Yes, this is yet another blog post about The Oscars and Race.
There have been no shortage of articles on the subject of the lack of diversity amongst the 2015 Academy Award nominees, but few, if any, will just flat out call it like it is – The Academy Awards is a white institution, started by white men, which (in turn) favors and awards white men most; and they have absolutely no incentive to change it.
We have an interesting dynamic, when it comes to age-old institutions, in our country. You cannot be black, brown (or the made up races of purple, green or blue), without someone asking you why the BET Awards or the Latin Grammys exist. Clearly, the implication is that it is we minorities who have decided to isolate ourselves, to break off into our own little corners of the world where we only acknowledge the achievements of other black and/or brown people.
The reality is that if we did not honor ourselves, few others would.
A further truth is that we include words like ‘Black’ in the names of our institutions simply so that we can recognize it as it is. It is so we know that we will find resources or elements that speak to our culture. I mean, how else were we to know that we could go to the UNCF or the NAACP for assistance in furthering our education, if we had dropped the N or the C, respectively?
The thing about the Academy Awards, the Golden Globe, the (non-Latin) Grammys, etc is that white people have never had to label their institutions as ‘White.’ As the controlling majority, it has always been a given that European-Americans would be the dominating voice throughout those institutions. The fact that they did not have to call the Oscars “The White Academy Awards” does not change the fact that that is exactly what it was when the 1st Annual Academy Awards took place on May 16, 1929, exactly one day before Dr. Martin Luther King Junior was born in Atlanta, GA. Was there any expectation that the Oscars would be anything but a white institution, during that time in history? Did the founder see into the future to where The Academy Awards would be expected to consider the works of, not just people of color, but women, as well? Furthermore, could they possibly conceive that anyone, other than a white man, could put forward art that was even worthy of consideration?
When the Academy Awards announced the 2015 Oscar Nominees, despite the history of our country, despite the history of the institution, many were still relatively shocked by the lack of diversity represented by this year’s class. No, not just the lack of black people, but non-white people, in general. All in all, this year’s nominees make up the whitest lot of nominees since the late 90s.
What happened? Did nonwhite actors get worse?
Leading the pack of snubs was Selma’s Ava Duvernay, who was largely expected (by people who ignore history) to be the first black woman to be nominated for Best Director, and David Oyelowo, who portrayed the legendary leader of the Civil Rights Movement, in the film.
While Duvernay who, herself, stated that she had no expectations of gaining clout because of her work in Hollywood, given there was no precedent for the occurrence, the slight felt massive enough to spark several internet memes punctuated with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. The reaction, as expected, was a bit mixed with most tweeters making snark-filled jokes such as Jimmy Fallon’s, which read:
One guy went so far as to state that the Berlin Olympics had more diversity than this year’s list of Oscar nominees (he even has a picture to prove it):
Snark aside, there were also tweets from those who found the snub to be extra sharp on their tongues; especially with race relations being such as they are, here in 2015, over 51 years since King’s “I Have a Dream “speech. That it is 2015 and we are still looking for acknowledgement for our talents and gifts, as well as equality in all areas of our lives, makes it that much harder to swallow.
Of course, representing the other end of the spectrum were tweets from those who boiled it all down to an oversimplification that we see all too often when we attempt to discuss inherent racial discrimination and its impact on those it affects most. To these individuals, most of whom were not people of color, it is all a simple matter of talent; there simply were no actors of colors, nor movies featuring actors of color, that lived up to the talent, hard work, ingenuity and creativity possessed by their white counterparts. People of color simply did not EARN a right to nominations. That is hardly a new mindset, it is one that has remained prevalent throughout the history of The Academy Awards; throughout the history of the United States.
Ultimately, people of color just are not good enough. Right? (Isn’t there a word for that belief…?)
Also, ultimately, THE OSCARS ARE NOT FOR US!!! (And, hello white women, they are not exactly for you either. Not if you are behind the scenes, not if you are doing something that does not involve hair and makeup or music.) The Oscars, the Academy Awards were not created, nor conceived of, to award people of color. While there is an argument that can be made that, due to its status and clout in the industry, the Academy has a certain responsibility, we are dealing with human beings. Flawed, one-dimensional human beings who enjoy things as they are.
Listen, we all get that people of color and women are a minority in the field of entertainment. White men outnumber everyone in Hollywood, both on and behind the screen. It is their town.
Women in, in general, are greatly outnumbered by men, as represented by the speaking roles that they play. In 2013, in the top 100 movies, only 28.4% of the speaking roles went to women. That was actually a decline from 2010 and 2009, which had women at 30.3% and 32.8%, respectively. Behind the scenes women accounted for “just 16 percent of directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2013.”
In terms of race, it is as to be expected:
…black characters only represented 14.1 percent of speaking roles in the top 100 films, a growth of exactly 1.1 percent since 2007. (Non-white characters combined only made up 25.9 percent of speaking roles last year.) And the percentages are even grimmer among directors: of the 107 filmmakers attached to those top 100 films, only 6.5 percent were black men (seven films, from five directors). That’s up an entire half-percent since 2007. Oh, and there were no black women among their ranks last year, and only two total across the six years of the study.
With representation that low, there can never be an expectation that women, nor people of color, will be well represented when it comes time to hand out statues and pats on the back, for jobs well done by committees that are largely formed by white men.
The most popular counterarguments can be broken down as:
For Women: There are just not enough women looking to work behind the scenes, or to write. There are simply not enough women with the talent, creativity, or the skill to produce their works on screen or to allow them to direct movies; unless, of course, they are exceptionally talented, and then, yes let’s give her a chance; maybe.
For People of Color: Well, black people only make up 13% of the population, you cannot expect them to be better represented in Hollywood when they are such a small part of the population in the first place; and, of course – you know, talent.
The problem with these arguments is that it presumes that if one does not see it, it does not exist. (This concept is particularly difficult for people to wrap their minds around if they are one to stop to think about whether or not a tree, that falls in a forest, makes a sound whilst “witnessless.”) What people do not realize about Hollywood is that it is extremely difficult to get in. It is a word of mouth kind of place, and the person that open doors for you tend to be one who is low on melanin and has a penis. This is just a fact. It is their town.
The argument about the population of black people also tend to fall on deaf ears, because first of all – we are not black 13% of the time. We are black 100% of the time. We want to see people, like us, represented in media just like white people, who are white 100% of the time, want to see themselves represented in the media. (As do Latinos, Native Americans and Asians who make up this great melting pot we call the USA.)
Second of all -If we want to go by the rationale that the demographics, of the country we live in, should play a part in how much a particular race is represented in the media, should there not be a whole hell of a lot more Latinos on screen? (Personally, I can do with a lot more of the creatively wonderful, witty and humorous antics that we see when we tune into “Jane the Virgin.”) Also, too… Shouldn’t the sexes even out a bit (a lot) more, if it is just about “demographics?”
We have already determined that only 25.9%, of the on-screen roles go to non-white characters. With black people and Latinos combined, our population sits at 30% and that does not even take into account Asians or Native Americans. With them, we can tack another 5.5% to that total, putting us right at 35.5%. What say you, Hollywood? Can we get 35.5% people of color on the big screen inside any given year? And, real roles, not just opening a door a fancy high-rise building, or wiping down a counter in the background while two white people, in leading roles, chew up the scenery in the foreground. What say you?
Is this nitpicking? Absolutely and one can definitely make the argument that there should not be an arbitrary goal to reach in order to declare Hollywood perfectly diverse, but if you want us to accept that this has to do with demographics, then…………… Let’s make it about demographics.
We cannot exit our discussion of demographics without also mentioning this:
Oscar Voters: 94% White, 76% Men, and an Average of 63 Years OldOlder and more dude-heavy than just about any place in America and whiter than all but seven states.
Getting on screen is really just the first step, anyway. Quality roles for minorities are also hard to come by.
People tend to relate to those who are most like them. They also tend to enjoy seeing people who are like them succeed, most. This inherently stacks the deck against anyone who does not fit into the dominating demographic.
From the perspective of white men in Hollywood – The Decision Makers – that woman, that person of color, MUST live up to their standards of what they find worthy. They must possess something that they, as white men, feel they can relate to on some level. Oftentimes, that level keeps minority and women in a box and stifled creatively. For minorities, especially, these limitations rely heavily on racial stereotypes that tend to only present people of color as caricatures. You know, your Latino maid, or gardener; your “Fresh Off The Boat” Chinese sweatshop worker, or dry cleaner; your loud, promiscuous baby mama, or your irresponsible, thug-life drug-dealing baby daddy. There are many examples of the boxes minorities are thrown in, too many to name, but they all tend to leave the audience, not with a human being, with layers and nuances, who have dreams and desires to lead a productive fulfilled life, but just whatever is there on the surface. It becomes easy to look at any casually dressed young black man and put him into the category of Thug. It becomes easy to look at any young black woman and see her as promiscuous. This is imagery that tends to trickle down into areas of minorities lives in ways that have a meaningful impact of the qualify of life that they lead.
Context does not live on the surface. It takes more.
Why is the Latina a maid? What is her story? How did she get there? What did she leave behind? What are her goals? What are her desires? Can she only ever be a maid? Furthermore what does a white man know about any of that? Does he care to find out? Does he think that others care to find out? Enough to make a profit? What happens when a Latina presents with a script that tells a story that reflects the world she grew up in? That reflects her voice, her humor and what is real in her world; a story that wildly diverges from the reality that most of the people, she has to go through, can relate to?
While the world of entertainment is just that, entertainment, people often underestimate the insidiousness of the media and how it has a direct impact on how the world sees us as people. We are still a largely segregated society. If you are white, living in a white town where you have limited interaction with people of color, your only experience is through TV and movies. Those stereotypes become reality and it is difficult to shake people’s preconceived notions once they have been programmed into them.
Having such one-dimensional portrayals of minorities has real life consequences, not only in America, but around the world. Furthermore, such depth-free characters tend to lead to equally as depth-free movies; movies that can never be worthy of the prestige that an Oscar nomination brings about. It is for this reason that, in the rare instance that there is a movie of the caliber of Selma, it is that much more frustrating and disappointing when it is barely shown recognition.
It is easy to just say, “Well, that person is simply obtuse if they do not get that they cannot judge all people by what they see on a television or movie screen.” Well, we live in a country full of insanely obtuse individuals who think just that and it has been harmful to people of color.
The history of The Academy Awards, The Oscars, is one that began as an institution to reward white men for the works created by white men. It is their night. We will never hear them say that, of course. Not aloud. Not in 2015. Back in the day, before that pesky little Civil Rights Movement (Thanks Dr. King!), this was all a given. But then, Selma happened.
White men in Hollywood do not have the incentive to see that the landscape there looks any differently than it does now. Who willingly gives up power?
Again, these are the people who shape how the world sees EVERYONE – (unless you live in North Korea or a remote part of the world without access to media, of course. Of course). Does anyone really believe that complaining – TO THEM – about the lack of diversity, matters? That it will actually get us anywhere? Sure, they may hire a black woman and post her in a prominent position, but unless that black woman also happens to be a dictator, how much impact can she really have?
Guess what, ladies and gents? They are going to do it again next year, and the year after that, and again after that. You know why? Because, although we technically, have the power to do something about it, they know that we will not.
Hello, Divide and Conquer, you are looking mighty fine, today. Nice and strong, too. No fear of you burning out anytime soon!
And, how does Divide and Conquer flourish in the year 2015? Hello, the Media!
To change Business as Usual, it takes sacrifice. It takes time. It takes blood, sweat and tears; well hopefully not too much blood.
It takes people being willing to pool resources… Not just people, but people of means, people with money. People who have already seen success in the business. Black people, brown people, white women, in the business.
It takes women, who are cast alongside men, demanding that their value is as equally acknowledged as their male costars. (Hello, women of American Hustle!!!)
It takes us, as consumers, saying that we are tired of being underrepresented and misrepresented. It takes us supporting minorities and women who produce and direct films that shows us in a balanced light.
It takes… a ten ton bag of fairy dust, one hundred and fifty thousand fairy godmothers, The Carebear Stare and a trip to Neverland, because, really…
It also takes a willingness to look at our own Award shows and considering them as worthy as winning a Grammy or a golden statuette from the Oscars. Yes, we know that the rest of the world will be hard pressed to view the achievement the same way, but so what? In reality, winning an Oscar has not greatly helped many black actors film careers, has it? In that sense, isn’t an Oscar about as valuable as an NAACP Image Award? Besides, if we ourselves start to view these awards as prestigious and worthy, it goes a lot further to shaping the rest of the world’s perception of it.
It is disheartening to know that people know that there is a problem, but those same people will turn around, tomorrow, buy a ticket to this, that, and the other movie, where women are greatly outnumbered by men, and minorities are greatly mis-and-underrepresented, all in a quest for entertainment and escapism. Black and brown people will continue to accept roles that marginalize them and cast shadows over all other black and brown people in the world. White women will continue to work for less money, although oftentimes they are as big as, or bigger, draws for viewing audiences. And, white men will continue to reap the benefits from the Business as Usual cycle that allows for them, and their vision of the world, to dominate our society.
One of the many things that we take away from the Civil Rights Movement is people’s willingness to sacrifice. Without people willing to sacrifice personally, at much greater stakes than any of us have to sacrifice today, we would not have a Selma to see at the movies. We would not have the heroes that we celebrate.
While things have gotten better, there is still quite a ways to go. Sadly, this post-racial narrative that we have had forced down our throats, so much so that even even many famous people of color have regurgitated the sentiment, has kept us at a standstill. It has impeded progress and, perhaps, has even taken us back a few steps. Thanks “Liberal Hollywood!”
Ultimately, it is our world. We deserve our voices to be heard and for our realities to be reflected back to us. It is not enough to just accept white men shaping the world that Black People, Latinos, Asian people, or Native Americans live in. Especially when it is imagery that has a practical and real negative impact on our lives.
If we want things to be different, we have to be willing to sacrifice and make things different. Part of making things different is acknowledging the truth about what and who Hollywood really is.
Yes, you are catching on – Hollywood is White Men.
In the end, we have to stop looking to the gatekeepers and asking if we may please pass, because the answer will typically be, “No,” and only occasionally will we hear, “Yes.” We will hear just enough ‘yeses’ to answer claims of racial bias with, “But, Whoopi, But Halle, But Denzel, But Jamie, But Lupita…” It will continue to lead to years where we will see movies like ‘Selma,’ and its director “snubbed,” because they can always say, “But… ’12 Years A Slave.'”