Oscar’s race problem is everyone’s problem
In his demure and understated way, Spike Lee is right. Oscar has a race problem. But as he and others have recently stepped up to underscore — the growing list now includes Will Smith, who announced on Thursday that he would not be attending this year’s Oscar ceremonies — the problem goes far beyond who does and doesn’t get nominated for an Academy Award. The issue has to do with what movies get made, how they get sold, and who gets to be in them. It’s systemic. And it needs to be addressed.
As Smith, a two-time Oscar nominee who some thought might earn another nod for “Concussion,” told “Good Morning America” coanchor Robin Roberts on Thursday, “The nominations reflect the Academy. The Academy reflects the industry [Hollywood] and then the industry reflects America. There is a regressive slide towards separatism, towards racial and religious disharmony, and that’s not the Hollywood that I want to leave behind.”
Let’s recap and then play with some numbers. On Monday, Lee — who won an honorary Oscar last November and whose current film, “Chi-Raq,” came out that same month — took to Instagram with a heavily capitalized screed in which he announced he would not be attending the 88th Academy Awards due to the ongoing lack of diversity in the nominations. As Lee put it, “How Is It Possible For The 2nd Consecutive Year All 20 Contenders Under The Actor Category Are White?” Two days earlier, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith’s wife, had tweeted that she would be skipping the ceremonies.
Neither used the word “boycott” — and Lee specifically reemphasized he wasn’t calling for one in a “Good Morning America” appearance on Wednesday — but that didn’t stop the Rev. Al Sharpton from doing so. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, created last year by broadwayblack.com managing editor April Reign, spread again across social media, and actors David Oyelowo (“Selma”) and Don Cheadle joined in. Even Chris Rock, the host of the upcoming ceremonies, cracked on Twitter that Oscars are “the white BET awards.” On Tuesday, the Academy president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is black, released a statement in which she said, “I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion” and promised that “the Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership.”
That makeup, as became embarrassingly public in a Los Angeles Times article in 2012, is heavily weighted toward the white (94 percent), male (77 percent), and old (86 percent are 50 or older). About 2 percent of Oscar voters are black, and less than 2 percent are Hispanic — or were in 2012, before Isaacs (who became president in 2013) mounted a recruitment drive to alleviate the egregious odds. Since the acting branch, which makes up the largest slice of the Academy pie, nominates performance awards, perhaps the two-year drought simply reflects what voters see in the mirror. (All branches vote the winners in all categories.)
But that hardly begins to address the diversity problem in most American movies — just the ones we say are worthy of awards. As Lee noted in his “GMA” appearance Wednesday, “It goes further than the Academy Awards. It has to go back to the gatekeepers. . . . We’re not in the room. The executives, when they have these green-light meetings quarterly where they look at the scripts — they look at who’s in it and they decide what we’re making and what we’re not making.”
Do the films that come out of Hollywood accurately reflect their audiences? On the most superficial statistical level, perhaps. According to a 2015 Annenberg study of the top 100 box office films in each year from 2007 to 2014, white characters make up 73 percent of speaking roles while blacks make up 12.5 percent. That would seem to roughly correspond with the 2014 US census, with European Americans constituting 73 percent of the total population and African-Americans making up 12.6 percent. (The gender split seems far more uneven, with 30 percent of roles in movies going to the women who, last time anyone checked, make up half of humanity.)
But those numbers only reflect speaking roles, not who’s in the lead versus who gets a supporting part at best and a few lines of dialogue at worst. The American film industry is, as it has ever been, about profit. These days, the top money-makers are franchise action films whose audiences skew male and — a few token characters aside — white. And with Hollywood turning its eyes increasingly toward foreign markets, where explosions and shootouts play better than dialogue and drama, the movies that do get made are looking increasingly and conventionally macho.
While certain black stars, mostly male, are reliable mass audience draws — Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, and Kevin Hart among them — and other performers (Cheadle, Oyelowo, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Samuel L. Jackson, Idris Elba, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jennifer Hudson, Lupita Nyong’o) have been able to mix critical acclaim with a range of box office and awards success, there’s no doubt that Oscar, as a whole, disproportionately scants actors of color. Based on a rough tally, 3 percent of acting nominees in Academy history have been black. Since the start of the 21st century, the percentage has risen to 9 percent, which is some progress. But when you get two years in a row of nominees who don’t begin to reflect the varied breadth of American life — not just black but Hispanic, Asian, and so on — that’s just depressing.
The underlying issue is what kinds of movies and performances are considered awards-worthy, and who sets the conversation. Oscar-nominated films are generally movies perceived to be Good For You, either because they deal with hot-button issues, or are lavish period dramas, or both. When such films address African-American themes and have the proper momentum they might — the operative word is might — enter the race. “12 Years a Slave” is a case in point, as is “The Help,” even though that was more about its white characters. Last year’s “Selma,” by contrast, was shut out of everything except best picture (it lost) and best original song (it won).
By contrast, if a film has actors of color and doesn’t teach a lesson or taste like medicine, it has trouble becoming part of the conversation that starts every September as Oscar prognosticators, handicapping websites, and entertainment journalists begin making their lists. Sylvester Stallone may be a deserving nominee for “Creed,” but why didn’t the movie’s star, Michael B. Jordan, gain traction for his excellent lead performance? Because it’s more naturalistic, less sentimental, than what Stallone is doing? Because the movie’s not about the black experience? (Well, it is, but that’s not how it’s being marketed.)
Will Smith does some of the finest, most nuanced acting of his career in “Concussion.” Is his absence from the best actor race because the movie’s solid without being very exciting? Because Smith doesn’t carry the pop clout he used to — or, conversely, because he’s still deemed too “commercial” and not enough of an artiste? Or because the movie’s not about race (much) and therefore isn’t worth attention from the pundits and the Academy? Because it just happens to star an African-American actor giving a really, really good performance?
Again, this isn’t even factoring in the movies that never get made, the stories that don’t get told, the actors who never get cast. The sorry state of diversity in Hollywood is on everyone — producers, studio heads, marketers, journalists. Everyone except the audience. Until moviegoers are able to see all the endless possibilities they could see, they get a pass. If that makes you feel like boycotting the Oscar telecast on Feb. 28, go right ahead.