Culture

The Oscars Are Less White This Year, But Both Hollywood And The Academy Are Still In Trouble

by Andre Grant

January 24, 2017

For the past two years, the Oscar nominations and subsequent awards have looked like a sky of puffy clouds drifting aimlessly. That the nominations were mostly white was the source of much consternation in the world of social media, as very deserving films and staffs were shut out at the awards. In 2015, the Oscar’s snubbed Selma, arguably one the greatest feature civil rights film of all time. In 2016, they snubbed Creed—not only a film with a black lead in Michael B. Jordan and a black director in Ryan Coogler, but the only Rocky sequel worth talking about since Rocky II.

In many ways, #OscarsSowhite was a on a perceived hierarchy—that within this culture we share there is one we like better than the others. This is the mouth from where a lot of the angst flowed. That, again, people of color were being left out of the winner’s circle deliberately, or were just passively overlooked. It spawned a million tweets, but the original was so pithy and so accurate it took the web by storm. It read, “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.”

When the alarm sounded, the web went to work mining the depths of why, possibly, the Academy could not find any nonwhite actors or actresses, set designers or cinematographers, directors or producers, or writers or costume designers they could bring into the canon of cultural excellence.

2017, though, finds the Academy nominating incredible people of color and stories of color in all sorts of categories. Dev Patel, nominated for Lion, is the first Asian person to receive a best supporting actor nom since 2003. Ava DuVernay’s 13th is nominated for Best Documentary along with Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro and OJ: Made in America from Ezra Edelman. Moonlight, deservedly, is nominated for Best Picture, along with Hidden Figures and Fences. According to Deadline, “Denzel Washington, Ruth Negga, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Octavia Spencer, and Viola Davis all had acting nominations.” Negga received hers for Loving. All those are in addition to Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders editing nomination for Moonlight, as well as writing nom’s for Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and the inimitable August Wilson.

In fact, the African American Film Association called 2016 the “best year ever” for black films, but that doesn’t mean the diversity extended past that. The issue before the Oscars isn’t simply a voting block that can properly judge minority films, it’s the veracity of Hollywood itself. Even after Meryl Streep’s impassioned Golden Globes speech in which she uttered, “What is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places.” There remains a sinkhole of roles that do not reflect the range of women, disabled, Latinos, Asians, Middle Eastern, and Indigenous peoples. Hollywood has an opportunity to keep storytelling alive through these often-overlooked demographics. But, for them, Hollywood mostly has nothing to offer. Santiago Pozo writes that the Oscars’ shunning of Latinos is a “terminal illness for our business and for the relevance of the Academy awards.”

In 2016, USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism finished an exhaustive report on diversity in film and television. The findings weren’t that surprising. Although Latinos make up 17.4 percent of the population, out of the 11,000 speaking roles surveyed for film and television, they received only 5.8 percent of them (and those characters were almost always stereotypical). Although television shows like Jane The VirginCristela, Superstore, and Ugly Betty are generally beloved, Latinos find themselves on the sidelines of high culture.

How can the Academy possibly award a more diverse set of humans for their artistic splendor if there aren’t the kinds of deeply artistic stories available for those people?

As Hollywood continues to put their heads in the sand, they run the risk of irrelevancy. According to Mic, Hollywood continues to ignore the bottom line: “Films and shows with diverse content were more popular in 2013 and 2014 for the second year in a row, according to University of California, Los Angeles’ Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report.” How can the Academy possibly award a more diverse set of humans for their artistic splendor if there aren’t the kinds of deeply artistic stories available for those people?

“You need to have Latinos in the writer’s room,” says Felix Sanchez. He’s the co-founder and chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. Speaking to Mic, Sanchez touted the need for programs that provide a pipeline of Latino writers. The National Hispanic Media Coalition hosts a writer’s program that’s making headway, but, “diversity of writers is particularly important because they tell the story. We need more diversity in the boardroom, more diversity with green lighters."

Dedication to recognizing yourself on-screen for wider audiences to see is how you create culture. Without it, minorities will remain boogeymen and boogeywomen to exploit whenever a blowhard sees fit. The Hollywood conversation and, thus, the Academy conversation speaks to America’s devotion to crafting culture as a whole. It’s a process that must be addressed if we’re going to be talking at all about the Oscar’s ten years from now.

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The Oscars Are Less White This Year, But Both Hollywood And The Academy Are Still In Trouble