by Roseline Awoyale, Milena Paraschiv, Sean Littlewood
The 88th Academy Awards ceremony took place on the February 28, 2016 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California.
For the second year in a row the ceremony has brought controversy by after announcing a list of nominees that was made up entirely ofl white actors.
This created a larger debate about diversity in Hollywood and in the UK where Idris Elba urged greater diversity in media.
As a result, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who runs the Oscars, issued a statement saying she was “heartbroken”.
A statement from Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs pic.twitter.com/Nqhgc7sbqG
— The Academy (@TheAcademy) 19 January 2016
This year’s ceremony presenter Chris Rock tackled the Oscars diversity row during opening monologue exposing depths of the industry’s race problem through comedy. His task was very difficult as he agreed to host the show before the nominations were announced.
He began his introduction by saying: “Man, I counted at least 15 black people on that montage. I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards.”
The Weekend singer and songwriter Abel Tesfaye is one of the few black nominees for the 2016 Academy Awards. He received a nomination for the soundtrack Earned It, which appeared in the film Fifty Shades of Grey.
In an interview with the LA Times, Tesfaye addressed the #OscarsSoWhite controversy: “Every movie you see now is inspired by diversity. So it’s unfortunate, but I think it’s much deeper than the academy or deeper than the film or music industry. It’s an issue that the nation has been dealing with, and I’m glad this has sparked a conversation … it needed to happen. And good for the academy for trying to make the new changes.”
— BI Entertainment (@BI_Entertain) 2 March 2016
Artefact spoke to Professor Chris Berry at King’s College London, department of Film Studies: “Speaking as a lay person and without my ‘Professor’ hat on, I think there is a lack of diversity and inclusion in the Oscars and in Hollywood as an industry and the films it produces.
“There are various imbalances which, it seems, echo power imbalances in society, so that older, straight, white males get more leading roles, have more powerful roles in the industry, and win more Oscars than matches their population demographic, either in the USA or globally. People of colour, women, and LGBTQ people remain excluded in so many ways.”
Talking about the ‘Oscars so white controversy’, Professor Berry explained: “I understand why Spike Lee would use the #Oscarssowhite hashtag, for sure and he’s right to do that. What bothers me is that this year’s problems, as highlighted by Lee, are part of a longer pattern.”
Even though many others think this is a pattern that needs to be rectified, not everyone agrees. Oscar-winning Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov recently stressed that black actors boycotting the Oscars is “ridiculous”.
Quoting from project casting, Mikhalov said: “Okay for two years in a row, there was no black actors who could compete with others in the best actor or best actress category […] things like that happen,” he said. “So next year, there should be just black actors? Then white ones will be upset.”
Whether or not Mr Mikhalkov truly understands the situation is a real topic of debate considering there haven’t been any black nominees for the Oscars two years in a row.
There are black actors who have played significant roles that possibly deserved at least a nomination. The main question raised is: Was there really no black actor that deserved a nomination for the Oscars in the past two years?
According to Peter Matthews, senior lecturer in BA film and television at University of the Arts London: “Oscars is not diverse enough, they need to think through how the Oscars are conducted. The rules and regulations of the Academy gets in the way of diversity in the denominations … I think they will respond for next year, as this happened last year as well.”
We spoke in more detail to Professor Rosalind Galt, Head of Film Studies at King’s College London and her insight into this #Oscarssowhite controversy.
Talking about Spike Lee’s twitter trend “#Oscarssowhite” she said: “I do agree with it. The #oscarssowhite hashtag is effective because it at once acknowledges a constituency who have always noticed the overwhelming whiteness of mainstream culture and invites those who haven’t previously considered the problem to see it.
“Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood is racist.”
“I also agree with Ava Du Vernay, though, that the important issue is not about who gets to be at the fancy ceremony, but about whether people of colour have the chance to see themselves as real people onscreen. The whiteness of the Oscars is about audiences much more than it is about rewarding actors.”
Would a boycott of the Oscars make a difference? “I don’t think a boycott will make much of a difference, in the short term. The public are not generally very open to millionaires staging protests about their disadvantages, and even if that’s not the whole story, it’s similar to Jennifer Lawrence complaining about unequal pay.
“She should absolutely make the same as her male co-stars but it can be hard to hear this point from someone who makes as much money as she does.
“These protests are best understood in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, without which #oscarssowhite wouldn’t have gained so much traction. Popular cinema is part of a wider conversation about race in the US and beyond – whose lives matter, whose achievements are worth celebrating – and the grassroots protests are where the most significant voices are being heard.”
Cheryl Boone-Isaacs’ decision to change the composition of the Academy was a good move as in her opinion black people are not represented by the academy. She also strongly believes films with black actors from last year deserved a nomination: “I thought Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez from Tangerine were both outstanding.”
— AJ+ (@ajplus) 1 March 2016
Referring to Nikita Mikhalkov’s statement Professor Galt said: “The spectacle of white people revealing their ignorance of how racism works has been the most depressing aspect of this whole issue. From Mikhalkov to Charlotte Rampling and Meryl Streep, white film professionals have illustrated the kind of ignorance that need to be overcome.
“What they don’t see is how racism is structural. Yes, it’s a problem that academy members tend to vote in massive numbers for films that represent experiences familiar to them, and tend to see white actors as more skilled than non-white actors. But the academy is the most superficial aspect of how cinema is shot through with racism.
“Black actors need opportunities: Hollywood needs to green light scripts with meaty parts for non-white actors, and to do that it needs to promote black producers and hire black talent at all levels. We need to think about representation too – about promoting, discussing and valuing films in which black characters are more than support for white experience.”
Even though this year’s nominations did not include films such as Selma, the potential line-up for 2017 looks promising according to Gregory Ellwood from the LA Times.
A few performances to look out for are: Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, Birth based on the true story of the Nat Turner-led slave uprising in 1831 Virginia, Terry George’s early 20th century drama, The Promise, Javier Bardem in The Last Face, Don Cheadle in Miles Ahead, Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Free State of Jones and many others.
Ellwood believes: “At this time in 2014, Selma hadn’t begun filming. At this time last year, The Big Short was still in preproduction. So there’s still time for industry executives to seek out the outstanding work of actors and filmmakers from all ethnic backgrounds.”
Featured image by Harold Neal via Flickr CC