Next Thursday, the 88th Academy Awards will air. There’ll be the usual celebrity excitement, some Star Wars jokes, and DiCaprio might finally win an Oscar. There will also be an air of embarrassment. For the second year in a row, all nominees are white.
This hasn’t gone unnoticed, of course. Social media is fuming (#oscarssowhite) and celebrities such as documentary-director Michael Moore and director Spike Lee, whose films have explored racial discrimination, are joining a boycott of the award show. Jada Pinkett Smith has released a video explaining her decision not to attend, and her husband, who wasn’t nominated for Concussion, has since joined her. Janet Hubert, or Aunt Viv from Fresh Prince, attacked the Smiths’ behavior and questioned why anyone should care about what’s going on with something as pompous and ‘high-society’ as the Oscars.
The answer might become more apparent as the Oscars’ nomination process is examined. Ballots are sent out to a little over six thousand voters who have likely met a certain criteria in both the quality and amount of work they’ve done in their field of filmmaking.
New voters are added by way of sponsorship, not application. Alternatively, anyone who wins or is nominated for an Oscar automatically becomes eligible to vote for future awards. These six thousand voters are then asked to write down five nominees for Academy Awards in the one respective field they are assigned. Actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors.
Based on the voting process alone, you might see how the Oscars process is vulnerable to a lack of diversity. White voters make up about ninety-five percent of the vote and male voters seventy-six percent. For an increasingly diverse art, that’s not a very impressive statistic.
Voters may have nominated people they do feel deserve the Oscar, but the resulting list expresses a majority bias that cheapens the nominations. The chances that Will Smith, Idris Elba, and many from Straight Outta Compton just didn’t make the cut is extremely slim. Creed’s Michael B. Jordan doesn’t get a nod, but Sylvester Stallone is nominated for best supporting actor.
The problem runs much deeper than a biased voting party. It exemplifies how fewer roles are offered to minority groups in mainstream Hollywood. White actors are largely the go-to guys. Unless the protagonist’s role specifically requires that a Hispanic or African American actor play them, the part will likely go to a white guy. Films are segregated into black or white movies. Many praised John Boyega’s addition to Star Wars, but he plays the only prominent black character there. If he’s there for the same reason Billy Dee Williams and Samuel L. Jackson were included before him, it might have more to do with marketing than we hope.
The Oscars shouldn’t necessarily matter to the average person. It is just an awards show for celebrities. But right now, it’s the larger trends of Hollywood and mainstream film shrunk down to an easy-to-read example. Changing it for the better would surely be a step in the right direction. Jada Smith’s persuasion to leave mainstream media and act more in minority communities might be a good plan for now, but the industry cannot stay this segregated. Movies should be as diverse their national audience.
The Oscars have been a window for national issues in the past. Marlon Brando sent Shasheen Littlefeather to turn down his Oscar in protest of Native American treatment. Eddie Murphy already spoke about lack of diversity at the 1988 Oscars while presenting the Best Picture award. Next week, there will be plenty of chances for host Chris Rock or any other star to address the deeper meanings of the white-out. The Academy has acknowledged their problem and recently laid out a new plan to diversify their members by 2020. Let’s hope Hollywood does the same to its ranks.