Why the Academy Can’t Ignore #OscarsSoWhite

On January 14th, the unveiling of the Oscar nominations caused an uproar on social media sites. And it’s not because Leonardo DiCaprio might finally win an Oscar. People took to Twitter and revived the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite from last year to communicate how they felt about all 20 major Oscar nominations going to white people–for the second year in a row. Needless to say, people were upset. #OscarsSTILLSoWhite

But what’s the big deal? There must not be that many non-white actors and actresses in Hollywood to begin with, right? Yes. And that’s the problem entirely. As Viola Davis said in 2015 during her Outstanding Lead Actress in Drama Series acceptance speech:

“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Many film industry leaders are slow, and even reluctant, to respond to the public’s demand for movies that reflect diversity.

There are simply not as many opportunities for nonwhite actors and actresses in the film industry as there are for their white counterparts. And not all movies are created equal either. Movies that are about race that consist of a mainly black cast are deemed unlikely to make a profit by major film studios, so these movies that support diversity do not get the same funding that other movies do.

For example, Selma, Dear White People, and The Butler all had trouble gaining the support of major studios, and so had to turn to crowdfunding sources and small independent studios, according to The Washington Post. There aren’t enough studios supporting these kinds of movies and there aren’t enough directors who prioritize diversity. A white actor is seen as the default, while a nonwhite actor is seen as more of an option.

As April Reign, creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times,

“The point of #OscarsSoWhite is not that there needs to be a person of color in every category. The point is we need to make sure that the best and brightest are given the opportunity to audition and write and direct and then make the [nomination] decision with respect to the best performances.”

Some people have decided to boycott the Oscars by either not attending the ceremony or not watching the show on television. Spike Lee, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith are among some the prominent figures in Hollywood who have announced their commitments to the boycott the Oscars ceremony thus far. Some figures are still contemplating their attendance.

Chris Rock, this year’s Oscars host, was pressured by supporters of the boycott, such as Tyrese Gibson, to decline the hosting position. According to an interview he did with Variety, Rock said that he will remain the host. Rock has, however, trashed his entire show to deliver an opening dialogue that “address[es] the #OscarsSoWhite conversation in a big way.”

Rock is known for addressing race issues in his movies and in his stand-up comedy sketches. As Marlon Wayans told PEOPLE, “there’s no greater person to talk about this than Chris Rock.” Addressing the matter, rather than boycotting, during the ceremony will surely make a more direct and bolder statement to the Academy.

But the reason why the nominations are not diverse goes beyond the problem of opportunity for actors of color. Another big reason why the nominations are not diverse is that the group of people that votes on these nominations is not diverse.

In a poll done in 2012 by the Los Angeles Times, nearly 94% of voters are white and 77% are male. 2% of voters are black, 2% are Latino, and more than .5% are Asian and Natives. Not very diverse. And the median age of an Oscar voter was 62 years old. There no doubt needs to be more than solely old white men holding the power to nominate talented actors and actresses for there to be more diversity.

As if finally hearing the calls for diversity by the public, the 51-member Academy of Motion Picture of Arts and Sciences board of governors voted unanimously to put some new rules of membership into play. The Academy is doing so in hopes of “diversifying both its members and the annual Oscar nominees,” according to Todd VandDerWerff from Vox Culture.

According to the Los Angeles Times, some of these rules “include a commitment to doubling the number of women and minorities in the academy by 2020 and limiting lifetime voting rights.”

But even with the doubling of women and minorities voters, the numbers within the Academy still wouldn’t reflect the demographics of the nation. According to a graphic published by the Los Angeles Times, by 2020 only 14% of the 6,261 voters would be nonwhite (against the national composition of 38% nonwhite) and 48% would be women (against the national composition of 51% women). As for the limitation of lifetime voting rights, new members will first be given a 10 year voting period and will have the voting right renewed only if that member was active in the film industry during that decade.

Anne Buchanan of Buchanan Public Relations commented that, “When an organization is in the middle of a full-blown crisis, as the academy was, it must take swift and immediate action to stem reputational loss.”

The Academy has lost some credibility, since some noteworthy films and actors were completely disregarded for the chance to win an Oscar. Idris Elba, who was nominated for Golden Globe, Independent Spirit, SAG, and BAFTA awards for his performance in Beasts of No Nation, was not nominated for an Oscar, though he was considered an Oscar front-runner. The entire cast of Straight Outta Compton was shut out of the Oscar nominations, as well, though the film did get nominated for best screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff. Not to say that Herman and Berloff do not deserve the nomination or that the black actors in Straight Outta Compton were denied recognition because of the color of their skin, but both Herman and Berloff are, coincidentally, white and the main actors of the film are, coincidentally, black. Coincidence?

But despite all of this, it’s great to see the Academy finally taking steps to diversify. But it doesn’t seem like they are doing it entirely because it is the right thing to do. It seems more like they are changing the rules because the public, the consumers of Hollywood products, wants and is demanding to see change. The public is causing an uproar that the Academy cannot ignore any longer.

Academy Awards producer Reginald Hudlin commented that the people of the Academy are ready for Rock to make controversial statements regarding #OscarsSoWhite in the opening dialogue.

“They’re excited about him doing that. They know that’s what we need. They know that’s what the public wants, and we deliver what the people want.”

It is show biz, after all. They’re going to give the people what they want because it’s the people who give them credibility and views and pay.

We want to see more diverse characters on the big screen. We want to see our people up there, finally having the same opportunities as our white counterparts. We want to be proud of our differences and we want to celebrate our differences together. But this can never happen if actors of color are left out of that room of opportunity and locked in the room of circumstance. But as long as we, the public and the consumers, raise our voices together, Hollywood will hear us. And they will finally change.


  • Hedy Yu

    Hedy is a sophomore Johnston Student who explores and indulges in stories of food, business, culture, race, and people.

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