How Did the Oscars Get Not So White?

By  · Published on January 24th, 2017

How new members and a hashtag influenced this year’s more inclusive Oscar nominees.

The nominations are out and word on the street is that the Oscars are finally not so white. Six black actors have been nominated in the acting categories. English-Indian Dev Patel was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Moonlight garnered a total of eight nominations, including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Barry Jenkins. The Best Documentary category includes Ava DuVernay’s 13th, Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro and the ESPN doc O.J.: Made in America by Ezra Edelman. Bradford Young has become the second black nominee for Best Cinematography. The Pacific Island-set animated musical Moana garnered nominations for Best Animated Picture and Best Original Song for How Far I’ll Go by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Sound designer Ai-Ling Lee is part of the team of sound artists who received nominations for Sound Editing and Sound Design for the saccharine musical La La Land (which has a total of 14 nominations ‐ no surprise there as Hollywood loves a movie about itself).

After two years of blindingly white acting nominees, what led to the change in this year’s Oscar nominations?

The most obvious answer is that the Academy’s newest class added a wealth of diversity to its ranks. Last year, AMPAS invited a whopping 683 new members, with a goal to increase the Academy’s percentage of people of color from 8% to 11% and female representation from 25% to 27%. The list included over 70 new members of Asian descent, which I reported on last year in my interviews with producers and Academy members Janet Yang and Mynette Louie.

How the Academy’s New Class Impacts Asian Representation in Hollywood

Per an LA Times article from February 2016, the Oscars voting body at this time last year was approximately 91% white and 76% male. This year’s nominations reflect that the change in membership demographics has considerably influenced the way the organization is watching ‐ and voting ‐ for films. Popular Academy members like Ava DuVernay have also helped change the culture by speaking up about the need for better cast and crew hiring practices. In an interview with the New York Times last January, she decried the term “diversity,” calling for “inclusion” and “belonging” instead:

“There’s a belonging problem in Hollywood,” Ms. DuVernay said, “Who dictates who belongs? The very body who dictates that looks all one way.”

The role of social media cannot be underestimated either. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was a loud and proud call for diversity after two years of blindingly white Oscar acting nominations. These days, the status quo isn’t enough to quell the voices of fans and critics on social networks like Twitter. Whitewashing was a big issue this past year for Asian-Americans. While it didn’t do much to change the movies (they were already in production by the time fans called foul on casting white actors in Asian roles), most filmmakers got the memo: They need to do better.

“I’m Shiny,” Moana’s David Bowie-inspired, hip-hop musical masterpiece was robbed. Just saying.

#OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign says that although this year’s nominations are “blacker,” they’re not necessarily more diverse. In an interview with Tre’vell Anderson of the LA Times, Reign said:

“Everyone is saying the Oscars are more diverse this year. No they’re not. They’re blacker, but where are the Latinx movies, the LGBTQIA movies? The Asian American/Pacific Islander community has had a worse year. We can’t forget [them] just because we have black nominees this year. #OscarsSoWhite is about everybody.”

A lot of energy is focused on the demographics of the Oscar nominees because they’re the most visible record of the “best” films of the year. But even if Hollywood would like us to think that Best Picture goes to the best film of the year that will be remembered for years and years even after it wins the award, that’s not always the case. (See: here and here). Besides film quality, there are a ton of factors that lead to a film’s Oscar chances. Oscar campaigning is a bonafide business that, not unlike political campaigns, require funding, strong critical reviews, support from famous names and lots of public appearances. And as we know from our own political experiences, the best doesn’t always win. (If it did, then The Handmaiden would have been nominated too ‐ JUST SAYING.)

This year’s new Academy members might alter the course of who gets to bring home a little gold man, but we’ll have to wait and see what happens come the day of the Oscar award ceremony. And while it is just show full of pomp and circumstance, the Oscars can also serve as a metric for where we are as a society and culture. As far as nominations go, we can see that diversity and inclusion are here to stay. But artists should be recognized for their work, not for their otherness. As Best Supporting Actor nominee Mahershala Ali told THR: “I hope I wasn’t nominated because I was black. That has no relevance. I hope I was nominated for my work.” This kind of thinking requires challenging ourselves as a culture to look at movies through different perspectives and a wider lens. Here’s hoping that all Academy members, new and old, can get with the program.

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Writer. Audio/Creative Producer. Columnist, Film School Rejects.