Women and Hollywood generally focuses on gender issues in the entertainment business. But the fight against racism and the fight against sexism cannot and should not be separated, and so it is our duty as people who want to see change to be a part of that change.
As we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day yesterday, the protests over #OscarSoWhite grew louder. It’s important to note first, though, that the lack of inclusion in the awards categories and the Academy at large is both a reflection and a perpetuation of the racism and sexism in Hollywood. The monochromeness of the Oscars race is just the most visible corner of an already very skewed business.
Interestingly, the money folks are starting to get that diversity pays. Case in point: Universal Pictures, which enjoyed a fantastic year in 2015, not least in part because of their movies about women and people of color ("Straight Outta Compton," "Pitch Perfect 2," "Furious 7," "Trainwreck," "50 Shades of Grey"). Hell, the weekend after the Oscar nominations were announced, a black-led comedy, "Ride Along 2," starring Kevin Hart and Ice Cube, became the #1 film at the box office. And the centering of a white woman and a black man in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" certainly didn’t deter the film from becoming the highest-grossing film of 2015.
When it comes to "prestige" films, though, the industry’s still stuck on the idea that only stories about white men and a smattering of white women are "important" or "good" enough to be considered awards-worthy. A recent Guardian article applying the Bechdel test to characters of color (do they speak to one another about something other than a white character?), for example, revealed that "highbrow and indie cinema fares much worse [than many studio offerings] — white characters dominate the back catalogues of Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Lars von Trier, Spike Jonze, Terrence Malick and most other Croisette darlings."
Meanwhile, a few brave voices from within Hollywood are contributing to the #OscarsSoWhite movement:
–Here’s a measured statement from Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs (emphases added): "I’d like to acknowledge the wonderful work of this year’s nominees. While we celebrate their extraordinary achievements, I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes. The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership. In the coming days and weeks we will conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond.
"As many of you know, we have implemented changes to diversify our membership in the last four years. But the change is not coming as fast as we would like. We need to do more, and better and more quickly.
"This isn’t unprecedented for the Academy. In the ‘60s and ‘70s it was about recruiting younger members to stay vital and relevant. In 2016, the mandate is inclusion in all of its facets: gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. We recognize the very real concerns of our community, and I so appreciate all of you who have reached out to me in our effort to move forward together."
–David Oyelowo, who was snubbed last year for his transcendent performance as Martin Luther King, Jr., in "Selma," was more forceful: "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.”
Oyelowo then articulated why the diversity conversations are important to have about the Academy Awards: “The reason why the Oscars are so important is because it is the zenith, it is the epitome, it is the height of celebration of artistic endeavor within the filmmaking community. We grow up aspiring, dreaming, longing to be accepted into that august establishment because it is the height of excellence. I would like to walk away and say it doesn’t matter, but it does, because that acknowledgement changes the trajectory of your life, your career, and the culture of the world we live in. … This institution doesn’t reflect its president and it doesn’t reflect this room. I am an Academy member and it doesn’t reflect me, and it doesn’t reflect this nation.”
–Spike Lee reacted to #OscarsSoWhite by announcing that he’ll be boycotting the Oscars this year: "How Is It Possible For The 2nd Consecutive Year All 20 Contenders Under The Actor Category Are White? And Let’s Not Even Get Into The Other Branches. 40 White Actors In 2 Years And No Flava At All. We Can’t Act?! WTF!!"
Lee then laid the blame not at the Academy, but at the studios who serve as gatekeepers about what gets made and how they get marketed: "For Too Many Years When The Oscars Nominations Are Revealed, My Office Phone Rings Off The Hook With The Media Asking Me My Opinion About The Lack Of African-Americans And This Year Was No Different. For Once, (Maybe) I Would Like The Media To Ask All The White Nominees And Studio Heads How They Feel About Another All White Ballot. If Someone Has Addressed This And I Missed It Then I Stand Mistaken. As I See It, The Academy Awards Is Not Where The "Real" Battle Is. It’s In The Executive Office Of The Hollywood Studios And TV And Cable Networks. This Is Where The Gate Keepers Decide What Gets Made And What Gets Jettisoned To "Turnaround" Or Scrap Heap. This Is What’s Important. The Gate Keepers. Those With "The Green Light" Vote."
–Jada Pinkett Smith joined Lee’s boycott, rhetorically asking, "At the Oscars … people of color are always welcomed to give out awards … even entertain, but we are rarely recognized for our artistic accomplishments. Should people of color refrain from participating all together?" Let’s remember, though, that relative establishment figures like Smith and Lee are able to refrain from the networking opportunities that events like the Oscars provide, while actors and filmmakers lower on the totem pole might not have the luxury to do so.
–Perhaps the most biting response came from Don Cheadle, himself a Best Actor Oscar nominee, who tweeted at this year’s Oscars host Chris Rock, "Yo, Chris. Come check me out at #TheOscars this year. They got me parking cars on G level."