When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) nominated all White actors in top acting categories for a second consecutive year, it ignited the year’s most controversial sequel. The #OscarsSoWhite campaign of yesteryear resurfaced, this time creating way more fervor and way more drama about the lack of diversity in Hollywood. Battle lines have been drawn and shots have been fired. But who’s right? And who’s wrong? Who has the solution? And who is just making noise?
“Diversity is not a trending topic. It’s just not,” said Viola Davis, after winning her second consecutive Screen Actors Guild Award win for Best Actress in a Drama Series for the hit television series How to Get Away with Murder.
And she is correct. I have personal experience with this as the co-founder of the African American Film Critics Association, an organization of Black professional film critics representing media outlets throughout the country. Our group was created out of a need for diversity in film criticism in 2003.
I have to admit I wasn’t at all surprised at, but deeply disappointed by, this year’s Oscar nominations. With the exception of a couple of flash moments (like in 2001, when both Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won Oscars for their performances in lead roles), it’s pretty much been business as usual with the Academy.
This year, the backlash was different. It was way more vocal thanks to social media, as Jada Pinkett Smith literally set it off with a Facebook post that called for a boycott of the Academy Awards taking place on February 28. Acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee echoed her thoughts, but then walked it back a bit saying he never called for a “boycott,” although he won’t be attending this year’s ceremony despite just receiving his honorary Oscar just a few weeks ago.
Hollywood heavyweight George Clooney weighed in supporting their position, as did Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon and documentarian Michael Moore. However, Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling, and past Oscar winners Michael Caine and Julie Delpy delivered opposing viewpoints with awful, insensitive comments. Rampling stated that #OscarsSoWhite is “racist to Whites.” Caine remarked, “Blacks need to be patient.” And Delpy said, “it’s harder to be a woman in Hollywood than Black.”
The problem is industry wide and deeply entrenched, so the focus on the Academy and their practices is a bit shallow and simplistic. Oscar winner Matt Damon, despite his own Project Greenlight misstep some months ago, wisely agrees. “We’re talking about huge systemic injustices around race and gender that are a lot bigger than the Oscars,” he said. “They’re massive issues in our industry and in our country.”
The concerns over a lack of diversity have persisted for years. Basically it’s an issue of elitism.
But the greater concern comes down to a lack of jobs and opportunity across the board in the industry. More qualified Blacks have to be hired to work in all facets of the industry, particularly at the executive level. You can’t even be considered for membership in the Academy until you get a job in the industry. “Those who control the pipeline and entryway to jobs must move beyond the ‘old boy’ network and word-of-mouth hiring,” said Paris Barclay, president of the Directors Guild of America. “They must commit to industry-wide efforts to find available diverse talent that is out there in abundance, or to train and create opportunities for new voices entering our industry. Rules must be implemented to open up the hiring process and rethink the idea of ‘approved lists.’ ” Barclay, who is Black, has long fought for changes in the industry and its hiring practices.
Jobs are most important, but you can’t downplay the historic significance of this debate either. History is and always has been determined by a precious few. Handing out Oscars is about defining legacy, reinforcing values and making money. And White people have always controlled all of those things. Check your history books and look at the economic disparity that exists in this country and around the world. The movie industry is no different.
There is a reason most people don’t realize that Blacks in America have been making movies since the early 1900s, that Nigeria’s Nollywood produces just as many movies as Hollywood each year, and that despite representing about 13% of the U.S. population, we spend way more than 13% at the box office.
The Academy is in the spotlight of this controversy, and rightfully so. It’s the most prestigious award you can win in the industry, and now looks even more woefully out of touch after Saturday’s SAG Awards. Six Blacks won major awards, including Viola Davis, Queen Latifah and Idris Elba, who garnered two of these well-deserved honors.
The SAG voting body has more than 100,000 voting members, so it has to be somewhat diverse. The Academy, which basically operates like a private country club, includes 6,261 voting members, and the majority of them are White, male and old. The Academy is taking steps to diversify by instituting new policies that aim to increase the numbers of non-Whites and women in its ranks. The attempts that Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs (who is African American) is making are without question groundbreaking and necessary.
But at the rate they are going, real change won’t be seen for years. Spike Lee agrees, asking: “How is she going to change something overnight, hocus-pocus?”
But the focus of the problem has been skewed. It’s less about the make-up of the membership and more about relatability and a serious generational divide. I don’t believe that the current membership is purposely excluding Black films or Black people. But I completely believe that films about the Black experience do not generally appeal to them. For example, if you have negative bias toward rap music, you probably aren’t going to watch and/or enjoy Straight Outta Compton, let alone vote for it.
However, Black people can’t solely point their finger at the Academy or the industry, because when it comes to what we value cinematically, Black people have not always supported movies about their own experience. There have been several movies released that reflect Blacks positively that have received no love at the box office. Movies like Akeelah and the Bee, The Great Debaters and Fruitvale Station are examples of movies about us and for us that we did not support in droves. Even box office successes like The Butler, 12 Years a Slave and 42 were primarily seen during their theatrical run by mostly non-Blacks.
As bad as the diversity situation is (and it’s bad), we also each have a personal responsibility. The issue comes down to what people value, and people are generally more comfortable with their own perspective. But we have often not valued our own stories. If we don’t love ourselves, why would anyone else? And the issue of piracy also plays directly into their money game. Most Black-themed films have limited box office potential from the jump. Barbershop hustlers, street corner slingers and computer hackers hurt our chances of telling our stories cinematically.
Yes, it’s all about the money.
The media also is a huge part of the problem. The lack of entertainment journalists and film critics of color is staggeringly low. There just aren’t many of us in positions to cover the industry or critically examine movies on a regular basis. If you tell someone enough times that a movie is great, people believe it. There are few Blacks in place to champion our films that way.
So there you have the multitude of reasons why not a single person of color was nominated this year (or last) for an acting Academy Award. And not one movie starring people of color has a shot at winning a Best Picture statue this year. The lack of diversity has existed since the creation of Hollywood. Am I hopeful for change? I am, but I may not be around to see it. So in the meantime, I’ll just have to rock my tux at the AFFCA Awards, where terrific movies and performances that everyone can connect with actually win awards.
Shawn Edwards is co-founder of the African American Film Critics Association. He is also a film critic for Fox 4 News in Kansas City, Missouri and creator of iloveblackmovies.com. Follow Shawn on Twitter and Instagram at @sedwardskc or visit I Love Black Movies.