Blog: Are the Academy Awards racist?

| January 24, 2016

Oh, what a monologue Chris Rock must be cooking up for this year’s Academy Awards.

It is not a stretch to suggest that on the morning of February 29th, the topic of conversation of the 88th Academy Awards will move swiftly from the winners to questions of diversity. Almost as soon as the nominees were announced on the morning of January 14th the outcry began. No person of color received a single acting nomination from the voting academy despite fine work from Idris Elba in Beast of No Nation, Michael B. Jordan from Creed, Samuel L. Jackson for The Hateful Eight, Tamara Parrish for Chi-Raq, or from the cast of Straight Outta Compton.

Outraged celebrities like Jada Pinket Smith and Spike Lee voiced their distaste for the academy’s white-washing of African-Americans and many have said that they have no plans to attend the ceremony – not even Lee whose body of work is being honored this year.

It’s hard to conceive why these omissions were made and it’s even harder to ignore the fact that the anger raised over the lack of diversity last year over the general omission of the entire cast of Selma, is even worse this year. It’s easy to cry foul and to pound the podium about such an issue, but instead of shaking ours fists at the voters, let us look at the awards themselves in practical terms.

In following the Academy Awards every year – as I have obsessively for the past 25 years – it is an inevitable fact that each academy awards season is drawn up by what is “of the moment.” That is, whatever films are being sold and promoted for each individual year. Is that an excuse for a lack of diversity? No. But it proves that often the academy has a short attention span. Many of the films nominated for the Oscar in any given year are releases that debut in the last two months of the year. Films that debuted before that time period are often seen as films that have had their moment in the sun; they’ve had their DVD release and therefore don’t need special attention from the academy. That’s the thinking, anyway.

What does that say for their choices? Well, it says that the academy is prone to vote for whatever is hot at the moment. Take The Revenant for example, this year’s front-runner for Best Picture, a film that was new to theaters; it had Leonardo DiCaprio, a hot young lead who is the front-runner for Best Actor, and it was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, a Mexican director who won three Oscars last year for writing, directing and producing the Best Picture winner, Birdman.

Yet here’s a point to ponder: Would the same have been true if late December saw the release of, say, Straight Outta Compton? F. Gary Gary’s brilliant examination of how the formation of the rap group NWA led to the revolution in hip hop culture was widely praised by critics (including yours truly) and was a box office hit, but could it have found a place among the Best Picture nominees? My guess is no. But that’s only because Straight Outta Compton was based on subject matter that the academy voters – who are traditionally older – don’t really care about. Is that fair? Of course not, but what can be done about it?

Earlier this week Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African-American woman to hold that position (and the third woman), instituted a statement that changes were ahead for the academy that would mean more diversity in the future. “The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” she said, “These new measures regarding governance and voting will have an immediate impact and begin the process of significantly changing our membership composition.”

Basically what all that means is that the academy will try and open its doors to more diverse inclusion of minorities and woman among its membership. After this year’s academy awards, each new member’s voting status will last 10 years, and will only be renewed if that member has been active in the motion picture industry during the past decade. In addition, members will keep their lifetime membership if they have received an Academy Award or a nomination.

Also, the academy will allow current members to sponsor new members by launching an ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity. And as an effort to increase diversity among the Academy’s Board of Governors, there will be added three new seats that will be nominated by the Academy’s President that will stand for a three-year term which is confirmed by the board.

I’m trying not to suggest that I feel Affirmative Action being set in place here, buuuut.

The steps taken to welcome more diversity seem to be honorable at best, and at worse feel like The Academy rubbing salve on a situation that is completely taking the gloss off of this year’s awards. While it’s true that the lack of diversity this year is notable, due mostly to the fact that it’s the second year in a row that the work of African-Americans in film wasn’t recognized, it leaves me to wonder what those changes would mean for the Academy Awards themselves. Do they mean to say that of the ten slots available in the Best Picture category some will be sectioned off for films that honor the work of African-Americans? Hispanics? Asians? LGBT? Does that mean that two or three slots in the acting categories will be set aside for actors of differing ethnicity? I don’t want to sound like FOX News here but, I see a situation that is raising more questions than it answers.

The only way this is going to work is for changes to be made in the industry, not The Academy. The motion picture industry is essentially, a boy’s club. Most producers and directors are men, white men, and that’s been a problem even as recently as last year with the outcry that Selma received only two nominations but neither for its director, Ava DuVernay, an African-American woman who dismissed her lack of nomination by admitting that the DGA is essentially “a boy’s club.”

In May of last year, the situation got even worse.  The male-dominated Director’s Guild drew fire over the deplorable lack of female directors in Hollywood following a call by the ACLU over the industry’s systematic failure to hire female directors. So, minorities are not alone. This is where the situation needs attention. Hire more minorities, let them have a voice. Hire more women, let them tell their stories. The same goes for Hispanics, Asians, Gays.

The problem lies not in the diversity of The Academy Awards, but in the lack of diversity in the product that Hollywood puts out every year. While television continues to try and break new grounds of diversity, so the movies would do well to do the same.  Consider the highest grossing film of 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens which silently answered a 40-year call for more diversity then that series had ever expressed. The earlier films were dominated by white males, but the new film was loaded with diversity that didn’t feel like a mandate. It was encouraging, and it was a great movie.

Will the changes for The Academy mean anything? I don’t think so. I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but they seem like smooth talk to quiet a raging situation. The Oscars are a dinosaur, they generally reward films that won’t stand the test of time and performances that you’ll forget as soon as the telecast ends (I have an entire website devoted to this). Will next year be any better as far as diversity? I’d like to think so, but I have a feeling that as soon as the fire dies down from this controversy The Academy will go back to doing what it has always done, and we’ll be back talking about the same thing again next year.  Stay tuned.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
Filed in: Blog