The Oscars Have a Race Problem

January 22, 2016

By Imaz Athar

To celebrate and commemorate the year’s great films and performances, the Oscars presents wide-ranging categories with endless nominees. Within the long list of categories are a few that draw the most eyes and trigger the most Twitter fingers: Best Actor and Actress in a Leading Role and Best Actor and Actress in a Supporting Role. The unveiling of Oscar nominees in these categories is an exciting ritual that either confirms film lovers’ guesses or sparks debate. It seems that this year’s did a lot more of the latter.

There’s one word that unites all twenty individuals nominated for best leading role and best supporting role: white. Yup, all twenty nominees are white. When all twenty people nominated for the most discussed categories are white, it doesn’t go unnoticed, especially in a year where there were a number of films—including Creed, Concussion, Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation, and Dope—that had outstanding leading and supporting performances from minority actors. Many expressed their discontent with the Oscars slate’s lack of diversity. Almost immediately, #oscarssowhite started trending on Twitter, where much of the general public attributed the Oscars’ diversity problem to racism. More recently, prominent black actors, have also recognized a racial bias within the Academy (the group that selects Oscars nominees)—Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, as well as prolific director Spike Lee, announced they will be boycotting the awards show.

Members of the Academy don’t believe their all-white nominations are the result of racism. In a recent interview, Penelope Ann Miller, a member of the actors branch of the Academy, said that to imply that the lack of diversity is a result of racism “is extremely offensive”. But, the backlash against the Oscars isn’t some form of ‘faux’ outrage stirred up by over-sensitive, PC-minded hippies, like some believe. The outrage is legitimate. The fact that all twenty nominees are white can’t be chalked up to chance or coincidence. There has to be some racial antecedent to the lack of diversity, simply because race is inescapable—it’s omnipresent in our society.

What many, including Miller, don’t seem to understand is that racism is manifested in many forms. Sure, it includes overt, prejudiced verbal and physical attacks, but it’s not exclusive to just that. It’s not like everyone thinks that the members of the Academy are huddling together, yelling obscene things about minority actors before deciding not to nominate them (although, you never know, that could be true). Instead, it’s possible that members of the Academy are expressing a more subtle form of racism that, perhaps, has a more sweeping impact. The process of acquiring and applying socially-constructed beliefs to different races is lifelong, and it’s full of experiences we may not even remember. But, they fill us up, make us who we are, and we unknowingly let these preconceived beliefs guide our actions.

With that said, it’s certainly possible that the Academy has a preconceived and very narrow view of what a Best Actor or Actress looks like based on previous experiences, as a huge majority of previous nominees and winners in the Oscar’s long history have been white. Meanwhile, the Academy may also have a set belief of what types of roles award-winning black actors and actresses should have. The most recent black actors and actresses who have been nominated for awards have played roles as individuals in disadvantaged positions (ie. Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique in Precious, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in The Help, and Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave). It’s almost as if we have a checklist in mind, written by our unconscious, implicit bias—if black actors don’t match our beliefs of what an award-winning role is, they don’t move on. This year, black actors that should’ve been nominated did not play the roles that the Academy believes well-deserving nominees should play. As a result, they remained stuck in the same box that they were put in to begin with.

The Oscars have a race problem—a big one. The huge discussion about the nominees, as well as the boycotts by celebrities, have drawn much-needed attention to the issue. My advice to the Academy is to listen to the uproar, don’t let it blow over. More importantly, they should know their bias. Recognizing unconscious biases can result in moving past the preconceived beliefs of what an Oscar-worthy actor is. But, the racial bias within film runs deeper than the Academy. Minority writers, directors, and producers should have more opportunities to create films than they do today. Currently, a lot of minority actors audition for roles that are created predominantly by white writers for white actors. And, as a result, minority artists are extremely limited in what they can do. If the film industry gave minority filmmakers a chance to create more, and if white filmmakers casted minority actors in roles that are traditionally for whites, minority actors may actually receive the credit they deserve for their outstanding performances.

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