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Academy Awards Fail to Deliver Diversity


Academy Awards

The Academy Awards were under the scrutiny of the media ever since the nominations were made public on Jan. 14, 2016. However, the general populace and certain segments of social media have long since cast a critical eye and scathing tongue upon what has been called “the movie industry’s biggest night.” The official Oscars/Academy Awards website has a section detailing all of the nominations, and the most glaring similarity between all of the nominees for major awards is the astounding lack of diversity.

The International Business Times reported that among the 20 lead and supporting actor and actress nominees, all of them were white. The Academy Awards suffered from a noticeable failure to showcase diversity on the biggest night of the movie industry. However, this lack of representation did not come as a surprise, if one considers the larger picture. Along with a lack of color, there was a distinct lack of representation among women and the LGBTQ community. What was truly illuminating to some was the deeper revelation that Hollywood, in general, is skewed.

A study conducted by the University of Southern California found that of the 11,306 speaking characters in the films, TV shows, and digital series that could be screened for an Academy Award nomination, over 20 percent did not have an African-American speaking character. Also, over 50 percent did not have an Asian or Asian-American speaking character, and only one-third of the characters who had lines were female. Only 229 speaking characters were from the LGBTQ community.

After the official nominations were known, director Spike Lee and actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith spoke out through social media about the snubbing that had taken place for the second consecutive year. Spike Lee had received an honorary award from the Academy in November of 2015, and he thanked the Academy president, Cheryl Boone-Isaacs, as well as the Board of Governors of the Academy, for the honor. He also stated that he and his wife would not be in attendance, as it was hard to believe that with all the talented works that had come out over the year, not a single person of color was eligible in any of the major acting, supporting, or other Academy Awards categories for 2016.

What is additionally interesting about the recent turn of events for the Academy Awards is that Boone-Isaacs is the Academy’s first African-American president, and to top it off, famed actor and comedian Chris Rock is scheduled to host the 88th Academy Awards. Rock is known for not pulling any comedic punches and has already made pointed barbs toward the Academy Awards and its failure to deliver diversity in the past.

The Public Response

Members of the public have long noticed the dearth of roles for people of color in Hollywood, especially in roles which might be under consideration for an Academy Award. In 2015, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag went viral. The hashtag was a lightning flash of inspiration tweeted by April Reign, the managing editor of Broadway Black, a website dedicated to the achievements and successes of African-Americans on Broadway. The vibrant and rich content catalogued on the site illuminates yet another shaded spot in the entertainment world that has not been openly discussed in the media.

The Controversy of #OscarsSoWhite

NPR interviewed Reign on Jan. 25, 2016, and she divulged that the very first tweet had been a glib remark aimed at the 2015 Academy Award nominees: “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair,” and it took off from there. Reign eloquently expressed to NPR that her true aim is to inspire change in the media’s representation of minorities, which is something that many people have been asking for.

Reign and others would like to see more diverse roles that reflect a larger swath of the population than what is currently being showcased at the 2016 Academy Awards. Reign posits that the structure of the Academy and the way members submit their votes are in need of significant improvement. In the interview, she was optimistic in the face of the Board of the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences’ apparent willingness to make changes. Within weeks of the hashtag going viral again in 2016, Boone-Isaacs made a push for more diverse members of the Academy and released a statement to the press detailing her plan to double the number of women and minorities by 2020.

Reign relayed that she had no idea her tweet would resonate the way it did throughout social media, inspiring several discussions and think pieces; much less be acknowledged by the Academy. In 2015, President Boone-Isaacs had agreed there were egregious problems with the Academy membership demographics and invited 300 new members in an effort to foster more diversity. Unfortunately, the 2016 Academy Awards nominee results were even worse than last year. Hence, the renewal of the hashtag for 2016 and the growing cloud of resentment that has been cast over the Academy Awards.

Another example held up by the public of the skewed manner in which Hollywood chooses to show itself is the fascinating Tumblr blog, Every Single Word Spoken, which is the brainchild of actor Dylan Marron. His site illustrates perfectly the frustrations that many working in the movie business, as well as fans, go through when discussing diversity in the media. His video series showcases every word spoken by a person of color in mainstream films. The series also includes past Academy Award-winning films.

He has compiled a series of video clips that generally last anywhere from two minutes (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) to 0 seconds (Noah). More often than not, there is a simple black screen after a brief opening sequence. The abrupt silence is deafening in its implications.  Every Single Word Spoken has attracted praise for its approach to addressing the issue of representation in the movies. In Nov. 2015, the Smithsonian asked Marron to give a speech about the importance of historical representation in film.

To paraphrase Marron’s speech, he pondered the idea that in terms of the stories viewed on the big screen, how many times has the perspective or even the face of those considered as ‘other’ not even been considered as a stand-in for the audience, and why are “universal” stories being told with whiteness as a constant sticking point? Is the tendentious stance of the Academy really that much of a surprise when a larger problem is echoing throughout the various stages a movie has to go through to even make it to the silver screen?

Protests in Various Forms

The 88th Academy Awards aired on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT on ABC.  As for Marron and Reign, two people who have made their discontent known in the forms of Internet self-expression, their reaction to the exclusion of minorities in the Academy Awards is to channel efforts towards lifting up voices that would otherwise not be heard at all.

Marron’s blog is nominated this year for a Shorty Award, which honors the best content creators and producers on social media, and has already achieved the distinction of being named Tumblr’s 2015 no. 1 blog of the year. He will be hosting a live event at The Battery Ballroom in New York on Feb. 28.

He and a number of content creators, comedians, actors, and actresses will be doing live commentary of the Academy Awards in real-time, and 100 percent of the proceeds are going to be donated to the “Made In N.Y.” P.A. Program. The non-profit provides low-income New Yorkers with the opportunity to work and study in films made in New York. Graduates of the program have gone on to have promising career titles such as Assistant Production Office Coordinator, Camera Assistant, Field Producer, Grip, and many more. Tickets are on sale at the Bowery Ballroom website.

As for Reign, she has opted instead to take another route in the form of protest. Given that some black celebrities and directors have decided not to attend the Academy Awards at all, NPR asked her whether she was considering the same. She demurred, stating that boycott is not a word she would be comfortable with using, and added that she was grateful to both her followers and to President Boone-Isaacs, as she has been outspoken in her desire to see a change made in the Academy. Without the vigilance of the president, even the smallest of changes would not be taking place.

Reign and her Twitter followers engaged in counter-programming in 2015, something that is likely to happen again this year. Instead of a boycott of the Academy Awards, she suggests that for those who wish to see themselves, their perspective, or anyone other than the Academy’s perspective should simply not watch the presentation. In 2015, instead of watching the Academy Awards, she and her followers on Twitter did a live tweet of Coming to America, a movie chosen very deliberately. She added that the first year she and her followers tried counter-programming was a year in which the Oscars had its lowest ratings in the prior six years.

Reign elaborated, stating there are many ways to protest,and to demand more of the media. She urged for the audience at large to express its frustration by choosing carefully where to spend its dollars, and be thoughtful about where viewership is given; not just on television, but in the movie theater as well.

Opinion by Juanita Lewis

International Business Times: Oscars 2016: List Of Black Directors, Actors Not Attending Academy Awards And What They Are Doing Instead
NPR: A Conversation With The Creator Of #OscarsSoWhite
BroadwayBlack: About
NewMediaRockStars: Hollywood Racism? Look No Further Than Tumblr’s Every Single Word
Tumblr: Every Word Spoken

Image Courtesy of David Torcivia’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License