Why are the Oscars still lily-white?

February 1, 2016

The lack of non-white actors nominated for this year's Oscars says speaks volumes about the Academy and about Hollywood in general, writes Laura Durkay.

THE NOMINATIONS for the 88th Academy Awards were announced January 14, and for the second year in a row--and the fourth time since 1998--every acting nomination went to a white person.

The all-white nominations in 2015 generated numerous think pieces about Hollywood diversity and the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, but little concrete change. This year, though, the frustration crystallized in calls for a boycott of the ceremony by high-profile Black figures, including Spike Lee, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith.

The negative publicity was enough to force an emergency meeting of the board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the announcement of new Academy membership and voting rules aimed at increasing racial and gender diversity. (While there are no official public statistics on the Academy's demographics, a 2013 study by the Los Angeles Times estimated the Academy's membership to be 93 percent white and 76 percent male.)

At a time when Black and Brown children are being murdered by police and poisoned by government officials in Flint, Michigan, it might seem trivial to complain about the racial diversity of an event in which Hollywood's richest and most successful people give each other little gold statues.

Some of the nominees for Academy Awards in 2016
Some of the nominees for Academy Awards in 2016

But while Hollywood may sometimes feel like its own world, it's part of the same country in which Black Lives Matter has become a nationwide political slogan. It's no surprise that protests against racism would find their way into the highest echelons of the cultural sphere as well.

While better on-screen representation will not, by itself, end racism, it's far from meaningless. Film and television are part of how we tell stories about ourselves, and being able to see complex, three-dimension characters with agency who look like us is powerful. Just ask the kids coming out of the movie theater wanting to play Rey or Finn or Poe Dameron.

And films are not just cultural products. They're products manufactured in workplaces, and therefore, Hollywood diversity issues are workplace diversity issues. By any standard of equal opportunity, Hollywood is failing miserably.

While statistics always lag a few years behind the current box office, a study of the 100 highest-grossing movies released in 2014 revealed that 73 percent of the speaking parts went to white people--disproportionately to young white men. Anecdotal sources like the blog Shit People Say to Women Directors and the "Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color" project support this bleak picture.

At the same time, other studies that track audience demographics found that 51 percent of "frequent moviegoers" in the U.S. and Canada were non-white. Studies also show that movies with more diverse casts make more money.

And while studio executives love to use the excuse that movies with Black characters don't make money outside the U.S., recent data refute this also. To pick just one example, 12 Years a Slave made 70 percent of its profits internationally.

SO THE assumption that the default movie audience member is a white man who wants to see stories about white men is demonstrably false. But Hollywood studio executives have rarely let data stand in their way.

Even high-profile projects about historically well-known people of color often struggle to find the financing to get off the ground, and they may be more likely to get cash from wealthy individuals than from studios. Selma was in development for years before Oprah Winfrey's production company kicked in a portion of the relatively modest $20 million budget.

One of the biggest success stories at this year's Sundance Film Festival was writer/director/actor Nate Parker's historical drama about Nat Turner's slave revolt, pointedly titled The Birth of a Nation. The film got multiple standing ovations and was the subject of an intense bidding war, eventually being sold to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, the highest sale at the film festival ever.

But no studio was willing to finance the film when Nate Parker, already a successful working actor, shopped it around in 2013. In order to get the project off the ground, Parker quit acting for two years and invested $100,000 of his own money traveling around the country to cobble together the film's $10 million budget from individual investors, including several retired NBA players.

In this respect, the lily-white and mostly male Oscar nominations are merely a symptom of problems in Hollywood as a whole. It's easy to point to a number of individual performances by actors of color that should have received more recognition--Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation, Benicio del Toro in Sicario, and Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson in Creed, for example--but the problem goes beyond swapping out one or two individual nominations.

It also goes beyond the proposed rule changes at the Academy, which are aimed at weeding out (mostly older, white) lifetime members who are no longer active in the film industry and increasing the representation of women, people of color and younger filmmakers to more accurately represent the current demographics of the U.S.

That doesn't change the broader dynamic of how people of color are depicted in movies, Hollywood Reporter columnist Mark Bernardin pointed out in writing about this year's award nominations:

More often than not, the Black films that are in Oscar contention are about people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X or Solomon Northup...If you are African American, you literally have to change the world before there's ever going to be a film based on your life. And if you're a filmmaker trying to push a film that's about a fictional African American who just, you know, has a story to tell, forget it.

The solution is not just more slots among performances and films that can be deemed Oscar-worthy. It's more performances altogether--as Linda Holmes wrote regarding women in film, "More of everybody doing everything. A season with more games in it."

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