The Academy Awards: A Reflection of Race in the Film Industry

The Academy Awards have recently come under attack again for a lack of diversity in its nominations. For the second year in a row, none of the 20 acting nominees were people of color. On top of this, there were no Best Picture nominations for a film focusing on characters of color. In response, many actors and celebrities involved in the film industry have called for boycotts of the awards, and for more diverse nominations in the future.

The critics of the Academy are right to do so. There were a number of performances by people of color that deserved a nomination, most notably that of Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation. The criticisms were further exacerbated by the fact that the white writers of Straight Outta Compton were worthy of nomination, while none of its largely black acting ensemble, its director, or the movie as a whole were apparently deserving.

In response, the Academy’s president Cheryl Boone Isaacs recently announced changes to the voting structure that would aim at improving the diversity of eligible voters, with the goal of doubling the number of female and minority voters by 2020, saying, “The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up.”

Within President Isaacs’ quote, however, lies the more systemic issue of racism in the film industry. While the Academy’s critics are right, the lack of diverse nominations is not only the result of old, white Hollywood big-wigs with a prejudice towards actors and directors of color. In determining its nominations, the Academy pulls from the previous year’s pool of major films, very few of which contain actors, actresses, or directors of color. Considering the fact that very few major films in general receive a nomination, the likelihood of a film starring a person of color being nominated dwindles when there are only a handful of such films each year, if any.

Perhaps surprisingly, America’s film industry does tend to be more diverse than that of Europe. Idris Elba (currently one of the most fantastically under-appreciated actors of our time), left England for this reason, eventually landing his role on “The Wire” that would catapult his career from general obscurity to its current state of obscurity among those who don’t know what the BBC is. But, look at his IMDB page, and the films he is apparently “known for” are not those that showcase the depth of his character acting, such as “Luther” or Beasts of No Nation. Rather, they are largely roles in action blockbusters in which his character has relatively little screen time compared to the white star-heroes.

The all-white nominations are thus more a reflection of the film industry, rather than a contained, isolated incident of racism. They are a year’s summation of film companies and producers denying lead roles to people of color, and instead casting them as comic relief embodiments of their racial stereotypes or as the film’s villain. The calls for boycotts, along with the changes the Academy is making, are steps in the right direction. If we want the Oscar nominations to become more diverse, however, there are more steps we need to take, or rather, stop taking.

We perpetuate the superiority of white actors over those of color when we say that James Bond cannot be black, using the weak purist’s argument that Bond was not black in the original Ian Fleming novels, while choosing to ignore that neither was he originally ScottishWelsh, or Irish, and nor did he have blonde hair and blue eyes. We perpetuate the superiority of white actors when we complain about a stormtrooper being black, or when we are relatively complacent in the face of a producer explicitly saying that Spider-Man cannot be black or gay. We also perpetuate it when we allow blatant whitewashing, especially when we turn around and express outrage at a black actor being cast in a traditionally white role.

The film industry is a business like any other, and its lack of color is a reflection of our willingness to support films that whitewash its characters, or deny lead roles to people of color in acting and directing. If we truly want to see a change in the diversity of next year’s Oscar nominees, we must put our money where our mouths are, and go see films starring people of color as well as not supporting those that take away from such goals. In this way, perhaps next year’s voters will have a larger pool of diverse films and performances to choose from than the two or three to which we’ve become accustomed.

For better perspective, here’s a great speech Idris Elba gave in the British Parliament last week (18 January) on diversity in media and film.

Note: Most of this article is about the lack of actors and directors of color. However, the lack of diversity in terms of sexual orientation, gender, physical ability, and other categories, are equally as important. The disparity faced by people of color was emphasized in reference to the recent criticisms of the Academy, which have mostly been on these grounds.


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