By Robert Beeland
This upcoming Sunday, February 28, the 88th annual Academy Awards will be hosted in Los Angeles, California amidst an unsettling and multi-faceted controversy. For the second straight year, no persons of color were nominated for acting Oscars. Up until last year, that hadn’t happened since 1998. Since the nominations were announced, the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite has grown in popularity and even several prominent figures in Hollywood—among them director Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith—have made known their intentions to boycott the event. In response, the Academy announced a plan to diversify its voting membership. In the words of Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, “These new measures regarding governance and voting will have an immediate impact and begin the process of significantly changing our membership composition.” While these efforts are undeniably well-intended, are they enough to truly eliminate the lack of diversity at the Oscars?
A Los Angeles Times study from last month found that Oscar voters are over 90% Caucasian and over 75% male with a median age of 62. These numbers might give some explanation for the recent snubs of minority actors and, hopefully, the Academy’s attempts to bring greater diversity to this group will remedy the issue. Nevertheless, a far greater problem seems to exist in the makeup of the film industry as a whole. Chiwetel Ejiofor in Ridley Scott’s The Martian was the only minority actor in a lead role of the eight movies nominated for best picture. Meanwhile, the only attention that Ryan Coogler’s Creed received from the Academy came in the form of Sylvester Stallone’s nomination as a supporting actor. As a whole, persons of color are far from prominent in most of the movies being produced. In this sense, it would seem that the diversity of the Academy’s voters simply mirrors the diversity of the film industry itself. This, I think, is the greatest issue and, also, the greatest source for confusion.
Movie critic Roger Ebert famously said that movies are “a machine that generates empathy,” and I could not agree more. Movies are a celebration of our abilities as a people—the stories on screen are just as impressive as the technological mastery behind the scenes. It is the culmination of these factors that bring people together, and in 2015, they came together like they never had before. Films like Star Wars: the Force Awakens and Furious 7 saw some of the highest grossing box office returns of all time and featured remarkably diverse casts. While these films, understandably so, did not generate the most enthusiasm among film critics, the scope of their successes is undeniable. In contrast, the overwhelmingly white Oscars of previous years have returned less-than-stellar viewership numbers. It would seem, then, that diversity is a real determinant of overall viewer interest. In the end, people want to see themselves on screen. Whether that screen is in a movie theater or in their own home for the Oscars, people care about seeing their own lives and struggles reflected and recognized in film. If the success of recent and wonderfully diverse movies is any indication, such films will continue to be made. It’s just up to Hollywood to make sure that same diversity spreads across the industry.
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