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Diversity wasn’t in Hollywood to start with

by Elijah Bukreev February 2, 2016
Diversity wasn’t in Hollywood to start with

The Academy Awards feature an all white ensemble again, but are the Oscars really to blame?

For another consecutive year, the Oscars are being reprimanded for the lack of diversity in the acting categories. This time, the crowd behind the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag has grown much louder, with just about everyone who is anyone in Hollywood commenting on the issue amidst talks of boycotts and abrupt changes in the Academy’s rules. It’s easy to side with protesters and see an injustice here, but is this furor worth your time at all?

Graphic by Florence Yee.

Graphic by Florence Yee.

The answer is, hardly so. Because, in the end, who has been most vocal about boycotting this Oscar ceremony? None other than Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee, both of whom have a dog in this fight, so to speak. Pinkett Smith’s husband, Will Smith, was the star of Oscar contender Concussion, while Spike Lee directed Chiraq. Neither film ended up being nominated. I can’t be the only one made uncomfortable by the fact that both Pinkett Smith, who was nowhere to be found during last year’s controversy, and Lee are speaking out, as both of them have a personal interest in the Oscar race.

The outrage is made even more absurd by the fact that the Academy has awarded many black actors over the years, with Hattie McDaniel winning an Oscar as early as 1940, at a time of actual racial segregation, and 12 Years a Slave winning Best Picture as recently as 2014. When a film or a performance stands out and has all the ingredients that make it an awards contender, the Academy is known to take notice.

Year after year, once nominations are announced in the month of January, there’s just as much talk about who made the cut than about who didn’t. With only five spots to fill in most categories, and many more contenders, perceived snubs are bound to happen. How do you objectively measure the worth of an acting performance, or even of a film as a whole? Any critical evaluation is subjective to the person who formulates it. There’s no math in deciding who gave the best acting performance—any such opinion is arbitrary.

The Academy has decided that the best performances of the last two years have been given by white people. That is a defendable opinion, which no one should have to apologize for. Can you name an actor of colour who you find deserving of a nomination for a 2014 film? David Oyelowo comes to mind for his role in Selma, and… no one else. What about 2015? Concussion suffered from mixed reviews, while Straight Outta Compton and Creed lacked the prestige to make it into most categories. Idris Elba was the most obvious snub, but Beasts of No Nation was a Netflix production, likely ignored for that reason.

Which is not to say that Hollywood does not have a racial unbalance. It clearly does. Not enough roles are written for actors of colour, not enough minorities are cast in race-neutral roles. Not nearly enough female and ethnic minority directors get to make films that would speak for them. But to criticize the Academy for not nominating films that barely exist in the first place, and to blame that on the racism of its members, is simply dishonest and libelous.

The Academy has now decided to review its rules by disqualifying voters who are inactive in the industry and vowing to include more minority voters for diversity’s sake. What message does that send? These changes, made abruptly with no investigation and only in response to a public outrage, should be taken as an insult to Academy members, who come across not as a whole body of professionals, but as a bunch of segregated communities. The assumption that each member will only vote for people of their own background is in itself a sign of prejudice, and an affront to these people’s professionalism. One change the Academy still has to make is actually requiring its voters to see the very films they vote for.

At the end of the day, there’s nothing academic about an Academy that turns itself into a crowd-pleasing show, that elects to disregard artistry in order to make a cheap political point. While this overblown controversy has gotten so much coverage, how many of you have heard of the events in Flint, MI, a majority African-American city that has found its water contaminated with lead? Now that’s a story worth investing your energy in.

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