strictly segregated. MTV famously ignored videos by black artists, to the point that David Bowie publicly lashed out at them for their noticeable snubs.

Today, the music industry is dominated by black artists. Hip-hop is unquestionably the most lucrative genre in the medium. Eventually, market forces dictate that practices change. The financial success of predominantly African-American movies like Hidden Figures make subsequent films like it more likely to be released and marketed as high-profile films rather than niche entertainment like When the Bough Breaks. Granted, Hidden Figures star Taraji P. Henson spent many years plying her trade in similar movies

Audiences from multiple demographic groups have and will continue to support movies starring minorities, but each time a movie like Hidden Figures, Fences, or Moonlight hits big, we act surprised. Then, there’s a fallow period, followed by another success story, and the cycle continues. There will be another hashtag campaign powered by outrage and disappointment that true progress seems so elusive.

The power is not in the mere act of handing out trophies. It’s in opportunity — opportunity for black, Hispanic, Asian, LGBTQ, female, and Native American voices to be heard consistently and loudly. Only when studio executives see the value in opening up casting calls, writing assignments, and director’s chairs to the full range of humanity will we make true change a reality.

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