By Nick Anstett
“And the winner is…all the white guys!” cries “Saturday Night Live” star Cecily Strong. She smiles as a host of her white co-stars join her on stage in mock celebration. The camera cuts to a host of a black actors and actresses sitting in the audience, looking disappointed but unsurprised.
“Saturday Night Live” was not the only outlet to once again join the public outcry against the notable lack of diversity in this year’s list of Academy Award nominees, which for the second year in a row failed to nominate a single actor or actress of color. The widely popular hashtag “OscarsSoWhite” started by “Selma” director Ava Duvernay became a rallying cry for fans, critics, and stars alike against an issue that has grown more perverse within cinema’s awards circuit with each passing year.
Perhaps most notable among the potential nominee snubs was Netflix’s African war-epic, “Beasts of No Nation,” which starred an entirely black cast and seeming award shoe-in Idris Elba. According to Variety.com, social media as a whole regarded “Beasts” and Elba, who did receive a Golden Globe nomination, to be the film and actor the Academy slighted the most. This news comes after an extensive campaign both on the part of Elba, the film’s director Cary Joji Fukunga and Netflix to make the film eligible for awards consideration in the first place after most major theater chains boycotted it due to its simultaneous digital release. Other diverse snubbed films and actors included boxing drama “Creed,” Benicio Del Toro in “Sicario,” Will Smith in “Concussion,” and rap drama “Straight Outta Compton.”
For many in and out of the film industry, this continual lack of representation of people of color in the Academy Awards represents an issue that needs to be addressed. According to The New York Times, there was even widespread talk of an Oscar boycott. Under mounting pressure and scrutiny from industry heavy weights such as Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Michael Moore, on Jan. 22 the Academy unveiled sweeping changes to its organization. The key changes being a faster rotating list of eligible Academy members/voters in order to prevent “inactive” members from maintaining undue influence on the decision process and three new editions to its board of governors that will ideally represent younger more culturally conscious demographics.
While widely seen as a step in the right direction, this decision made by the Academy may be fighting an upward battle. Criticism of the changes has also been just as notable as praise. Academy member Sidney Furie told The New York Times that he finds the decision to be wrongly placed given his commitment to awarding Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win the Academy Award for Best Leading Actor for “In the Heat of the Night” over 50 years ago in 1963. More outlandish Oscar voter Fraser Heston’s claims, who according to The Hollywood Reporter, that called the changes both “illegal” and “Orwellian.”
The decision to implement changes to the Academy’s decision making process is ultimately a welcome one though and it stands as a more logical and fair approach than any sort of quota system. As much as the organization may seem happy to congratulate itself for minor steps forward throughout its existence, it still stands as the most public representation of a massive issue facing the entertainment industry.
In addition to a lack of representation for black actors and directors, The Academy has a woeful history of ignoring women directors and writers as well as other racial minorities. Only six Latino and four Asian American actors and actresses have won awards from the Academy since its inception. Just last year, Sean Penn joked about the legal citizenship of Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu, one of only two Latino director’s to win an Academy Award in the organization’s history, as he stepped on stage to accept his award. Similarly, only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has won the award for Best Direction, and that wasn’t until 2009.
In part, the Academy can only be blamed for so much of this issue. While there are dozens of cases of actors of color and women overlooked for awards that were clearly deserving of at least recognition, the larger more prevalent issue is ultimately one that the industry faces as a whole. It is, after all, difficult for actors and actresses of color to receive awards representation if they are not offered roles of substance or prominence in the first place. As I wrote last semester, The Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at University of California Los Angeles’s 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report found that racial minorities are still underrepresented in leading film roles on a two to one basis despite the fact that they constitute for over half of media viewership. If we are really to achieve an awards season that adequately celebrates the diverse talent that is at the film world’s disposal, then its must be utilized properly in the first place, which may be something that more than a hashtag and a rotating voting system can remedy.