The #OscarsSoWhite Because the Industry Is Too

by Erin Sands

Every year, when the Academy Awards nominations are announced, it happens: We ask the question, “Why aren’t more actors of color nominated for Academy Awards or represented in the films that are nominated?”

The question comes out of a genuine sense of outrage and the media’s penchant for addressing controversy without solutions. It is then followed by Black Twitter’s call to action in the form of a hashtag. The NAACP makes a statement calling for diversity. The higher-ups at the studios or the industry guilds take a meeting with Al Sharpton and company, and then… well, nothing. Until the next year, when the question is asked again, and the usual suspects commit their usual crimes.

The answer to this question goes beyond who is invited to the party. It should also address who gets to do the inviting. The public’s misconception of the “Academy” is that it is an unbiased entity: A group that objectively sees ALL films put out that year, and based on what was viewed, is bound by some sort of oath to earnestly nominate and award the best of the best. This is why it is so confusing and frustrating for people of color and other marginalized groups when this does not happen.

Well, that simply isn’t so.

Prior to 2011, studios campaigned for Academy Awards nominations during awards season, just like in politics. Academy members were wooed for their votes with expensive mailers, lavish dinners, and plush parties—the bigger the studio, the bigger the budget to “woo” academy members. When smaller studios began to protest that the current system gave bigger studios an unfair advantage, the Academy “banned” the practice.

Today, the larger studios simply hire third party groups to woo Academy members and campaign for their actors and their projects. (Yes, it’s true. Super PACs have come to Hollywood.) Still, the biggest culprit and the greatest influence over who is picked, who is not picked, and why has to do those who have the power to vote within the Academy. The simple truth is this: The people who make up the Academy are 94% Caucasian, 77% male, and 86% of them are over the age of fifty.

Surprise! The Academy is pretty much like the United States Senate—comprised of elderly conservative white men.

If the Academy was 94% African-American and 77% of that group was African-American women, what kinds of movies do you think we would see nominated? What if the Academy was 94% Latino or Asian, and 86% of the voting body were under age forty? Who would be receiving the bulk of the awards?

In no way am I saying that it is acceptable that people of color are excluded from the process in such a shamefully disproportionate way. In fact, it is reprehensible. But when the governing body is only representative of one group of people, what do we expect? They are going to vote for the movies that appeal to them, based on their dispositions and personal life experiences, as would anyone in their position.

So my question is no longer, “Why aren’t more actors of color nominated for Academy Awards or represented in the films that are nominated?” Instead, I believe we should be asking: Why do we esteem an awards show whose governing body is a gross misrepresentation of our country’s cultural landscape, and is subject to being seduced by the wealthy studio Super PACs?

Why are we still waiting for old white men to love us?

I believe the real solution would be to create an awards show whose elective body is purposefully diverse and includes people from a myriad of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. They exist. They are in show business. And they deserve to be heard. I understand the reason for the Image Awards and the Alma Awards, but I look forward to the day when they are obsolete. Gone will be the need to segregate in order to get recognition. We will be able to stand side by side as filmmakers and performers side by side—African-American, Latino, Asian, White, and more—provided with an opportunity to finally be judged by a true group of our peers. (I have a dream!)

Diversity is the wave of the future, because simply put: Diversity makes money. And eventually everyone bows down to the god of commerce. Just ask Fox, who has benefited immensely from adding diversity to their Wednesday night line up with the smash hit Empire, a serial drama featuring a primarily Black cast.

Audiences—especially younger ones—crave diversity. Films featuring multi-ethnic and African-American casts like The War Room, Creed, and Straight Outta Compton are breaking box office records. Networks whose shows answer the call of diversity are rewarded with stellar ratings and happy advertisers. This includes The Walking Dead, The Flash, Scandal, Black-ish, How to Get Away with Murder, Orange is the New Black, Power and a slew of new 2016 network pilots trying to get in on this growing cultural shift.

Billion-dollar brands are now producing products that depict our countries changing landscape—like Apple’s new emojis that feature a variety of skin colors and Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign that celebrates women of all colors, shapes, and sizes. Businesses who want to be profitable in this new emerging America are wisely expanding their customer base to include people of color. We no longer have to wait for big name brands to include products that service our needs. Thanks to technology and globalization, many start-up companies are now creating products inclusive of the diversity and are able to reach wider audiences thanks to social media.

Although the Academy Awards’ voting members have shown themselves to be about as diverse as the Republican Party, the sad truth is that even if the Academy’s voters were more culturally inclusive, it still wouldn’t be enough. In 2015, there simply were not enough films with theatrical distribution featuring actors, directors, writers, and producing of color to compete with other “Oscar-worthy” films in terms of representation.

Thus, our work begins with combating the systemic racial bias rampant within the studios. The UCLA 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, released by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, shows that film studio heads are 94 percent white and 100 percent male; film studio senior management is 92 percent white and 83 percent male; and studio unit heads are 96 percent white and 61 percent male. Once again, this reminds us that women and people of color are not apart of the decision making process. This conundrum forces many up-and-coming African-American filmmakers to self-distribute or pursue small-scale distribution options like Netflix and other streaming outlets.

Over the weekend, actress Jada Pinkett-Smith voiced her disenchantment with the Oscar’s lack of diversity via social media and announced that she will not be watching or attending this year’s ceremony, which then sparked a response video from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air actress Janet Hubert. However, I side with Jada. I believe wholeheartedly this is a crucial moment for African-American actors and filmmakers to take a stand against Hollywood’s exclusion of us. We must demand diversity and inclusion.

It is time for us to create an awards show that is reflective of the ultimate dreamer’s—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—vision. Indeed, perhaps we should replace Oscar, and call the award the “Martin.”

It is a new day. Let us seize this moment by creating a program that honors the excellence and exceptional talents of every member in the entertainment industry, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, or age. My dream is that one day, there will be a little brown girl looking in the mirror, holding her hairbrush and practicing her acceptance speech, knowing that she has just as likely a chance of winning as anybody else.

Photo: Jaguar PS / Shutterstock

Erin Sands is an author, actress, and activist. She is the author of The Dunes, a faith-based book for personal growth, and the creator of The Relevant Post, an online thought leaders forum featuring panel discussions on emerging political and social issues.

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