by Catherine Arjet
Every award season brings flurry of entertainment news, the majority of which is, honestly, pretty inconsequential. Most years we speculate on which actress will wear the weirdest dress, who will talk the longest after the exit music starts playing, and if Leonardo DiCaprio will EVER win an Oscar. This year, however, a hashtag-turned-social movement highlights the inequalities in the entertainment industry. The trending hashtag #Oscarssowhite took over Twitter after the Academy Awards nominations came out last month featuring, for the second year in a row, an all-white roster in the 20 actors nominated.
So what is the big deal? Some years it just works out like that, right? It doesn’t reflect a systematic suppression of non-white talent that effectively bars actors of color from these prestigious awards, does it? Short answer, yes. It does. And there has been such suppression for quite some time.
Just because we don’t still have Jim Crow laws and Obama is the president does not mean racism is over. To me, this issue boils down to two main points. One, stories about people of color simply aren’t being told as much as they should and two, even when they are, the Academy in particular is not recognizing their performances. Lets look at issue number one first.
Out of 2015’s 50 highest grossing movies, only seven featured non-white actors in leading roles. For a country that is less than 65 percent non-Latino white, 86 percent of movies having non-Latino white leads seems a little high. “But some of those movies are set in times and places where it was mostly white,” you say, “surely Hollywood can be excused for making Cinderella white when it’s a French fairytale, or keeping the Peanuts their original race?” Here’s the thing, not only are you wrong about Cinderella (The first known Cinderella story is Chinese, it’s called Ye Xian. Look it up.) but those screenplays weren’t divinely handed down to the studios, they chose to make them. There are a million stories Hollywood could be telling about non-white people that it simply isn’t. Because of this, actors of color don’t have the same shot white actors do to land those Oscar-bait roles and get on the committee’s radar in the first place.
The second issue I mentioned is that the Academy isn’t recognizing non-white Oscar-worthy performances even when they do happen. While the Oscars nominated zero out of 20 non-white people for acting awards, the Golden Globes nominated two out of 30—still not great, but much better than zero. This of course, doesn’t even cover the actors like Idris Elba, Michael B. Jordan, or Oscar Isaacs who turned incredible performances in Beasts of No Nation, Creed, and Ex Machina respectively, but were snubbed by both major awards institutions. Interestingly, both Creed and Ex Machina earned Oscar nods, just not Jordan or Isaacs. This problem is so big that Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs (an African American woman) promised “Dramatic steps to alter the makeup of (their) membership” in a statement issued by the Academy on January 18th.
So what’s the big takeaway from this? Our entertainment industry, like almost everything in this country, carries with it racist undertones. I’m not trying to say that there are secret societies that plot to keep the Oscars all white, just that these little biases we all have whether we know it or not, come together to create a system of structural racism in the film awards circuit. The first step is acknowledging and analyzing those biases.