For the second year in a row, the Oscars caused a massive upset that overtook social media. In 2015, the hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite started trending when no black actors were nominated in any of the acting categories. This year was more of the same, reviving the 2015 hashtag and adding #OscarsStillSoWhite to the trending topic.
In addition to cyber-fury, some actors, such as Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith, announced that they will be boycotting the awards ceremony.
The public discontent did not go unnoticed. Last Friday, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that it would make radical changes. These changes will affect the academy’s voting requirements, recruiting process and governing structure, all while aiming to increase the diversity of academy membership.
The academy president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs was quoted by the New York Times, saying, “The academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up.”
Isaacs references the heart of the issue: a lack of diversity in the film industry’s major roles. It is easy to blame the lack of black nominees on the majority-white academy voters. This is definitely a part of the issue. In 2012, the LA Times surveyed 5,100 academy members, which made up more than 89 percent of voting members. Of this sample, 94 percent were white. Only 2 percent were black.
From these statistics, it is clear that there is a diversity issue in the academy. Thankfully, as of Friday, steps are being made to remedy that. The academy released frequently asked questions to help clarify the new rules and changes. In this, the academy stated that the board has three new governor seats. The three seats are to be filled by women and racial minorities starting in February. A press release from the academy stated, “The Board’s goal is to commit to doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.”
The efforts of the academy are a step in the right direction, but Isaacs also made a valid point by highlighting the film industry’s shortcomings. While the academy has its faults, it is also impossible to vote for actors who aren’t represented on the silver screen. The 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, published by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African Americans at UCLA, examined 175 theatrical films from 2013. The study revealed that minorities held only 17 percent of lead roles. Caucasians made up 82 percent of directors.
In addition to the lack of diverse roles, the film industry is also being scrutinized for the types of roles given to minorities. Many have said that minorities are often given stereotypical roles, such as the Indian IT guy, the black mammy or the black male gangster. The list goes on. In an interview about the Oscars on the Tonight Show last Thursday, actor Roy Wood Jr. said, “Yeah, we know the rules. If we want to win an Oscar, we have to make a movie about black people being oppressed. White people love feeling bad about how they treated black people, so to make a hit black movie, you need a whip, a firehouse or a Negro spiritual.”
The simple solution would be to offer better, less stereotypical roles to minorities. However, this brings in the uncomfortable affirmative action argument. Would minorities get the roles just because they are minorities or because they are talented?
The long-term solution is diversifying film writing, rather than casting. Rather than catering to the public with popular storylines, writers should look to creating empowering plots for minorities. Writers know what makes money. It is time for them to look beyond their pocketbooks and look to the underrepresented minorities. This will take time, but the shift is possible. If the antiquated academy can make changes, so can the film industry.