Talk is cheap. People believe a soundbite can absolve them of guilt, acquit them of charges, and ensure that their heart is seen to be in the right place. It is happening right now in Hollywood, a so-called bastion of liberalism where the hypocrisy was exposed for the second straight year when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed to nominate any persons of color for acting Oscars. Forty nominations; forty white people.
Black Twitter fired the opening salvo, reviving the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite to shed light on this ridiculous slight. Voices from Hollywood followed, with Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith—strangely speaking on behalf of her husband, Will Smith—and others vowing to boycott this year’s ceremony.
“A year ago, I did a film called Selma, and after the Academy Awards, [Academy president] Cheryl [Boone Isaacs] invited me to her office to talk about what went wrong then,” actor David Oyelowo said Monday night. “We had a deep and meaningful [discussion]. For 20 opportunities to celebrate actors of color, actresses of color, to be missed last year is one thing; for that to happen again this year is unforgivable.”
Allies like George Clooney, Hollywood’s de facto spokesman, have come out criticizing the Oscars for “moving in the wrong direction.” Even conservatives, sniffing out an opportunity, have branded it the “accidentally racist” Oscars—which also happens to be the name of a woefully misguided Brad Paisley song.
But this is no accident.
Every time an inclusion issue like this comes up, the (typically right-wing) racists will come out of their holes insisting that there just weren’t any deserving nominees this year, and to impose race on the Academy Awards is, in and of itself, racist. It’s a dreadfully silly argument couched in such a way as to mask its discriminatory intent. For starters, yes, there were many impressive, “deserving” performances by people of color this year. Idris Elba’s terrifying Commandant in Beasts of No Nation; Jason Mitchell’s poignant turn as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton; the quiet dignity Will Smith lent to Concussion; the raw heroism of Michael B. Jordan in Creed; Benicio del Toro’s enigmatic hitman in Sicario; Oscar Isaac’s diabolical tech wizard in Ex Machina; Samuel L. Jackson’s deliciously verbose bounty hunter in The Hateful Eight; the list goes on.
The question we should be asking, however, is what led to this unbearable whiteness of being, and how can we fix it?
The Oscars are voted on by the Academy whose president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, is a black woman. In light of the controversy, she released a statement on behalf of AMPAS stating in part:
“I’d like to acknowledge the wonderful work of this year’s nominees. While we celebrate their extraordinary achievements, I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes. The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership. In the coming days and weeks we will conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond.”
It’s no secret that the Academy is not diverse. A 2014 study found that its membership was 94 percent white, 76 percent male, and an average of 63 years old—so the most prestigious awards are governed by the tastes of very old white men.
“I know many members who wouldn’t even see [Straight Outta Compton] because it represented a culture that they detest or, more accurately, they assume they detest,” an Academy member recently told Entertainment Weekly. “If we’re being honest, my bet is most Academy members didn’t see it,” another voter told the magazine. “I think the older members, those in their 60s and 70s, didn’t think it was a movie for them, and they didn’t watch it.”
Despite Boone Isaacs’ promise of bringing “much-needed diversity” to future classes of Academy members, it will be a painfully slow slog, given that invitees tend to lean heavily toward those nominated for Oscars—thus perpetuating the vicious cycle of nominating white actors and filmmakers, and funneling more white people into the 6,000-plus Academy.
Boone Isaacs may be president, but almost all of the other senior figures at AMPAS are white, including the Academy’s Board of Governors, who directs the “Academy’s strategic vision,” and the members of the committees that determine the award’s rules and the Academy's membership. Of the 51-seat Board of Governors, the only people of color are Boone Isaacs and Daryn Okada of the cinematographers’ branch.
The Academy not only needs to diversify its leadership, but should also institute a cut-off age of 65 for members whose tastes no longer reflect the current zeitgeist.
It’s not just the Academy that’s lacking diversity, either. Researchers at the University of Southern California analyzed the 700 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2014 and came to some staggering conclusions. They determined that, of the top 100 highest-grossing films of 2014, only 17 of the top movies featured non-white leads or co-leads, and the overall breakdown of actors was: 73.1 percent White, 12.5 percent Black, 5.3 percent Asian, 4.9 percent Hispanic, and 4.2 percent Other.
These frustrating numbers inspired “Every Single Word,” an eye-opening Tumblr by Dylan Marron that highlights every single word spoken by a person of color in a mainstream film. Marron’s shocking findings show, among many examples, that in the entire Harry Potter film series, only five minutes and 40 seconds are spoken by characters of color (they total over 20 hours). In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s 46 seconds (if you count the Orcs). E.T.: nine seconds. Into the Woods: seven seconds. Moonrise Kingdom: 10 seconds. Last year’s Best Picture winner, Birdman: 53 seconds.
Hollywood is also a business, so some of the explanation for the lack of diversity is financial. A decade ago, the U.S. box office comprised 51.3 percent of worldwide gross. Today, it’s less than 40 percent, so over 60 percent of a movie’s overall take is international. But a big problem that the industry doesn’t know how to address is the tastes of international audiences, which are, quite frankly, far more narrow-minded than that of Americans. With the exception of the Fast and the Furious franchise, many films with mainly black casts don’t travel too well abroad. Look at Straight Outta Compton, which made just $39 million internationally out of $200 million total, or Creed, which took home $30 million of its $137 million total outside the U.S (the previous entry with a white lead, Rocky Balboa, made $70 million domestic and $85 million abroad). In the Sony hack, a controversial email surfaced from a producer to Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Michael Lynton decrying the tastes of international movie audiences.
“I believe that the international motion picture audience is racist—in general pictures with an African American lead don’t play well overseas,” the producer wrote in an email pegged to the Denzel Washington-starrer The Equalizer. “But Sony sometimes seems to disregard that a picture must work well internationally to both maximize returns and reduce risk, especially pics with decent size budgets.”
So how do you change the tastes of international audiences? Well, by putting people of color in blockbuster entertainments—and I’m not talking about giving an Asian actor or actress tenth billing to court box office in China, Japan, or Korea. Blockbusters travel well abroad because audiences don’t have to rely on the foreign dialogue, instead reveling in a film’s tantalizing imagery. Take the aforementioned Fast and Furious films or J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which has thus far grossed over $1 billion abroad with a black co-lead—though China shrunk him on the poster.
There’s also the issue of perception. Historically, the Oscars—and its mostly white voting body—have failed to honor modern heroes of color, instead opting to award those in historical dramas who are typically either subservient or oppressed, from Gone with the Wind’s Mammy to Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, or that head-scratching time Driving Miss Daisy triumphed over Do the Right Thing. Hell, there was a 40-year gap between Sidney Poitier becoming the first black Best Actor Oscar winner and Denzel Washington being the second.
Back in 2006, upon accepting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Syriana, George Clooney proclaimed, “This Academy, this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I’m proud to be a part of this Academy, proud to be part of this community, and proud to be out of touch.” Well, Hattie McDaniel played a house slave, and Clooney’s next film, Hail, Caesar!, features an all-white cast.
We can do better.