It’s an industry problem
I’m not entirely sure why people are suddenly up in arms about the 2016 Academy Awards’ lack of racial inclusivity. Sure, the proof is the most visible this year, with Alejandro G. Inarritu being the racial outlier in otherwise all-white major categories — including all of the acting categories. But four years ago, the Los Angeles Times sampled over 5,000 of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 5,765 members and concluded that the Academy in 2012 was 94 percent white, 77 percent male, 86 percent age 50 or older and had a median age of 62.
“Academy voters are overwhelmingly white and male,” the headline read.
As someone who inhales movies like infants inhale things you leave on your kitchen floor, I’m happy with the acting nominees this year. I would have liked to see Benicio Del Toro get credit for his chilling performance in Sicario, or Idris Elba for his disturbing role in Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation, but looking at the list of nominees, I also want each of those men to be nominated for their work. I wouldn’t know who to knock out to make room for Del Toro or Elba. (Maybe Stallone. Sorry, Sly.) But then again, I too am a white male.
Now, who is it that people were itching to see nominated? Michael B. Jordan? Jordan wasn’t even the best part of Creed, and the other best part of Creed was the sadly forgotten director Ryan Coogler. Will Smith? His performance was the best element of Concussion and the rest of the movie was resoundingly mediocre. The same can be said for Trumbo, though Bryan Cranston, one could argue, deserved the nomination far more for Trumbo than Will Smith for Concussion.
What does the Academy look for in a black actor’s performance? The New York Times recently published an article that sought to discover just that. “All 10 performances for which black women have received best-actress nominations involve poor or lower-income characters, and half of those are penniless mothers,” Brandon K. Thorp writes.
Of the male nominees, most of their characters were imprisoned in their films. “It is not entirely surprising that so many of these nominees have portrayed the poor, imprisoned, great or tragic,” Thorp said. “The history of African-Americans contains many such people, and the academy loves history.”
The Academy is overly vulnerable to white guilt. Just look at how many categories 12 Years a Slave was nominated for in 2014. And it took home Best Picture too, which is wholly unsurprising because watching 12 Years a Slave feels like admiring a manufactured item that was produced on an assembly line with the sole objective of winning as many awards as possible.
Though diversity is a problem within the Academy itself, I think the members try their best to nominate the best performances. Many would argue — and I would agree — that race should not be a consideration when Academy members are nominating actors and directors. That means that, if I’m a voter and I write in my ballot only to discover that there are no black actors on the list, I’m not going to remove a better performance simply because I believe black actors need more awards recognition. It’s about the performances.
Speaking of black performances, of the top 100 films of 2014, about 12.5 percent of the characters are black. This figure has just about remained the same since 2007. The Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism conducted a study of those top 100 films, analyzing the people on and off-screen for their gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity, concluding that yes, Hollywood is still a white boys’ club.
“Across the 100 top films of 2014, only 5 of the 107 directors (4.7 percent) were Black,” the study, which was released in 2014, states. “One Black director helmed two pictures and only one was female. Only 45 Black directors have been attached to the 700 top?grossing films [between 2007 and 2014].”
It’s not an Academy problem. It’s an industry problem. “The prequel to OscarsSoWhite is HollywoodSoWhite,” Annenberg associate professor and co-author of the study, Stacy Smith, said. “We don’t have a diversity problem. We have an inclusion crisis.”
Of the top 100 highest-grossing movies of 2014, 24 featured 6 percent or fewer black characters, while an astounding 17 percent of the films failed to represent blacks at all in their speaking or named characters.
The industry needs to be more welcoming to minority filmmakers so that their voices can be heard and representation boosted for people of color. Boycotting the Academy Awards for not recognizing black performances is not going to help. It’s equivalent to boycotting a supermarket for holding chicken nuggets from a company known for abusing its animals: you can boycott the supermarket, but it’s not going to solve the root of the problem. A solution needs to be taken up at the industry level.
Or, you can be like Spike Lee and continue to write angry letters to your local ShopRite.
Tyler Obropta is a first-year film, photography and visual art major who would never ever be willing to boycott chicken nuggets. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.