Why are the #OscarsSoWhite?

Domonique Hamilton Archive

Photo by Cliff via Flickr

On January 14th, the nominations for the 88th Academy Awards were announced. And to many’s astonishment, for the second year in a row, none of the 20 categories held an African American nominee. This could not have been due to a lack of content or talent exhibited by Black actors and actresses. There were a number of films in 2015 which featured outstanding performances by African Americans casts. Fan favorites like “Concussion,” “Beasts of A Nation,” “Straight Out of Compton,” “Creed,” and “The Hateful Eight” took dominated the box offices for weeks yet were snubbed at nomination time.

 Due to this depressing turnout, many accredited Black celebrities have decided to boycott the prestigious awards show, including Oscar winning director Spike Lee.

Lee took to Instagram, during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, to share his reasoning for boycotting the show, tokening the hashtag that has spread across social media, #OscarsSoWhite. Lee proceeded to state that he and his wife would not support the show due to the extreme lack of African American nominees. “40 White Actors In 2 Years And No Flava At All. We Cant Act?! WTF!!,” he wrote.

Actress Jada Pickett-Smith, whose husband Will Smith starred in the movie Concussion, also decided to protest the show, posting a video on Facebook, urging the Black community to “let the Academy do them, and let’s do us.”

This situation, however, begs the question of why? Why has there been no Black nominees for the Oscars in the last two years? Why, historically, has there been a minuscule amount of Black people nominated, and awarded, at these shows?

Are the Oscars inherently racist?

To answer this question, the most important factor that should be examined is how the Oscars came to be and who votes for the Oscars?

 The first Oscars occurred in spring of 1929, a time in which racism and discrimination against African Americans was blatantly expressed throughout America. During this time, the Oscars was a mainstream entity that catered to white people. It was not until ten years later that the first African American, Hattie McDaniel, won an Academy award for Best Supporting Actress in the film “Gone With the Wind.”

 Throughout the history of the awards show, less than 100 African Americans have ever been nominated, and out of that only 32 have won Oscars. These disproportionate numbers are highlighted when juxtaposed to the total 2900 nominees in the shows 87 year run.

Who gets to vote? The  Academy is made up of people who hold weight and prestige in the film industry. A revealing survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times in 2013 shined a light on the demographic of the shows voters. According to the newspaper, over 90% are White, over 70% of them are men and the average age ranges around the early 60’s. Only 2% of the Academy members are Black.

That explains a lot.

 The lack of diversity among those in the voting caucus directly reflects the unequal nomination disparity among African American actors and actresses.

Not all stars agree with the Oscars boycott. Whoopi Goldberg, another African American Oscar winner, refuses to boycott the Oscars, not seeing it as an optimal solution. She believes the problem lies not with the voters but a lack of Black representation in major movies due to lack of interest and financing. She stated on The View that “boycotting doesn’t work. . . so I’m not going to boycott, but I’m going to continue to bi—, as I have, all year round, because I’m tired of seeing movies where no one is represented except a bit of the population.”

 Actress Viola Davis echoed Goldberg’s ideas surrounding the lack of opportunity for Black actors and actresses in her 2015 Emmy’s acceptance speech stating “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” 

In light of the #OscarssoWhite dilemma the time may have come for necessary conversations surrounding diversity in Hollywood. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Assistant Director and Associate Researcher at UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, Ana-Christina Ramón. She said “People will take Notice.” The President of the Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs (a Black woman might I add), was appalled by this year’s lack of diversity and added that they would be taking “dramatic steps” towards fixing this imbalance because “it’s time for big change.”

This controversy with the Oscars only displays how much further African Americans have to go to finally achieve true equality in America. From the war against police brutality all the way to prejudice and non-representation in Hollywood, African Americans continue to fight to get the same recognition and respect that those with White privilege are born with. And though the Black community as a whole has come a long way since Hattie McDaniel won her Academy Award, we still have a long way to go.