The problem with #OscarsSoWhite

Just a few days ago, the nominations for the 88th Academy Awards were released and for a second year in a row, there isn’t a single actor or actress of color nominated for any of the Acting categories. #OscarsSoWhite, the hashtag that circulated on social media last year around the 2014 Oscars, is trending once again in order to reinforce the notion that the Academy Awards discriminates against actors and directors of color and the films that involve characters of color. And while it is true that the Academy has underrepresented people of color in their selection of the Oscar nominations, specifically in the Acting categories, this is not a black-and-white issue (no pun intended).

First of all: people who are using the hashtag are looking at this too narrow-mindedly. Sure, the majority of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts, & Sciences is made up of white men over the age of 60, but it has also made several changes in the past year. The Academy’s president is Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African-American and third woman to lead the Academy; 271 young members –especially women and people of color — were added to the Academy back in 2014; Chris Rock is hosting this year’s Oscars (and he’s bound to poke fun at the total whiteness of the nominations, like last year’s host Neil Patrick Harris did). But consider this: the actual process of voting to nominate particular movies for the Oscars can be one crucial factor as to why people of color have become underrepresented in the nominations.

Since 2005, the Academy has used an instant run-off voting system, meaning that the films that are nominated are decided through an electoral system whereby voters rank the candidates in order of preference. It seems like an interesting way of nominating films for the Oscars, but it’s not the most ideal voting — I personally believe the popular vote would be more practical. In fact, the last time the popular vote was established in the Academy was the year in which Paul Haggis’s Crash, a film that included a large cast of diverse actors and explored themes of xenophobia and racism in the divided communities of Los Angeles. I’m not saying that using the popular vote will help promote films that include people of color, but the current system definitely won’t if more and more movies that include mostly white people get more recognition.

However, that’s not to say that there hasn’t been a lot of success for people of color at the Oscars more recently. Here are some prime examples: At the 2014 Oscars, the Best Picture Winner was 12 Years a Slave, a harrowing, audacious piece of cinema that had a black director and an almost all black cast. Aside from its slightly Oscar-bait premise and semi-white savior narrative — Brad Pitt’s character, a free white man, ends up saving Chiwetel Ejiofor’s enslaved Solomon Northup in the end — 12 Years a Slave was the first film to win Best Picture that told a triumphant story of a black man using a black perspective, rather than through a white filter (like in 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy and 2011’s The Help). It also paved the way for people of color to get some recognition by Hollywood, even if they were portrayed somewhat anachronistically. Ejiofor was nominated for Best Actor and Lupita N’yongo, a relatively unknown actress, won Best Supporting Actress. Even though the film’s director, Steve McQueen, didn’t win Best Director, another man of color won the award — Mexican director Alfonso Cúaron for the space thriller Gravity. At the 2015 Oscars, another Mexican director, Alejandro G. Iñarritu, won Best Director and Best Picture for his mesmerizing social satire Birdman. In this year’s Oscars, Iñarritu is coming back strong with 12 nominations for his dark American epic The Revenant.

Since these recent Oscars milestones have proven some growing recognition for people of color, the whole basis of the argument behind #OscarsSoWhite feels rather very parochial. It makes total sense why people would label the Oscars with this hashtag. In fact, #OscarsSoWhite did gain enough attention during last year’s Oscar that prompted Academy members to increase more diverse membership. But looking at it from a much broader scope, it isn’t the best solution to the real issues at hand. For example, 2014’s Selma, a story about MLK Jr.’s journey for civil rights, caused some controversy for being shut out of many Oscar categories, except for Best Picture and Best Original Song (which it rightfully won). A lot of people thought the film deserved more nominations, especially Ava DuVernay for Best Director. Yet it could have just been that Selma wasn’t on the top of every Academy member’s list. It’s a perplexing situation: should Selma have had more nominations simply because it was a great film? Or because it was made by a black woman and included a predominantly black cast?  It’s possible people in the Academy just didn’t love Selma as much as other films. It’s also possible that it was considered to be a frontrunner for the awards show, but didn’t appeal enough to Academy voters and was thrown out in the early parts of the run-off voting.

Also, is it really fair to say that the Academy discriminates against people of color when the voting system is a democratic process in which 6000 votes go to the nominations? In some respects, no. And would it be plausible to nominate actors and directors of color, solely because the Academy is supposed to? Not really.

Perhaps the problem doesn’t necessarily lie within the Academy’s choices, but rather within the actual institution of Hollywood, in that the people at the helm of production companies have the ability to choose which movies get made and which don’t. The hashtag shouldn’t be #OscarsSoWhite, but rather #HollywoodSoWhite. The very foundation of Hollywood rests under the guise of predominantly white men. The films that get made through these production companies are released in theaters, then make their way to the award show circuit. The Academy honors and awards great films, while the industry filters which films get more recognition and which don’t (through marketing, press, etc.). This problem also lies in the hands of moviegoers and critics, the ones who pay to see the movie and the ones who write reviews on the movies, respectively. And usually, it’s the most critically acclaimed and financially lucrative films that get the Oscar buzz.

There is no doubt that the complete whiteness of the Best Acting ballot is an absolute travesty for the Oscars, particularly since a lot of films that came out this past year have included diverse actors and progressive storylines. The Rocky spinoff Creed and the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton attracted both critical acclaim and commercial success, yet were mostly shut out in this year’s Oscars (Creed‘s Sylvester Stallone was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and SOC was nominated solely for Best Original Screenplay). Film in 2015 has been especially great for women (Trainwreck, SpyCarol, Mad Max: Fury RoadBrooklyn), people of color (Creed, Straight Outta ComptonBeasts of No NationConcussion), and both (Tangerine, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Sicario). Yet it is extremely disappointing to see that many of these films, and many more, were overlooked at the Oscars. However, people should recognize that the Academy is not always to blame and that we as moviegoers have the power and agency to promote great films that do include people of color, as well as other marginalized groups in America.

Should actors of color who act in more commercial films be recognized for their talent by the Oscars? 100%. Are actors and directors of color getting some, if not more recognition by the Academy and visibility in big movies than in the past? Yes, to an extent. The Academy is (very) slowly diversifying and although it still has a long way to go, there is still hope that #OscarSoWhite will soon dissolve into the abyss of social media.



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