On Thursday, Jan. 14, the nominees for the 88th Academy Awards were announced. Within hours of the announcement, social media were overtaken by the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. It was a visceral and immediate Internet reaction to the fact that, for the second year in a row, all of the top nominees were white.
It’s no secret that the Academy Awards have been at the forefront of providing recognition to individuals in the film business for the hard work and dedication they put into their beloved artform. No other awards ceremony comes with the same prestige or honor That being said, the Oscars has found itself at the center of a hailstorm of scrutiny and, perhaps most importantly, it is a scrutiny that is wholly deserved.
The #OscarsSoWhite controversy has stirred feelings of ire and resentment throughout the court of public opinion as well as within the entertainment industry as a whole. Yet, there seems to be a common misconception regarding the controversy itself. We should be careful as a consumers of the media so that we can see the argument against the Oscars clearly.
This is not some sort of hissy fit over not being nominated, nor is the controversy asserting that the work of those who were nominated is somehow lesser than the minorities who were overlooked. This controversy is not asking for quotas of black nominees, nor is it asking that movies like “Creed” or “Straight Outta Compton” be nominated after the fact (all of which is both naive and more or less undoable at this point in time).
Instead, we must look to the systemic racism that has created an environment in which minority actors are overlooked for parts, stereotyped into one-dimensional characters and otherwise discriminated against before they even get the chance to do the Oscar-worthy work that they are more than capable of.
The societal issue at hand is that many talented minorities have repeatedly been overlooked and deprived of the opportunity of winning an Academy Award.
At the most basic level, the people who are doing the casting, the writing and forming the underbelly of the movie industry are mostly white. This isn’t bad, in and of itself, but it translates to a subversive homogeneity that keeps stereotypes alive and cuts off opportunities for minority actors and other industry professionals.
At the core of the issue, people aren’t asking for there to be more black actors who don’t deserve to be cast. What they are saying is that the people at the center of all this, the casting directors, the writers, need to be cognizant of the fact that they might be casting or writing a certain way because of some unconscious bias. They need to look past their own norms and realize that what they see as “necessary” may not actually be so.
The first black woman to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel who won for her role as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind,” a role that serves as the basis for a stereotype that persists to this day. Though her achievement should not be overlooked or revoked, the industry has to take a hard look at their perceived diversity. Go ahead, cast two Indian men in a sitcom who aren’t typecast as terrorists or fresh off the boat because of the color of their skin. It’s not that hard.
In response to the controversy, the Academy has implemented what the Los Angeles Times referred to as “sweeping and historic changes.” Some of those changes include a promise to essentially double the number of minority and women representatives in the Academy by 2020. However, it’s important to note that the Academy’s goals to more properly represent the U.S. population falls short. According to the Los Angelos Times, the Academy’s goal to increase nonwhite membership to 14 percent is still well below the nation’s 38 percent. Though the margin is smaller for the representation of women with the Academy’s goals being 48 percent, and the nation coming in at 51 percent, it still manages to fall short.
While it would be silly to ask the Academy to have a quota for minority representation, we have to ask ourselves if America is that diverse naturally why isn’t the movie industry as naturally diverse? What is stopping it from being an inherently inclusive industry? It might not always be a conscious choice, but acknowledgement of the problem and taking measures against it are the first step to righting this historic wrong.
The Academy Awards has been and will continue to be the prominent authority in honoring cinematic achievements. For minorities with hopes and dreams of becoming an Academy Award winning film star, director, cinematographer or whatever it may be, consider the message that the Academy is sending? It’s unsettling to think that children may feel inadequate or insufficient to chase their dreams because of the color of their skin. The Academy’s actions represent the systemic injustice that faces minorities in various areas of their lives, and a good place to start making visible change is in our entertainment.
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