A wave of controversy swept the nation earlier this month following the announcement of the 2016 Academy Awards nominations. For the second year in a row, the cast of nominees in all four acting categories are white, bringing back last year’s #OscarsSoWhite hashtag.
In 2015, audiences fumed at the absence of Selma, its director, and its lead actor from the ballot; this year it is Creed, Idris Elba, and Straight Outta Compton, among others. Vocal social media users, including several actors and directors, led a massive response to the announcement on the Internet. Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett-Smith announced their boycott of this year’s ceremony, during which Lee was scheduled to receive an honorary Oscar. Charlotte Rampling, a Lead Actress nominee for her role in last year’s 45 Years, took the opposing view and spoke out against #OscarsSoWhite as “racist against whites.” She retracted her response on Saturday.
In a year filled with spectacular films with African American actors, directors and writers, this lack of representation only adds salt to the wound. Tangerine, a critically acclaimed film shot entirely on an iPhone, was given no recognition by the Academy. Straight Outta Compton and Creed, two box office successes, each received one nomination. To put a cherry on top, both nominations were given to white men despite the fact that the stars of both films were African American youths. The Academy’s choice does not detract from the beauty of the films or the talent of the nominees, but it certainly whitewashes the film.
Historically the majority of Oscar winners have been white, which is not accurately representative of the US population. As of 2014, 30.6% of the population is either black or Hispanic. However, less than 5% of the total winners have been either black or Hispanic in the 87-year history of the Academy Awards.
Playing the blame game makes it is easy to throw the 6,000 elite members of the Academy under the bus: 90% are white, 76% are men, and the median age is 63 years. With this unequal national representation, it only makes sense that the winners tend to match the Academy’s demographics rather than that of our country’s population. Diversifying the Academy has been discussed on several occasions, and President Cheryl Boone Isaacs of the Academy has addressed the topic again following this year’s uproar.
It is important to note, however, that the lack of diversity in Oscar nominees reflects a lack of diversity in the film industry on the whole. The majority of the industry revolves around white people writing white stories to be brought to life by white actors. While there were several box office successes this year featuring minority actors and actresses, this is not representative of the entire industry.
It is long past due for minority actors to be seen not by the color of their skin but by the talents they display on screen. Jason Mitchell, for example, delivered a well executed and emotionally charged performance as NWA’s Eazy E (Straight Outta Compton). It was not the performance of a great black actor, but the performance of a great actor. Until the Academy and Hollywood become more diverse, it seems that critics will be unable to make this distinction.
Those who wish to see more diverse nominations in years to come should not limit their ire to the one month of the year when the Oscars are relevant. Instead, their discontent should be targeted at the film industry that makes the casting decisions from the start.
When this goal is ultimately achieved, the ceremony will at long last be able to flourish. Instead of a television special littered with underhanded comments and uncomfortable jokes, the focus will shift to what the Academy Awards are all about. At its core, the Oscars celebrate the best performances of the year in fields such as acting, directing, and costuming. Perhaps someday we will truly and purely be able to celebrate that.