#OscarsSoWhite: Are the Academy Racist?
The Oscars, the award show that everything looks forward to. It’s a night of glitz and glamour, where our favourite actors scrub up to be honoured. But, similar to the 2015 Academy Awards, the lack of diversity in actors up for one of these prestigious awards has caused outcry, with #OscarsSoWhite trending worldwide when the news broke.
Famous names have even chosen to boycott the event entirely, which ultimately raises the question: Are the academy racist?
Jada Pinkett Smith took to her Twitter profile to rant her feelings about the controversial topic, with her and Spike Lee being the first to announce a boycott of the ceremony. Others soon followed suit with both Will Smith and Michael Moore deciding to give the event a miss.
The word ‘racism‘ has actually been largely avoided by those voicing their concern. More friendly and positive sounding words like ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ have been used instead. This is understandable. The celebrities, are of course, trying to get the message out to as wide an audience as possible, with the hope that in future years, black actors will be recognised by the establishment.
‘Racism‘ is a very strong word. Some people might like to think of it as a problem of the past, when, in fact, unfortunately, racism still exists in far deeper ways than most of us notice or care to ponder about. With this in mind, the words of writer and poet Scott Woods in a blog post he made two years when Ani DiFranco planned an artists’ retreat on a former slave plantation:
The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. […]
Racism is an insidious cultural disease. […]
Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socio-economic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world.
Yet, unsurprisingly, elite award shows have succumbed to this operating system as well. Given that the Academy is made up of 94% white, 77% male and 86% over the age of 50, it is even less of a shock. However, it isn’t just the acting nominations. Another exclusion is perfectly clear in regards to the film Straight Outta Compton (2015). It was predicted to be a hot contender for Best Picture and its predominately black cast tipped for the acting nominations, but the only nomination it has actually received is for its screenplay. A screenplay that was written by four white people.
The boycotts and calls for more inclusion has seen support from Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, Quincy Jones, Will Packer and Mark Ruffalo amongst others, with even Obama having something to say on the matter. However, others like Steve McQueen, Whoopi Goldberg and George Clooney emphasised that the problem may lay in the industry itself, with no enough roles and adequate representation given to ethnic minorities.
In Britain, Idris Elba gave a speech to the UK Parliament discussing the problem existed in TV as well and made calls for more diversity. Likewise, Dawn Walton, artistic director of the black-led Eclipse theatre, stated British theatre suffered from a race problem. Representation in books doesn’t appear to be much different either. UK grime rapper Stormzy also released a song highlighting the same issue for this year’s BRIT nominations.
Chris Rock, the host of this year’s Oscars has been called to step down, but has said nothing on the issue as of yet. It is presumed her will still act as host, but there is much speculation that he may use the position to speak on the subject. He is often vocal about race issues in America, so it seems almost inevitable. It recently came to light that in an interview given before the nominations were announced, Rock criticised Jennifer Lawrence’s limited gender equality campaign for making no acknowledgement of her privileges as a white woman compared to black women and other women of colour.
There have been a handful of ‘reverse racism‘ claims (the idea that talking about a lack of representation of people of colour actually harms white people). One example was Charlotte Rampling, who is in fact, nominated for best actress. Rampling’s opinion states that the issue was ‘racist against whites’ since nowadays ‘everyone is more of less treated well.’
Some black activists thought the boycott overrode more important issues and was too much of an assimilation to elite Hollywood life. 2015 saw the Ferguson riots anniversary, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the controversial death of Sandra Bland and more recent the Flint water crisis and countless other acts of institutionalised racism in the US. Some feel those voicing concern of the #OscarsSoWhite issue, should, ultimately, use their fame and voices for wider problems.
Cheryl Boones Isaacs, the first black woman to be head of the Academy, has been praised for her swift response to the criticism. She stated that she was ‘heartbroken and frustrated by the lack of inclusion’ and was planning to make big changes to the make-up of the Academy members.
Representation is an idea that can be hard for some people to get their heads around. Some people might like to believe that surely the best people for the job gets chosen to star in particular films and other arts regardless of their ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability or gender identity. Unfortunately, we live in a world, where it appears to still mean something.
All the millions of people who consume Blockbuster films, absorb – consciously or not, all the messages that go along with them. Entertainment is not apolitical. If an audience is only seeing white people, straight people, people with money, able-bodied people or any other people with attributes that are considered the human default, and if only these people are being rewarded, then as an audience, we are definitely not seeing the entire picture.