The 88th Annual Academy Awards are set to air this coming Sunday, but when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominees, it was received with more negative attention than usual. The Oscars are recognized as the most prestigious award that the American film industry can bestow on an individual artist, and therefore both the nominees and eventually the winners face scrutiny each year. In addition to the typical snubs this year, critics pointed to the lack of diversity and racial representation among the nominees – for the second year in a row, no actors or actresses of color were even nominated.
While this is not the first time that the Oscars have been criticized for their lack of inclusion, the outrage picked up momentum on social media, leading to the trending hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. There was a call for a boycott, and some celebrities have chosen to not attend at all, including Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith. Others, including directors Ava DuVernay (Selma) and Ryan Coogler (Creed), have chosen to organize or attend a different event – a public show of support for the crisis in Flint, Michigan, called #JUSTICEFORFLINT. Sylvester Stallone, the single nominee for the film Creed (his co-star, Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler were both overlooked), was unsure if he should boycott the Oscars until Coogler encouraged him to go and represent the film.
The reactions to #OscarsSoWhite have been varied, with some stars showing their support for the boycott and others arguing that diversity should not happen for diversity’s sake. Academy President, Cheryl Boones Isaacs, said that she was “heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion.” Despite the fact that some have criticized the boycott and called it ineffective, it has clearly started a conversation about diversity and the Oscars. Additionally, it has caused the Academy to rethink its current structure and to commit to doubling its representation of people of color and women by 2020.
A Symptom of a Larger Problem
Many people have pointed to the idea that the Oscars are themselves a symptom of a larger problem: it’s not that the Oscars lack racial diversity, it’s that Hollywood does. Paris Barelay, the president of the Directors Guild of America, said, “Many times, with the best of intentions, a subject that is a symptom of this industry plague, but not the root cause, is targeted.”
Viola Davis – whose two Oscar nominations make her the most nominated African-American actress (tied with Whoopi Goldberg) in the history of the awards – also described the problem as a “symptom of a much greater disease,” saying:
“How many black films are being produced every year? How are they being distributed? The films that are being made, are the big-time producers thinking outside of the box in terms of how to cast the role? Can you cast a black woman in that role? Can you cast a black man in that role? […] That’s the problem. You can change the Academy, but if there are no black films being produced, what is there to vote for?”
The problem is not with the Academy, but with the industry; the Academy’s behavior mimics an industry which does not include – much less promote – artists of color. The lack of diversity in Hollywood (and not just the Oscars) is the problem.
The importance of diversity should not be minimized or overlooked. First, diversity allows for a place where all stories can be told, not just stories from a similar viewpoint. Diverse stories allow for creative, fresh, and original perspectives. Encouraging racial and ethnic diversity creates artistic and economic opportunities for actors and actresses of color, who otherwise might not be given the same opportunities as white actors.
But diversity in media is not simply an artistic choice. The United States has citizens who come from all walks of life, and the country is increasingly more racially and ethnically diverse. Diversity in media should be a reflection of the diversity of real life, allowing real people to see themselves and people like them represented in film and in television.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, while not an Oscar contender for any category outside of special effects, simultaneously debunked the idea that diversity was financially detrimental for a film and illustrated the importance that diversity could have. With a cast that included Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), and Rey (Daisy Ridley), children from different backgrounds were able to have heroes who they could look up to who looked like them.
The University of Southern California published the “Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity” earlier this week, which examined the inclusion of women, LGBT, and people of color both in front of and behind the camera in both television and film in 2014-2015. The study focused on comparing on-screen representation with the actual populations of the United States, drawing a comparison between fiction and reality. On of the writers of the study remarked:
“The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite should be changed to #HollywoodSoWhite, as our findings show that an epidemic of invisibility runs throughout popular storytelling.”
The study found that women (approx. 50% of the population) only made up 28.7% of speaking roles in film. Behind the camera, women only directed 3.4% of films and wrote 10.8%.
While the study reports that 37.9% of the United States’ population are members of underrepresented groups (either racially or ethnically), only 26.7% of speaking roles in films were members of these underrepresented groups. Only 7 of the 109 films that the study examined had racially balanced casts that were within 10% of the real racial make up of the United States. Behind the camera, only 12.7% of directors were people of color, and non-white directors were almost twice as likely to have non-white characters in their films.
When the study ranked companies on inclusion, only two companies (Sony and Viacom) were ranked as “Fully inclusive” for representations of under-represented groups. However, all companies (including Sony and Viacom) were ranked as “Not inclusive” in a majority of diversity categories. Overall, the statistics demonstrate that the Oscars are a symptom of a larger diversity problem.
While both television and film struggle with representation, television did overall score higher than film in its inclusion of both women and people of color, both on and off the camera. This was reflected in the 67th Emmy Awards, which included nominations for David Oyelowo (Nightingale), Queen Latifah (Bessie), Anthony Anderson (black-ish), Don Cheadle (House of Lies), Taraji P. Henson (Empire), and a win for Viola Davis (How to Get Away With Murder).
How The Oscars Make it Worse
The truth is that the Oscars are both a symptom of Hollywood’s inclusion and diversity problem, and intensify these problems because of structural problems and expectations. When the L.A. Times polled Academy membership in 2012, they found that it was 94% white and 77% male. Additionally, the median age was 62. The voting population that decides the nominees for the Oscars are even less diverse than Hollywood’s representation on the whole, and this voting population has repeatedly been reflected in the nominees that are chosen for the Oscars.
The structure of the Oscars ensures that women are represented by having separate categories for actresses in both leading and supporting roles. While women are under-represented in film, this under-representation is not perceivable at the Oscars because of these separate acting categories. However, in non-acting categories, such as directing and screenwriting, female nominees (especially women of color) are a rarity. Meanwhile, Ian McKellen recently noted that “No openly gay man has ever won the Oscar” – though some Oscar winners (such as Joel Grey and Jodie Foster) have come out as LGBT after winning their award, and this year sees several straight, cisgender actors nominated for playing LGBT characters. “What about giving me one for playing a straight man?” McKellen joked.
For actors and actresses of color, limited representation and inclusion in Hollywood has led to limited representation at award ceremonies, including the Oscars. But this is not the only cause. There were a number of people of color who could have been nominated this year for spectacular performances in 2015. For acting awards, this includes Abraham Attah and Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation), Benicio Del Toro (Sicario), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Secret in Their Eyes), Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina), Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight), Michael B. Jordan (Creed), Adepero Oduye (The Big Short), Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq), Will Smith and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Concussion), Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor (Tangerine), and O’Shea Jackson Jr., Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton). While it’s true that people of color are underrepresented in Hollywood, it is simply not the case that people of color do not appear in high-profile, critically-acclaimed films with award-worthy performances
The political strategies of running an Oscar campaign – such as a movie having a release late in the year or paying for an advertising campaign that appeals to Academy voters – requires large financial investments. Working with past Oscar nominees, such as successful writers, directors, and co-stars, can also help to garner a nomination; since Oscar nominees are predominantly white, this nepotism can perpetuate a lack of diversity.
As the USC study on representation in Hollywood illustrates, main characters seem to default to being white men unless their gender or race is necessitated by some part of the plot. Not only are white men more likely to be cast in movies in general, but they are also given typical “Oscar bait” roles. “Oscar bait” is a term usually used to describe a role that will increase the likelihood of an Oscar nomination for an actor; typically, these roles include an actor performing a role that goes “above and beyond”: portraying a disability (mental or physical) that they do not themselves have, playing a gender identity that is different from the actor’s own (Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl), or playing a character who is struggling to survive against extreme odds (Matt Damon in The Martian, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, Brie Larson in Room).
“Oscar bait” films also tend to be historical pictures (Bryan Cranston in Trumbo, Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn) or political films (Christian Bale in The Big Short, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight) that deal with real-life events or even people (Jennifer Lawrence in Joy, Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl, Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs).
While “Oscar bait” roles are not exclusively white, they do severely limit the roles that people of color can play, especially since the movies that star people of color usually center on their identity as a person of color and do not necessarily fit into the stereotypical “Oscar bait” roles. A UCLA study by Dr. Rossman and Dr. Schilke developed an algorithm to find which IMDB keywords were most and least likely to predict whether or not a film would be nominated for an Oscar. There was a positive correlation with words like “family tragedy” and “physical therapy”; there was a strong negative correlation with words like “zombie” and “black independent film.”
The types of roles that actors and actresses of color are allowed to play is already limited, and the types of roles that the Academy rewards with nominations are even more limited. Historical films that deal with slavery or the civil rights movement have gotten some Oscar buzz in the past: 12 Years a Slave received nine nominations and three wins (including nominations for both director Steve McQueen and lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and a win for supporting actress Lupita Nyong’o); Selma was nominated for best picture (though its director, Ava DuVerna, and lead actor, David Oyelowo, did not receive nominations).
The New York Times analyzed all thirty nominations that black actors and actresses had received over the history of the Academy. Only ten black actresses have ever been nominated for an Academy award as a leading actor. Of these roles, nine characters were homeless or in danger of becoming homeless, six were victims of abuse, and five were raped. Of the twenty roles for which black actors had been nominated for leading actor, fifteen exhibited violent behavior and thirteen were incarcerated at some point during the film. The film industry, and then the Oscars in turn, pigeonhole actors and actresses of color with narrow opportunities that overwhelmingly perpetuate stereotypes rather than allowing them to portray a broader array of human experiences.
Ultimately, the facts strongly suggest that both the Oscars and the larger film industry have an inclusion problem; they do not represent the diverse population of the United States, and they continually favor certain types of stories over others.
The Academy choosing to double its numbers of women and people of color by 2020 may help the Oscars, but it cannot be the only change if the Academy (and the industry) truly want to promote the diversity of the human experience and include all races and ethnic identities on screen and off screen.
The host of this year’s Oscars, comedian Chris Rock, has already teased that #OscarsSoWhite will be incorporated into his performance, and it has been confirmed that he is reworking his opening monologue in response to #OscarsSoWhite. Whether or not the absence of stars who have joined the boycott is felt, his presence as the master of ceremonies will likely not soon be forgotten.
The 88th Academy Awards Ceremony will be telecast on Sunday, February 28th, 2016, by ABC Television Network starting at 7 p.m. ET.