Why are the #OscarsSoWhite? – Tiffany Lee, Canada

12 African-American actors have won an Oscar in the past

88 years of Academy Awards.

12.6% of the US population is African-American. This is roughly the same amount of speaking roles given to African-Americans in the film industry.

African-Americans have been nominated for an Oscar in the 87th Academy Awards in 2015 and the upcoming 88th Academy Awards in 2016.

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The 2016 Oscar nominees (source: CBS News)

The upcoming Academy Awards have sparked great controversy as performers and directors in the film industry criticize the lack of diversity in the list of nominees. Unsurprisingly, the list is predominantly Caucasian and this has sparked a boycott against the Oscars. Among the first to speak out about this debate was actress Jada Pinkett Smith. In multiple tweets, Smith said “At the Oscars, people of colour are always welcomed to give out awards, even entertain. But we are rarely recognized for our artistic accomplishments. Should people of colour refrain from participating altogether? [sic] People can only treat us in the way in which we allow”.

This debate has been labelled with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, and has led many distinguished celebrities of colour to announce that they will decline to attend the ceremony. Among these are Jada Pinkett Smith, Spike Lee, Will Smith and Michael Moore. As the debate continues, the Academy has also started to be criticized for the lack of internal diversity as 94% of the voters are white and 76% are male. In the face of this boycott, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ board of governors has approved reforms to begin “the process of significantly changing [their] membership composition”. These diversity reforms means plans to add new members to decision-making committees and identifying and recruiting diverse talent. It vows to double its minority and female membership by 2020. The Academy president, Cheryl Boone, released a statement saying, “The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up”.

 

While some of Hollywood’s finest have announced plans to join the boycott, there are just as many who’ve declared their opposition the boycott. Charlotte Rampling, a nominee for Best Actress, said in a French interview that this boycott is “racist against whites”, adding that that “perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final list”. In a later statement, Rampling said that she regrets that her “comments could have been misinterpreted”. But by then, the damage had already been done. Adding to this backlash was Oscar-winning producer Gerald Molen who referred to those criticizing the Academy as “spoiled brats”. If that wasn’t enough, Michael Caine told black actors to be “patient” over the lack of diversity, whitesplaining that “in the end, you can’t vote for an actor because he’s black”.

On first glance, it might seem that this debate is one about exclusion; however, it is more than just failing to acknowledge the accomplishments of performers of colour. It reflects a greater problem. Actors of colour are simply not being given starring roles. While the percentage of speaking roles given to African-Americans are at par with their population percentage, these roles are hardly ever those of the inspiring protagonist. In fact, the roles they’re given often reflect harmful stereotypes. Performers of colour are often cast as the sidekick, rather than the leading role. Be it the a sexy Latina best friend, or the sassy black friend, or the super smart Asian friend who never seems to have a love life, the characters given to performers of colour are always accessories to a white protagonist.

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This treatment of African-American actors is certainly bleak and unjust. Even standout shows such as Selma, Straight Outta Compton and Concussion failed to receive any acknowledgement from the Academy. But the situation is worse for Hispanics and Asians. Only 3% of the nominations since 2000 have gone to Hispanic performers, whose ethnicity makes up for 16% of the population. Considering that the Hispanic population has surged over the past decade, it’s strange that only 5% of speaking roles were given to Hispanic actors in 2013. This is, of course, not to say that progress has not been made on the ground, though. Networks have begun work to appeal to Hispanic audiences. Popular shows such as Narcos and Jane the Virgin have allowed Hispanic actors have landed themselves in big roles.

Narcos is a hit show on Netflix and is set in Colombia, telling the story of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

narcos

While the show is shot from the perspective of a white American guy, it appeals to Hispanic audiences in that both English and Spanish are used. In Jane the Virgin, we see through a young Latina woman’s eyes. This show is similarly bilingual and has been praised for its style as a telenovela that is not afraid to acknowledge its own cheesiness.

On another note, Asians make up 5.4% of the American population with 17 million Asian-Americans. Asian-American actors got 4.4% of the speaking roles in 2013. Although the population continues to grow, not much progress has been made in their representation. When Asian-American actors do land a large role, they still tend to be sidekicks and either incredibly badass with martial art skills or the smart and wise ones who are always there to help the white protagonist. One TV show that does a great job of highlighting Asian-Americans is Fresh Off the Boat, a comedy loosely inspired by the life of chef Eddie Huang. It follows a young boy and his family as they move from Washington’s Chinatown into a dominantly caucasian neighbourhood in Florida. While Huang criticizes the show for drifting away from what is true to his life, the show has provided a comedic reflection for young Asian-Americans who understand very well the situations and struggles young fictional Eddie finds himself facing.

 

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The TV series mentioned are certainly taking big leaps in ethnic representation in the media, but Hollywood still has a very long way to go. There are many outstanding African-Americans who performed and directed in blockbuster movies this year, yet the Oscars seem so blindingly white. Some doubt that the boycott will work. But it seems it has already begun to do its job as the Academy scrambles to mend its relationship with some of Hollywood’s finest and North America’s ethnic minorities.

Journalist’s commentary:

Being an Asian actor myself, I am fully aware that being a performer of colour is a true challenge. Diversity is scarce in Hollywood and so often Caucasians that make up the majority in North America don’t realize that this is a real problem. Growing up as an ethnic minority, seeing people who look liked me on TV was always a welcomed surprise that came very rarely. The current generation of North American children need to be able to see themselves represented in the media. They want to see people who look like them so they are able to understand that they are normal and accepted. No matter what your race is, I hope you take the time to really reflect on your favourite movies and TV shows. How many people of colour are there? What kind of roles are they given? Are they reflected as a three dimensional human being, or are they simply reflecting a stereotype? I hope the 89th Academy Awards in 2017 will provide for more diversity, but until then, the lack of representation just won’t do for me.

I am boycotting the Oscars. Are you?