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22nd February 2016

Feature: The #OscarsSoWhite controversy

With all of 20 Best Actor nominees at the Oscars being White for a second year running, many are crying out for Hollywood to address its apparent lack of diversity—but where does the root of the problem lie?

Do the Oscars have a major diversity crisis?

If you’re a fellow cinephile, you’ve probably been keeping up with the current torrent that is award season, and have most probably stumbled upon the most talked about topic: #OscarsSoWhite.

Once again, just like last year, people of minority different groups were shut out of all the acting categories and were noticeably missing from behind-the-camera categories as well. Although it is not exactly surprising, it is still frustrating that despite there being so many critically acclaimed films helmed by people of colour, the Academy decides to reward some of the most mediocre movies this year. The black actor and director of Creed were overlooked for their stellar work and instead Sylvester Stallone gets an Oscar nod. Straight Outta Compton scored a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, but the writers are white. Beasts of No Nation has been making waves in all other award shows but was completely ignored by the Academy. Latino actor Oscar Isaac’s performance in Ex Machina went unrecognized as well. The list goes on.

The media hasn’t hesitated to get soundbites on it from prolific personalities in the industry. Fraternity members such as Spike Lee, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith are boycotting the Oscars; and Lupita Nyong’o and Idris Elba have also expressed their disappointment. Yet Whoopi Goldberg commented that it can’t be that racist since they once gave her an Oscar. Not quite sure how that logic works, but alright.

Some White actors agree with the complaints—George Clooney being one of the few who have called Hollywood out on its lack of diversity. Emma Thompson joked that you either have to wait for the old, white men running the show to die off, or kill them off slowly.

Sadly, there are a few white actors out there who remain completely clueless. Helen Mirren, who has been nominated for role in Trumbo, reckons that the lack of diversity just happened to work out that way this year and that perhaps the audience doesn’t want to watch movies about child soldiers—even though such a film didn’t fail to get recognised elsewhere. Kristen Stewart suggested that if they want to be included they should stop complaining and “do something”. Something? Is Kristen Stewart suggesting that she is more sought after than Tessa Thompson or Gugu Mbatha-Raw by doing something more than they did? The most recent and irritating response came from the beloved Meryl Streep, who dismissed the problem by saying: “We’re all from Africa originally.” It’s disheartening to see how oblivious they are to their white privilege.

The only time black actors and filmmakers seemed to catch the attention of the Academy is slavery films, and much less films about daily modern life. It’s clear that part of the solution would be an overhaul of the Academy—whose members are currently overwhelmingly White and male. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the first African American woman to hold this position), has promised that drastic changes will be made to better reflect the diversity of society within the Academy. This issue is a symptom of the racism that still persists in society today, so attitudes will need to change on the outside as well.

– Parizad Mangi


Or should the Academy Awards be solely based on merit?

Yes it is, indeed it is white for the last two years and a lot of people are not happy about it, the Oscars are so white that the President of Academy of Motion Pictures and Science (Cheryl Boone Isaacs) for the last two years belongs to a minority (racial/ethnic minorities), it is so white that among the three recipients of the Governors Award also belong to people of other ethnicities like Spike Lee, and the recipient of both Best Director and Best Picture nominations also going to Alejandro. G. Iñárritu. Moreover, films like Boy and the World by Ale Abreu, When Marnie Was There by Hiromasha Yonebayashi (Animated Feature Film), Theeb by Naji Abu Nowar (Foreign Language Film), Amy by Asif Kapadia (Documentary feature), A Girl in the River by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (Documentary Short), Ave Maria by Basil Khalil (Live Action Short film), Sanjay’s Super Team by Sanjay Patel (Animated Short film), and ‘Earned It’ from Fifty Shades of Grey by Ahamad Balshe (Original Song) got nominated for different important categories. These might not be an overwhelming number of nominations, but they are enough to prove the fact that it is not totally dominated by white nominees.

This also proves that to get nominated for the Oscars, you don’t have to belong to certain type of ethnicity. It is instead, purely on the basis of merit—which doesn’t mean that the films that were not nominated are not good, because they are really good. In fact, the whole year was really good for films. But the point is, to be nominated, the films need to be of excellent standards. The same Academy Awards (with perhaps a few changes in its members) being criticised for the lack of diversity in the nominations, gave 12 Years a Slave an Oscar for Best Picture. And this was not because of the colour of the director, but because of the merit. At the end of the day, a film award should just be decided by the quality of the films.

The debate should be about the process of nominations, they should be more transparent and people should know the number of votes given to a particular film or any other category—for which the nominees are selected. The debate should be about the talent agencies that are a gateway to the industries—where the representation of the ethnic minorities is really feeble—and was also pointed out in the 2015 Hollywood Diversity report.

– Mritunjay Sharma

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