Breaking Down the #OscarsSoWhite Blowback

When the Oscar nominations were announced earlier this month, people were once again stunned. For the second time in as many years, all the nominees for the acting and directing categories (with one exception) were white. Same goes for the Best Picture nods, which all centered on stories revolving around predominately white casts. As you can imagine in the social media age that we live in these days, the blowback was as swift as it was predictable .

Within hours the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was trending and a number of people in and outside the Hollywood industry were being asked to opine on the topic at hand. I found it interesting the number of ‘mainstream’ news organizations that were quick to lambaste the Academy Awards for their lack of representation, when in fact many of their own newsrooms aren’t exactly beacons of diversity either. Hey Pot, say hello to my main man Kettle.

This issue of a lack of diversity at the Oscars is hardly a new one. The fact that only a handful of black folks (not to mention Latinos and Asians) have won an Oscar since Hattie McDaniel became the first to do so back in 1940, is sadly not surprising. What is surprising is that The Academy (the group of individuals that vote and determine who is nominated and who wins an Oscar) still does not see the error in its ways.

For starters, The Academy’s membership is overwhelmingly white and male and older than the general population. That right there should tell you something. Now current Academy president Cheryl Boone Issacs (the first person of color to hold this title), was dismayed at the lack of diversity and recently pledged to implement some changes to address the issue. The fact remains however that the Academy Awards are simply a reflection of the Hollywood industry. Which is to say that as the industry currently sits, many people of color simply are not getting the opportunities in front of, as well as behind the camera that many of their white counterparts have no problem acquiring. Much of this can be attributed to who runs the major studios and who they decide to bankroll.

It’s no secret that there is not a single person of color in Hollywood who can Greenlight a film. By Greenlight, that means they have final say on whether or not a picture is made. So when people wonder about the paucity of roles for black folks in the studio system, there’s your Exhibit A. Many of the directors and producers within the studio system just so happen to look like the people who head these same companies, so it’s a bit of an ‘Old Boys Network’ if you will. That’s not to suggest that Hollywood won’t take chances on black actors or directors, they’re just simply not as likely to when compared to whites in the same positions.

Outside of Stallone, CREED was shut out of the Oscars

The old Hollywood system is slowly changing however. While often feeling like their stories weren’t being told, or being told in a way where whiteness still occupied the frame, many creatives of color have been using different avenues to get their material out. One such avenue has been the independent route. Ava DuVernay started AFFRM (which is now called ARRAY) which markets and distributes films by people of color, many of whom whose stories don’t fit the traditional studio model. Groups like ARRAY help amplify the voices of members of communities who for far too long have had their stories silenced for a number of reasons. Speaking of independent projects, “Dope,” one of my 2015 movies of the year, was an independent film.

As much progress continues to be made by black and brown creatives outside the realm of Hollywood, the question must be asked when will they truly be welcomed in from the wilderness so to speak? I don’t have a concrete answer to that, but clearly Hollywood and the The Academy will be tasked with finding the appropriate solutions. Perhaps the studios should start sending some recruiters to HBCUs, like their Silicon Valley brethren have recently started doing. Or maybe investing more in the local communities in the Greater Los Angeles Area to get kids from various backgrounds in the studio pipeline. For before you can get nominations, you need opportunities, and Hollywood right now is failing at both.