After the nomination committee of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences once again selected a group of all-white actors for nomination at the Oscars, multiple high-profile stars of colour are preparing to boycott the awards ceremony. But should viewers boycott it too? For more, check out our new podcast, Cult Mentality.
Boycott: The Oscars’ issues are more than skin deep
Recently, the annual Academy Award nominations have come under fire for their lack of diversity. For the second year running, all 20 Oscar nominees in the acting categories are white. This failure on the part of the Academy has become a major subject of contention after Jada Pinkett-Smith released a video calling for a boycott of this year’s awards ceremony, in part spawning the #OscarsSoWhite movement on social media and bringing criticisms about Hollywood’s lack of diversity in representation to the forefront of this year’s Oscars buzz.
While the movement has garnered support from notable figures in Hollywood, including Will Smith, Matt Damon, Lupita Nyong’o, and Ava Duvernay to name a few, it has also drawn criticism. Some suggest that having a “diversity checklist” when naming nominees creates a sort of token effort to diversify and prevents merit from being the sole deciding factor. These shallow criticisms fail to understand that the imbalanced voting body of the Academy, comprised mainly of white men (around 72 per cent) has historically shown a clear bias towards films made for and about white people—take last year’s snub of the critically acclaimed Selma and the six nominations that went to American Sniper as one example.
Yet the root of this mess can be traced back to Hollywood’s abysmal record of inclusion where whitewashing roles by hiring from an elite pool of white actors has become the norm. In the past year alone, Emma Stone has portrayed an East Asian character in Aloha, Rooney Mara played an aboriginal woman in Pan and McGill graduate Mackenzie Davis portrayed a character in The Martian that was originally of Korean-American descent. Much of the time, for a person of colour to be nominated for a role in Hollywood, there must be an explicit reason—it must be relevant to the character’s story. If race isn’t considered relevant, a white actor is the default choice. In the case of the Oscars, it makes sense that there is little inclusion of people of colour in the list of nominees when they receive little consideration at a studio-level.
What a boycott of the Oscars can accomplish is, most importantly, to direct attention and awareness toward this cause and begin to take steps towards making changes. The Academy has already promised to double the number of non-white members in its voting body. This is progress, but it is not enough. It does not fix the fact that both the Academy Awards and Hollywood are built on a foundation of racial bias. Creating a lasting change from within must come from innovators who want to be active in combatting the issue. Filmmakers who are allied with the cause must focus on projects where people of colour can be chosen for roles that don’t come with specific racial requirements.
In the meantime, it is worth considering that since the Oscars have had such consistent issues with inclusivity, they should not be thought of as the most prestigious and important ceremony in film. By being seemingly unable to adapt to calls for change, they are becoming a relic of Hollywood’s past where issues of racial bias were brushed under the rug and never questioned. Winning an Oscar is not going to be seen as all that important if the status quo persists. After all, filmmakers, actors, and actresses don’t need to live up to the Oscars’ narrow standards to be recognized anymore.
Ultimately, a boycott of this year’s ceremony will send an important message about how the Academy has failed to rectify its history of bias and exclusion. It can also help foster change in making Hollywood a more inclusive space where whitewashing is a thing of the past; however, it is vital to remember that Hollywood must get itself together and eliminate racial bias in order for the Academy Awards to make a lasting change.
— Selin Altuntur
Don’t Boycott: Diversity at the Oscars is not so black and white
If visitors to the Hollywood Reporter website were to navigate to the Oscars section, they would find multiple articles on display. One of the articles is about Prince winning an Oscar in 1985. It is the only article that is not directly about the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and even then, its first sentence addresses this year’s hottest Oscar topic: The lack of diversity at the Oscars. This topic has been misguidedly blown out of proportion.
Cries of outrage are being heard across social media platforms about the lack of actors of colour nominated among the 20 acting nods. Fingers are being pointed at the 94 per cent white voters in the Academy, with an average age of 63. How could Will Smith have been overlooked for Concussion or Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation? This campaign has reached such a fever pitch that those who have not yet supported it are being persecuted as opposers of diversity.
Unsurprisingly, in this day and age of immediate reaction and unsubstantiated outcry, the facts have been overshadowed by the passion to see people of colour nominated. The demand for diversity at the Oscars is by no means a bad cause, but it’s hard to say that racism is prevalent in the Academy when looking back at the past few years of Oscar nominees and winners. Since the turn of the century, 10 per cent of the Oscar nominations have gone to black actors and in the past decade, and 10 per cent of the winners have been black despite 2015 and 2016 having no black nominees. Seeing as about 12 per cent of the U.S. population is black, the Oscars are more or less proportional in this sense. The real issue is when it comes to other minorities. Latinos, for example, represent roughly 17 per cent of the U.S. population yet have only held 4.9 per cent of roles and also received zero acting nominations this year; however, few have made any effort to debate the omission of Benicio Del Toro for best supporting actor in Sicario. Even though this campaign claims to focus on diversity, black actors are the ones getting the most attention.
Furthermore, the Oscars are and have always been about showcasing the best performances in film, rather than providing a platform for diversity. In spite of the fact that the last two years have yielded no black nominees, it is debatable that actors like David Oyelowo (Selma), Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), Smith, and others were better than the white actors that did get nods. Every year, many actors vie for the five exclusive spots in each category, but a select few manage to get there. The Academy Awards for acting are meant to reward the best performances regardless of race; using it to protest the lack of diversity is simply misplaced. Almost every other award ceremony, such as the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards and the Critic’s Choice Awards, also mirrored the nominations of the Oscars, a clear indication that the demographic makeup of the Academy is not as biased as they are being made out to be. The lack of black nominees is clearly due to the limited amount of prominent black roles rather than a vendetta by the Academy to not recognize non-white performers.
The issue of black representation is not a fight to be taken to the Oscars, where black actors have been proportionally represented, but instead to Hollywood in general. The real injustice towards non-white actors is the opportunity, or lack thereof, given to them to shine, not the acknowledgement of their accomplishments. This problem is prevalent not only for black performers, but all ethnic minorities. Stereotypical casting is a widespread practice in Hollywood, which leads to a shrinking of the pool of roles that are available for minority actors in which to break out and shine.
The thought of taking action against racism is a noble gesture, but misplaced as it is in the case of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, it diminishes what is considered to be a prestigious honour. If the result of this protest is that the number of nominations are increased to accommodate greater diversity, then it only cheapens the honour of being nominated. Perhaps bringing this issue to the forefront will lead to a push to give more roles to minorities, but there is no need to victimize the Academy to achieve that goal. Boycotting the Oscars is like changing the light bulb when the switch is broken.
– Tanveer Ahmed