My Thoughts on #OscarsSoWhite


Inside the Dolby Theatre, the location of the annual Academy Awards. Photo by Author.

On Thursday, January 14th at 5:30 AM, one could find me cross-legged in front of the live stream of the Academy Awards being displayed on my laptop, as is my tradition. The Oscars are my Super Bowl…albeit a very nerdy, artsy, non-athletic, and pricey Super Bowl (movie tickets are expensive, y’all!), but a Super Bowl nonetheless. As opposed to other years, there was something different about these nominations, and I could feel it as they were being read aloud. Everything was very predictable, with very little surprises or variations from what most entertainment websites were predicting. I was dismayed at the lack of nominations for best writing and directing by Ryan Coogler for Creed, and was shocked for yet another year that all ten slots for Best Picture were not filled, especially with such strong contenders as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Beasts of No Nation, Straight Outta Compton, and Creed completely left out of the race.

It is important to note that initially I did not notice the lack of diversity in the nominees, and I attribute this to it being so early in the morning. It wasn’t until after returning to sleep and waking up a few hours later and hopping back on social media that I discovered the true controversy behind the Oscar nominations in the form of the “hashtag now heard ’round the world,” #OscarsSoWhite.

For the second year in a row, no actors of color were nominated in any of the four acting categories, despite strong and widely considered Oscar-worthy performances by Will Smith and Idris Elba, among others. This sparked outrage amongst many, including Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith, the latter of which encouraged others to boycott the Oscars this year. Other celebrities who voiced their disdain for the snubs included George Clooney, Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who stated shortly after announcing the nominees herself that “[The Academy needs] to do more, and better and more quickly.” Singer Tyrese Gibson even called for this year’s Oscar host, Chris Rock, to step down and boycott the awards himself!

I would like to state straightaway that I do acknowledge the lack of diverse representation during Awards season, but I aim to go a step further: I suggest that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy Awards BOTH undergo immense changes. Allow me to map out what I mean:

  • Let’s take the Academy Awards/Oscars back to their roots.

The first Academy Awards was conceived by Louis B. Mayer as a means to unite artists from the five art forms of film: actors, directors, writers, technicians, and producers. Since then, the Oscars have taken on an entirely different life. It is widely criticized as merely a means for rich celebrities to give each other awards and accolades. The main question buzzing around the red carpet regards which designer each celebrity is wearing and who pulled off which look the best. The first Awards weren’t televised until 1953, and ever since then, securing excellent ratings seems to take precedent: meaningful thank you speeches are almost always cut off in favor of “remaining on time.” Winning an Oscar means increasing personal net worth and each film raking in more money in the box office. Mayer’s original intent has been lost in time, and the Awards are less about togetherness in the industry as much as it is about making the most money. Which brings me to my next point of contention…


Ever since hearing about Melissa Leo’s self-endorsed 2011 Oscar campaign for her supporting role in The Fighter, which ultimately ended up being successful in its mission, I have been disgusted and disenchanted by Oscar campaigning, although it in many cases has become a necessary part of winning an award. I applaud actors such as Michael Fassbender, who so simply put it: “I’m not a politician. I’m an actor.” The Academy members should decide on winners based on their opinions alone, rather than being ‘wined and dined.’ This, once again, brings me to my next topic:

  • What constitutes “The Best?”

It is no secret that only a certain variety of films take away the most Oscar nominations, and these are the widely considered, “artsy” films. You won’t see a film like  Avengers: Age of Ultron take away any major awards, except maybe Best Visual Effects (although this year, it didn’t even secure that much!). What this says is that tentpole or blockbuster films are incapable of being of merit. The fact that movies expected to be critical failures are released directly AFTER Awards season ends emphasizes this notion. Do Oscar producers realize that if popular films were nominated for awards that more people would tune in on Oscar night?

Now, I see both sides to this argument. This is the reason why shows such as The People’s Choice Awards exist; to appease the “common man.” But discounting popular cinema alienates the movie-going audiences and separates tentpole films from arthouse cinema to a polarizing extent. The last major “franchise” film to receive major recognition is The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King in 2003. Other such popular franchise movies that have earned the title of “Best Picture” in the past include Rocky, The Godfather, and The Godfather Part II. There is no denying that tentpole films are capable of artistic merit.

Further confusion for me revolves around why there is such a category as “Foreign Language.” The only film in recent history to break through to the “Best Picture” category as well as “Foreign Language” was the 2012 French-language film, Amour. On their website, the Academy markets themselves as being “a global organization, representing the best of an international art form, and has members in countries all over the world.” While foreign films get recognition, why are they ineligible for wider consideration? Who is to say that the Academy is English-speaking only?

Case and point, take the Swedish-made Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) film versus its American counterpart, remade in 2011 and directed by David Fincher. The Swedish film and the American film both have an equal “certified fresh” rating of 86% from both critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes, yet the Swedish film received no Academy recognition while the American version received five nominations and won one. Another question we should perhaps be asking this supposedly “global organization” is if they are prejudiced against recognizing foreign language films just as much as English language films.

  • The Best Picture 5-10 Rule is Absurd

In attempts to spice things up for the 82nd Academy Awards in 2009, the Academy announced that they would increase the amount of Best Picture nominees from five to ten. After two years of this new method, it was quickly abandoned upon realizing that 2009 and 2010 were challenging years in finding that many “best” movies to nominate. So the rule was amended in 2011 that anywhere from five to ten films could be nominated each year.

This seems to have somehow caused even more problems, especially since this year, only eight films were nominated, leaving two highly coveted spots unfilled and many eligible and worthy films overlooked. On Tuesday, January 26th, a special session will be called to convene the Academy Board of Governors. Rumor has it that the remaining two spots in the Best Picture category will be filled as a result of this meeting, and most likely one of the films added will be the minority-led film Straight Outta Compton. However, if I was a part of any film added as a subsequent category, I would feel just as outraged as never having been included at all: any nominee that is added after the fact is, by definition, an afterthought, and didn’t matter enough the first time to be included until the public caused a stir. Will adding more nominees cause more problems than it solves?

  • Academy Membership

On Thursday, January 21st, the Academy called to order an emergency meeting. What was decided upon during the meeting was disclosed in the following written statement released by the Academy, and the new rules of membership are as follows:

Beginning later this year, each new member’s voting status will last 10 years, and will be renewed if that new member has been active in motion pictures during that decade.  In addition, members will receive lifetime voting rights after three ten-year terms; or if they have won or been nominated for an Academy Award.  We will apply these same standards retroactively to current members.  In other words, if a current member has not been active in the last 10 years they can still qualify by meeting the other criteria.  Those who do not qualify for active status will be moved to emeritus status.  Emeritus members do not pay dues but enjoy all the privileges of membership, except voting.  This will not affect voting for this year’s Oscars.

At the same time, the Academy will supplement the traditional process in which current members sponsor new members by launching an ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity.

In order to immediately increase diversity on the Board of Governors, the Academy will establish three new governor seats that will be nominated by the President for three-year terms and confirmed by the Board.

The Academy will also take immediate action to increase diversity by adding new members who are not Governors to its executive and board committees where key decisions about membership and governance are made. This will allow new members an opportunity to become more active in Academy decision-making and help the organization identify and nurture future leaders.

As of now, of the roughly 6,000 Academy members, nearly 94% of them are caucasian and 77% of them are male. A graphic found here depicts the different ethnicities (or lack thereof) present in the Academy.

The full effect of these new rules are not expected to come about until 2020. This is at least an effort to increase diversity within the voting body of the Academy, but with yet four more years of waiting, will fans lose faith in the Oscars for good, thereby forever changing them?

  • And Finally…Hollywood.

Actress Viola Davis said in regards to this massive diversity controversy, “The problem is not with the Oscars, the problem is with the Hollywood movie-making system. […] You can change the Academy, but if there are no black films being produced, what is there to vote for?” Sadly, the movie business is a business of numbers: How many people were in the audience? How much money did we make this weekend? How much are we over budget? How many days will the production go over? How many sequels can we reasonably make? What score did the critics give us? How much longer can we stay at the top of the box office? Numbers overtake art because the cost of producing a film is a massive investment. This is the reason why the only movies that get made and get a wide release are movies that traditionally do well with a wide audience. This is the reason why we’re getting a fifth Transformers film; crowd pleasers sell.

Personally, I think that audiences are smarter than what producers give us credit for. I think that we can be challenged. I think that a film chocked full of minorities can make as much money (if not more) at the box office as one starring only white actors. I think that a conversation-starting docudrama can make just as much money as this month’s horror flick. But sadly, producers with a lot of influence are not willing to make this investment in case these sort of films don’t see a return in profit. Therefore, these artistic, challenging and unorthodox stories are either tabled forever or banished to the indie circuit, only to be viewed by a few hundred people.

I like a good blockbuster as much as the next person, (hello…Pirates 3 is my favorite movie, people!), and I am the first to advocate that certain Hollywood films have as much artistic merit as anything else, but on the converse, I also firmly believe that unique, original films deserve far more attention and could solve the rampant diversity problem in Hollywood.

It’s time for Hollywood to recognize that they are a main perpetrator in continuing to foster the idea of the “minority.” The word “minority” has a negative, belittling connotation that keeps all who are categorized beneath it feeling disempowered. Though I am caucasian, as I woman, I have at times felt the constraining effects of being a minority firsthand. If the entertainment industry told more diverse stories, I believe that audiences would be more inclined to adopt a more inclusive mindset and help to implement an equal society. And finally, it’s time for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to take materialism and personal gain out of the awards and return to the basic intention of the Oscars, which is to bring together all artists within cinema. Only then can we fully restore faith in this young, blossoming art form.

If life imitates art, it is only fair that art imitates every aspect of human life.


[Image via FreeImages]

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