On Jan. 14, the Academy Award nominees were announced, reigniting the recurring discussion about the film industry’s lack of diversity. For the second consecutive year, all of the acting nominations went to Caucasian actors and actresses, reviving the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag on social media. Along with the public, many prominent celebrities used social media as a platform to amplify their voices.
Jada Pinkett Smith posted a video on Facebook asking, “Is it time that people of color recognize how much power, influence, that we have amassed, that we no longer need to ask to be invited anywhere?” Her video sparked debate over whether the 88th Academy Awards should be boycotted or not. She announced that she wouldn’t be attending the Academy Awards, but was supportive towards Chris Rock as the host saying, “I can’t think of a better man to do the job at hand this year than you my friend, good luck.” Spike Lee, who was awarded an honorary Oscar this past November, revealed that he would not be attending the event either. In an Instragram post, Lee points out that the real battle isn’t with the Academy Awards, but with the “gate keepers” or executives in Hollywood who decide what gets made. “The truth is we ain’t in those rooms and until minorities are, the Oscar nominees will remain lily white.”
The Best Supporting Actress winner of 2013, Lupita Nyong’o, threw in her two cents in an Instagram post. She suggested that the absence of non-white nominees is due to “unconscious prejudice and what merits prestige in our culture.” Nyong’o is bringing attention to which kind of movies the Oscars recognize, and which they exclude. The Oscar nominations reflect Hollywood’s tendency to define prestigious dramas as white men facing adversity. In an LA Times article, parallels are drawn between “The Big Short,” “Trumbo,” “Bridge of Spies,” “The Revenant,” and “The Martian” for their storylines of white men overcoming hardship. Even though “Creed,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Concussion,” and “Beasts of No Nation” explore classic conflict, they somehow don’t fit the Academy’s definition of a great drama.
While much of the discussion is focused on how African-Americans were overlooked, the absence of all minorities in Hollywood should be the bigger concern. There is a lack of opportunities for Latino, Asian, and Native Americans, particularly women. Miyoshi Umeki won as Best Supporting Actress 58 years ago, and is the only Asian actress to have ever won an acting Oscar in the 88 years that the Academy Awards have existed. It’s been 54 years since a Latina won an Academy Award, and no Indigenous actress has ever won. In fact, Keisha Castle-Hughes, of Maori and Australian descent, is the only Indigenous actress to have ever been nominated.
It’s discouraging that the absence of opportunities and the lack of recognition for minorities in Hollywood has persisted into 2016, but at least the problem is being addressed. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, acknowledged the disappointment that many feel, promising that the Academy will take steps to diversify their membership. On Jan. 22, one week after the nominations had been announced, Isaacs announced new measures that will affect voting and membership composition:
Beginning later this year, each new member’s voting status will last 10 years, and will be renewed if that new member has been active in motion pictures during that decade. In addition, members will receive lifetime voting rights after three ten-year terms; or if they have won or been nominated for an Academy Award. We will apply these same standards retroactively to current members. In other words, if a current member has not been active in the last 10 years they can still qualify by meeting the other criteria. Those who do not qualify for active status will be moved to emeritus status. Emeritus members do not pay dues but enjoy all the privileges of membership, except voting. This will not affect voting for this year’s Oscars.
Although the new measures won’t affect this year’s Oscars, they are a promising step in the right direction. If the Academy is able to double the number of diverse members by 2020, as their statement says, then there will be more women and more racial minorities casting votes. With increased inclusion, we will see more diverse nominations and there may never be another #OscarsSoWhite backlash.
With all the controversy surrounding the Oscars, Chris Rock, who is not shy about confronting issues of race, will have a lot to say as the host. For those who are not boycotting the event, the 88th Academy Awards will take place Sunday, Feb. 28 at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood.