Hollywood’s biggest stars walked the world’s most famous red carpet last February to attend the 88th Academy Awards ceremony, the film industry’s highest honours. This year’s show was mired with controversy regarding the lack of diversity of its nominees.
For the second year in a row, only white actors and actresses were chosen for the top four acting categories (best actor/actress and best supporting actor/actress).
The resulting backlash led to several African-American directors, actors and actresses, such as Spike Lee, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith boycotting the event, giving rise to the popular social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
Star Wars actress Lupita Nyong’o said she was “disappointed by the lack of inclusion” in the nominations. Nyong’o, who won a best supporting actress Oscar for 12 Years a Slave (2013) in 2014, wrote on Instagram that she stands with those “calling for change” and that the awards should be a “diverse reflection of the best of what our art has to offer today”.
In an interview with Variety magazine, 2 time Oscar winner George Clooney said, “if you think back 10 years ago, the Academy was doing a better job.”
“Think about how many more African Americans were nominated. I would also make the argument, I don’t think it’s a problem of who you’re picking as much as it is: How many options are available to minorities in film, particularly in quality films?”
He added, “by the way, we’re talking about African Americans. For Hispanics, it’s even worse.”
George Clooney raised a really interesting point about the lack of opportunity for non-white actors in Hollywood but we also have to remember that the Oscars are not representative of the general public.
One of the fundamental problems with the Oscars is that it is not merit-based, it’s not even performance based. The awards are judged by its 6,000 members of the Academy who vote on who they think should win the award.
So no one really “deserves” an Oscar. It’s completely subjective based on the opinion of the 6,000 people who vote. It’s literally a popularity contest. So the idea that the black actors, writers, and directors that got overlooked somehow didn’t “deserve” to be nominated is completely false, because no one really deserves it. The award is not “you were the best actor in a film that year” it’s “we think you were the best actor that year” and people need to remember this.
The Academy of motion arts and sciences is an exclusive club, which consists of 6,000 members from across the motion picture industry with the identity of its members a closely guarded secret. Membership can only be attained by invitation only and an invitation can only come from the Board of Governors. Membership eligibility can be achieved through two ways; by earning a competitive Oscar nomination, or the nomination of two existing members who may sponsor a candidate from the same branch to which the candidate seeks admission.
The profile of Oscar voters
In 2012, the LA Times conducted a study to find out how diverse the Academy membership is.
Reporters spoke to thousands of Academy members and their representatives to confirm the identities of more than 5,100 voters – more than 89% of the voting members.
They found that:
- Oscar voters are nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male. Black members make up about 2% of the Academy, and Latino members less than 2%.
- Oscar voters have a median age of 62. People younger than 50 constitute just 14% of the membership.
- Some of the Academy’s 15 branches are almost exclusively white and male. Caucasians currently make up 90% or more of every Academy branch except actors, whose membership is 88% white.
- Men make up more than 90% of five branches, including cinematography and visual effects.
As you can see the vast majority of its members are white, and like any other race they will gravitate to films that are tailored for them. So Straight Outta Compton  and Beast of No Nation  are considered “black films for black audiences”. And that’s not to say that white people are the only ones doing this. Hispanic’s and Asian’s won’t watch black movies, for the same reason Blacks and Asians won’t watch that Ceasar Chavez . Why watch a movie that you don’t think you’ll relate to?
The problem is not that minorities are being singled out, it’s that we all need to expand our horizons when it comes to race and culture. And since white people are in the majority, it gives the perception that they’re overlooking minorities, when we’re all are overlooking each other.
But, there’s a bigger problem. When you don’t expand your knowledge of other cultures, you identify them based on stereotypes. So when casting, minorities will only get roles based on the stereotype of their ethnicity, and there’s not that many roles out there for a “black thug” or “Chinese immigrant” or “Indian taxicab driver”. Furthermore, minority writers won’t get hired for the false perception that they would only come up with ethnic material. Why hire a Hispanic guy when we have no Hispanic characters? Same thing with directors. And since white people are the majority in Hollywood, the diversity falls short.
Going “colour blind” doesn’t solve the issue either. Every ethnic group is different, and have different experiences, which go in to developing their character. And there has to be acceptance that not everyone with the same group has the same experiences. White people get it because they’re white. They understand the nuances of different kinds of white people, but they fail to realise those nuances exist in other races, cultures, and ethnicities. Star Trek Actor, John Cho is a great example of a nuanced ethnic person. He’s Asian American but he isn’t an Asian stereotype.
Everyone needs to watch more movies outside of their ethnic comfort zone, understand each other’s nuances, cast more John Cho’s and Gemma Chan’s, and realize that the Oscars are not so much merit-based than they are popularity-based.
Actress, Whoppie Goldberg probably explained this problem the best. It isn’t the fault of the Oscar’s so much as the Hollywood machine. Films with racial minorities as the protagonists are few and far between because the studios don’t want to risk ploughing millions in to a film with a non-proven bankable lead.
It doesn’t help that Black, Latino and Asian actors get typecast to play stereotypes. So many are only told they can get roles as drug dealers, criminals, immigrants, etc. So they either are forced to play those roles or quit acting, and many quit. You have to considering that actors are always learning and evolving, and the best actors are usually the ones who have the most experience, this can effectively stop many potentials Oscar winners. Having actors who are amazing in their first film roles are incredibly rare.
The issue isn’t so much the Oscar nominations, because that is more of an effect. The problem is that the barrier for entry essentially prevents them from getting to the Oscar level acting in the first place.
I would argue that ethnic minority actors have a harder time simply being cast, let alone being nominated for anything. The Oscars are just a backdrop for a bigger conversation about casting in Hollywood. The bigger questions are really about how Hollywood decides which movies are made, and which actors will be cast in those movies. That’s a more fruitful discussion than why the Academy seems to disproportionately nominate white actors.