By Ezra Burnstein
Of the 20 acting nominees for the 2016 Academy Awards, there were a total of zero non-white actors. Such was also the case for the 2015 awards.
For years, the Academy has been hearing complaints of racism. Now these complaints have become overwhelming, gaining much traction on the Internet—#OscarsSoWhite—and in the media. Actors like Jada Pinkett Smith and her husband Will Smith have chosen to boycott this year’s Oscars, and other stars such as Lupita Nyong’o, George Clooney, and Spike Lee have expressed disappointment with the Academy and a need for change. Activists have also called for host Chris Rock to step down, though he is still hosting and says he believes he can do more good by remaining.
It is true that the Academy has an overwhelmingly white membership—membership is lifelong, and many members are older, from a much less diverse time in the film industry—yet a growing number of people, including Academy members and the head of the board, believe that the problem lies in Hollywood.
Though the U.S. population is 40 percent non-white (according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau), studio decision-makers are overwhelmingly white and male. There were 305 eligible films this year; about a handful were made by minority directors, and extremely few were directed by women. As actress Viola Davis said earlier this year during her acceptance speech for the Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy Award, “the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
The Hollywood Reporter published an article quoting multiple Academy members who claim they are appalled by allegations of widespread racism within the Academy. One said, “it was just an incredibly competitive year,” and many have made it clear that they did vote for minority actors. These members have also pointed to deserving white people who didn’t receive nominations, such as actor Michael Keaton, director Steven Spielberg, and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.
Such statements seem to me ridiculous and ignorant of the major problems contributing to this issue. Regardless of whom certain individuals may have voted for, regardless of this year’s competition, there were significantly fewer roles for minority actors. And even black actors who did have major roles—such as The Hateful Eight’s Samuel L. Jackson, Creed’s Michael B. Jordan, Beasts of No Nation’s Idris Elba, or Concussion’s Will Smith—didn’t receive recognition from the Academy. It is absurd and illogical that the recognition of zero non-white actors this year is a harmless, insignificant coincidence.
Political commentator, writer, and television host Bill Maher has a different opinion on the issue. He claims that Hollywood is actually “full of the biggest liberals in the world,” and that their racist tendencies stem from needs as an industry to please foreign markets, particularly China. In his typical condescending tone, he said, “Asians really are racist… They don’t want to see black people generally in their movies.” He goes on to say that the Hollywood executives “pretend to be racist” because they are capitalists and want to sell movies to China. Considering how appalled some Academy members are at being considered racist, ideas like this could make some sense.
This year, the Academy truly heard these complaints. The board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently addressed these issues with an emergency meeting, during which they unanimously voted to make several changes that would add more diversity to the Academy. Board president Cheryl Boone Isaacs has since said, “The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up.”
A Variety article explained these changes. Now Academy memberships last only 10 years and will be renewed only for members who have been active in their respective field. Lifetime memberships will be given only to those who have served three 10-year terms or to those who have been nominated for an Academy Award. There is now a global campaign to identify and recruit qualified potential members who represent greater diversity, and three new positions will be added to the 51-person board for the same reasons. They hope to double the number of woman and diverse members by 2020.
The Academy did not really have a choice in this uncomfortable matter; there was intense worldwide criticism immediately following the nominations’ announcement, and these criticisms are, of course, in line with many other current race issues. There would have been serious repercussions for the Academy and the award ceremony had they not acted quickly. Though we are likely to see more diverse groups of nominees in the future, it will still be hard to look past this during the 2016 Oscars. But props to the Academy for taking steps to address larger issues and facilitate change.