An Academy Award, less formally known as an Oscar, is the most prestigious award an actor can hope to get. To someone who’s lived under a rock their whole life, a small gold figure on a pedestal may not seem like a lot, but they’re widely coveted by many in the film industry; film-makers and actors alike. Only the crème de la crème can hope to even be nominated for an Oscar, let alone win one… Supposedly.
For the second year in a row not one single actor or actress of colour has been nominated, which has made people suspicious about the fairness of the nomination process. It seems a bit odd that the best actors of this year are all caucasian. Are people of colour not any good at acting? Is it truly the best actors who are being nominated, or are minorities being excluded? The Academy holds a lot of power and influence over the film industry and the fact that for two years no minority actors have been nominated has sparked debate in the film community and among minority groups.
The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite lit up for the second time with the second year in a row of this being a problem, however the debate was brought to widespread media attention with the announcement that the awards ceremony was to be boycotted by certain famous figures. Will Smith, who was eligible for nomination for his part in Concussion, joins his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith and filmmaker Spike Lee in the boycott, saying “If we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem.” Jada says that minority groups should not have to ask to be included in the awards, stating that “begging for acknowledgment, or even asking, diminishes dignity and diminishes power. And we are a dignified people. And we are powerful.”
There has been significant backlash to #OscarsSoWhite in the acting community. Charlotte Rampling, who is nominated for the Best Actress Award for her role in 45 Years, called the boycott ‘anti-white racism’, saying in an interview ‘maybe this time, no black actor or actress deserved to make it to the final selection.’ People opposed to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy hold the argument that choosing nominees with diversity in mind defeats the purpose of the awards. There’s the argument that there aren’t as many people of colour in America, with minority ethnicities making up only about 36% of the population, but Hollywood movies are sent out across the world, translated into a multitude of languages and seen by people of different races. The majority of the world’s population is not caucasian, so why are the Oscar nominees?
It’s fair enough to complain and boycott, however if we’re going to take a proper look into whether it is biased due to race, or just a big coincidence we need to question the nomination process. It’s not like it’s just one fat cat middle-aged white man choosing who he likes the best, there’s a lot more to it than that. The voting process is actually managed by a team of accountants. Glamourous, I know. They send out the ballots to the 6000-odd members of The Academy who choose who they think is the best out of each category. All the members of the category have industry experience, and actors vote for the best actors, directors vote for the best directors etc. Everyone then votes for the best picture. That seems fair, right? Well, let’s just say that while it may not be just one middle-aged white man making the decisions, that doesn’t mean that many members of The Academy aren’t exactly that. There are specifications that wannabe Academy members must meet in order to even be considered. With industry experience being a key factor, and potential members needing to be officially invited or sponsored in order to get in, the majority of members are in fact white and over 50. They’re never going to kick out members so the only solution to the diversity problem is to get new industry professionals in. Last year in response to #OscarsSoWhite, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs invited over 300 new members, but still it hasn’t seemed to work. Actor David Oyelowo put the situation perfectly: “For 20 opportunities to celebrate actors of color, actresses of color, to be missed last year is one thing; for that to happen again this year is unforgivable.”
It does seem a little like they skirted around the possibility of nominating people of colour for every category. Straight Outta Compton for example, starring Ice Cube and Dr Dre, but the film’s only Oscar nomination went to the two guys who wrote it, who happen to be white. Likewise, Creed is up for winning an Oscar, going to one of the actors – the white Sylvester Stallone. The same goes for The Hateful Eight – starting to see a pattern?
George Clooney spoke up about the matter, asking “How many options are available to minorities in film, particularly in quality films?” He noted the few films where people of colour could have been recognised for in the awards, however he insisted that “there should be more opportunity than that. There should be 20 or 30 or 40 films of the quality that people would consider for the Oscars.”
Perhaps even if the selection process is fair, and those nominated truly are the best, then there’s still something going wrong in the industry. As George Clooney pointed out, there’s simply not enough opportunity for minority actors. Viola Davis who plays Annalise Keating in How To Get Away With Murder pointed out the problem when she won an Emmy, becoming the first black woman to win for outstanding actress in a drama, saying “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” And it’s true! There’s a part for an actor, then there’s a part for a black actor. There’s the leading part, then there’s the ethnic best friend. You see it time and time again not only in film but also in television. Even Obama weighed in on the matter, saying “I think the Oscar debate is really just an expression of this broader issue. Are we making sure that everybody is getting a fair shot?”
The Academy Awards have attempted to make up for the lack of diversity by organising POC hosts and entertainment for the evening. I’ll be looking forward to the ceremony, but as for next year, I hope for a change in procedure not only in The Academy, but in Hollywood’s views of minority actors.