As awards season rolls around once again, this year’s lineup of nominees seems to be suffering from the same issue as last year’s: a significant lack of melanin. That’s right, for the second year in a row there are no black actors – or any actors of colour for that matter – nominated for the Academy Awards, despite there having been a notable number of films released in the past year starring people of colour. Performances by prominent black actors Idris Elba, Will Smith, Michael B. Jordan, and John Boyega have been snubbed this year.
The Oscars have again lived up to the expectations of racism and narrow-mindedness they’ve earned from wary audiences, who are growing increasingly tired of the Academy’s neglect of black actors. In 87 years of Academy awards, less than 4 per cent of acting Oscars have been awarded to black actors; of that number, only one black actress has ever won in the Best Actress category, along with six black actors in the Best Actor category. 98 per cent of producers and writers in the Academy are white, along with 94 per cent of the Academy voters (who decide who’s going to win). In the last ten years, no winners of acting Oscars have been of Latino, Asian, or Indigenous heritage. The Oscars continue to be dominated by whiteness, as does the movie industry as a whole. Many black actors have become so frustrated with this process of lather, rinse, repeat racism that they have chosen to boycott the Oscars.
Jada Pinkett Smith was the first to advocate for the initiative. “Is it time that people of colour recognize how much power and influence we have amassed, that we no longer need to ask to be invited anywhere?” she said in a video posted on Facebook. “Begging for acknowledgement, or even asking, diminishes dignity and diminishes power. And we are a dignified people, and we are powerful – let’s not forget it.”
Director Spike Lee voiced his disapproval of the Academy on Instagram, captioning a photo of a young Martin Luther King, Jr. with, “How Is It Possible For The 2nd Consecutive Year All 20 Contenders Under The Actor Category Are White? And Let’s Not Even Get Into The Other Branches. 40 White Actors In 2 Years And No Flava At All. We Can’t Act?! WTF!!”
David Oyelowo who himself is an Academy member and was a prominent figure in the same discussion on race at last year’s awards after his performance in Selma was snubbed said a few days ago, “For twenty opportunities to celebrate actors of colour, actresses of colour, to be missed last year is one thing; for that to happen again this year is unforgivable.”
“The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win […] for roles that are simply not there.”
Oscar nominations are just the tip of the iceberg. As abysmal as representation in front of the camera is, the situation is worse behind the scenes. As of 2013, directors of colour made up only 17 per cent of all Hollywood directors, and writers of colour made up a measly 11 per cent of Hollywood writers – all of this despite people of colour making up about 40 per cent of the U.S. general population. Those numbers, though atrocious to begin with, have been steadily decreasing since then. The problem black actors are up against in Hollywood is twofold: first, it seems that, for the most part, black creators are the only ones willing to create worthwhile opportunities for black actors; and second, the mainstream opportunities for these black creators are quickly drying up. As many incredibly talented and willing performers of colour as there are in Hollywood, there are almost no opportunities provided by mainstream Hollywood for them to pursue worthwhile roles. Viola Davis, in her acceptance speech at the Emmys last September, said, “The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win […] for roles that are simply not there.”
Indeed, the roles that are offered to black actors by mainstream white directors are most often characterized by their subjugation: roles of slaves, servants, criminals, and other poor, suffering characters, most often frozen in historical narratives that set up black characters as victims, subservient to dominant white characters. These narratives are by far the most lauded among white Hollywood elites. While these narratives do reflect aspects of American history, they are not the only narratives to which black people can relate or by which they should be represented. Stories of triumph, power, and autonomy of black characters go unrecognized by institutions like the Academy in favour of violent narratives of subjugation. The case of 12 Years a Slave being awarded with an Oscar while Selma was neglected is a perfect example of this perpetuation of marginalizing narratives. Even outside the genre of drama, black actors are often relegated to the role of sidekick. When is the last time mainstream white Hollywood made a romantic comedy or science fiction movie starring black leads?
The root of this refusal to incorporate people of colour into mainstream movies lies in the association of whiteness with the default. When directors and writers come up with movie pitches, their character descriptions do not necessarily call for white actors explicitly – however, during the process of casting, it seems to never register with filmmakers that they could cast an Asian or Latino actor and have the story play out exactly as it would have with a white lead. Because of the socialization of the Western world to view whiteness as the norm, and people of colour as the ‘other,’ diversity continues to be neglected in Hollywood. Further still, when a film does include black actors, it then becomes labeled (and often dismissed) as a ‘black movie’; the same goes for other racial groups. On the flipside, audiences comprising people of colour do not have the luxury of dismissing movies which lack representation, because right now in Hollywood, every movie is a ‘white movie.’
Hollywood’s racism is becoming increasingly stark in the face of changing audience demographics – people of colour are overtaking white audiences as being the largest consumers of Hollywood media, and it only makes sense that what’s on screen should shift to mirror this change.
In the face of this building criticism, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a black woman herself, released an official statement about the issue. “I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes.”
In the days after Boone’s statement was released, the Academy underwent some changes in policy in an attempt to increase diversity. Most notably, membership rules have changed to offer more opportunities to younger members of the Hollywood community. The changes made do not guarantee an increase in race and gender diversity – they do not even explicitly address the issue of diversity. That being said, there is the potential for these changes to improve the state of representation in the Academy.
However, as many times as the Academy promises to make amends for its blatant neglect of black actors and other actors of colour, actors and activists alike will only be convinced when the results of diversity measures become visible. It’s about time for filmmakers to realize that even though Hollywood may have started off as a white man’s game, it certainly isn’t anymore.
Minority Report is a column that deconstructs racism through an intersectional lens. Inori Roy-Khan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.