The Real Reason Why The Oscars Are So White

By  · Published on January 25th, 2016

Last week, AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Isaacs outlined a series of new measures as a response to the recent outrage regarding the lack of diversity in this year’s Academy Awards nominees. Indirectly referring to her association’s 94% white and 77% male membership, she vowed to implement these changes in order to make the structure of the Academy more prone to promoting diversity and set the example for the industry. That is admirable, because it happens to be exactly what the industry needs to hear loud and clear. There is a flip side, however, which is that she endorsed the widespread assumption that white people vote for white people, black people vote for black people, and that’s the way the world will always be. A simple matter of fixing the Academy’s internal bell curve and reduce the number of old white men will certainly do the trick if we do indeed live in that world, but what if we don’t?

Am I oblivious when I believe the vast majority of non-racist Academy voters out there who watched their DVD screeners, took some notes on who they liked, and simply cast their votes without hoping for an all-white nominee outcome? But let me double-down. Am I even more naive to think the newly introduced members of the Academy who represent diversity may watch those screeners next year and choose to vote for white actors over actors of color if they feel that the performances warranted it? Isn’t the point of this ceremony to reward talent and excellence?

I strongly feel that #OscarsSoWhite can happen again and will happen again. The root cause of discrimination takes place several months before the nominees are announced. It happens when studios pick which horses to bet on.

Granted, if we start counting actors of color who have won an Oscar throughout the 88 years of the telecast, none of us will be pleased to find the great Sydney Poitier standing by himself with his Best Actor trophy for Lilies of the Field in 1963. Along with Hattie McDaniel supporting actress win for Gone With The Wind, Poitier was the only actor of color to win in the first 55 years of Academy Awards history. If we can put things in perspective, the African-American Civil Rights Movement started in 1954 and the fight to end legalized racial segregation was on a much bigger scale than simply at awards ceremonies. There undoubtedly was racism to be found at the Oscars, just like everywhere else in the United States of America at the time. I believe that many of these conceited, short-sighted Academy voters have since passed away, and the generation currently in charge of deciding who to nominate every year is much more liberal and progressive when it comes to all social issues. Not only because they’re all artists (usually not the profession where bigotry finds its nest), but also because they have shown to be sensible to human rights in their collaborative works and their overall voting pattern. Since the 2000’s, the Academy’s batting average regarding non-white inclusion did start to make amends while still rewarding performances that were truly deserving. In the past decade, non-white actors and actresses were nominated 34 times and 8 of them took home the Academy Award. A far cry from equality, but not the complete shut-out everyone is talking about.

Talent is everywhere. Opportunity isn’t.

The all-white Oscar nominations are not a cause but merely a consequence. You can argue that getting nominated boosts your career which in turn lands you more Oscar-worthy roles, but studio executives decide each year whether their Oscar bait is going to be about a white protagonist months before they cast for it. The best roles are in these big Oscar pandering productions that disguise themselves as independent features. You can spot them every year at film festivals because they’re about a really sad subject matter, they star actors you recognize from superhero movies and all the tickets to the premiere are sold out before the festival begins. These are the movies that offer the roles of a lifetime, and the marketing push that can turn an unknown actor into an Academy award nominee. Tangerine isn’t one of these movies. Whiplash is one of these movies (it even has three superheroes in it.) If the Oscar bait was about non-white characters, then the best roles would go to non-white actors and nominations inclusiveness would come rolling in. For argument’s sake, let us all agree that Tessa Thompson and Brie Larson are equally talented (which I think they are) and have them switch up. Room now stars Tessa Thompson as a young woman who protects her young son’s innocence while being held captive for years. Brie Larson is now the co-star of Creed, where she plays the girl who listens to her music too loudly and starts dating Michael B. Jordan. Both actresses nail it, so who gets the Oscar nomination? Tessa does, because she had a much better opportunity to showcase her talent, a role-of-a-lifetime which was unfortunately written with a white actress in mind. As Idris Elba said to the British government: “Talent is everywhere. Opportunity isn’t.”

What Cheryl Boone Isaacs is implementing is only meant to appease criticism by making AMPAS more politically correct. But political correctness is a bit like having family members who can’t stand each other sit at the opposite ends of the dinner table. It gives the illusion of inclusiveness but doesn’t provide it in the long run. We all need to aspire much higher, and we do that by cultivating a film community in which nobody gets rewarded for any reason other than merit. I would like to believe that Spike Lee would vote for a white actor over a black one if the white actor’s performance was superior in his opinion, because he understands that ultimately we should be rewarding excellence on equal grounds. But I would only hold him accountable to that moral standard if there was an equal amount of great roles for black and white actors in that given year. After Mr. Lee likely had to sit through Joy, The Martian, Brooklyn, The Big Short, The Revenant, Spotlight, Trumbo, The Danish Girl, Steve Jobs, Carol, Mad Max: Fury Road, 45 Years, and Creed, I completely understand why he would immediately support Michael B. Jordan for Creed: He’s the only non-white performance who’s actually has a shot at winning Best Actor. Creed is not even true Oscar bait, but rather an improbably great cinematic achievement that wasn’t meant to play the festival circuits. Straight Outta Compton also wasn’t Oscar bait – Universal marketed it as a blockbuster. Chi-Raq and Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter went completely under the radar. Dope was a comedy. So where was this year’s Oscar bait featuring a non-white protagonist like 12 Years a Slave, Life of Pi, The Help or Precious? The answer is nowhere, and thus the game was already rigged before it even began.

Sometimes the great roles in Oscar bait dramas are meant for actors of color and still get ignored by the Academy. Last year, David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava Duvernay’s Selma was most likely the sixth nominee for Best Actor in an inexcusable omission. This year, Idris Elba was outrageously snubbed for his incredible performance in Beasts of No Nation. The film itself was completely ignored, which leads me to believe that its Netflix release platform ended up hurting it. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has been imperialistic (to say the least) in his ventures into other people’s niches so he could manufacture the products he’s known to distribute. This doesn’t please the establishment from the traditional film and television industry, and the “Made for Netflix” tag certainly brought an aura of “Made for TV” regardless of the fact that it was one of the best films of the year, like a bottle of wine you bought at a convenience store. Playing the son of a character Carl Weathers was known for in the 80’s doesn’t constitute a great role, even though Michael B. Jordan really made the most of it and should have also been acknowledged.

Next: #OscarsSoWhite Isn’t Other People’s Problems

As the great Sidney Poitier allegedly told director John Singleton when Boys N The Hood was ignored by the Academy in 1991: “Just because a film doesn’t get recognized when it first comes out, doesn’t mean it’s not a great film.” Every year, we still get two, maybe three quality films featuring characters of color that get snubbed in the big categories, but that doesn’t mean these movies aren’t worthy of our admiration and support. We may jump to conclusion and call out racism against Academy voters, but I believe nominations are decided by a powerful few in Hollywood who put the worms at the end of the fishing lines a year before Oscar night. Studios know they are the real culprit and are shamefully letting the Academy bite the bullet for the second year in a row. Considering that both Creed and Straight Outta Compton were extremely profitable at the box-office last year, they have no excuses at this point. They need to get the best screenwriters in the business to write about people of color and back these projects as their main Oscar contenders so audiences can start experiencing great stories from new cultural perspectives. They need to put their studio funding machine towards an Aaron Sorkin screenplay about Rosa Parks or a David Fincher drama about the sibling rivalry between Venus and Serena Williams. Let’s all unite our voices loud and clear, and direct it where the root of the problem truly lies: Let’s tell studios to stop making all their Oscar bait dramas about white people.

Straight Outta Compton (Blu-ray + DVD + DIGITAL HD with Ultraviolet)

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