Are the Oscars Still So White?

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Bringing true representation to Hollywood requires that we pay attention more than one night a year.

By Brandon Tensley

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Director Ava DuVernay speaks onstage at the Outstanding Director’s Award during the 32nd Santa Barbara International Film Festival at the Arlington Theatre on February 7th, 2017, in Santa Barbara, California. (Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

Awards ceremonies this year have already been marked with racial tension, and it’s hard to think about the 89th Academy Awards without also thinking about Ava DuVernay’s snub in 2015 — the year that gave us #OscarsSoWhite. While Selma scooped up Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Song that year, its director, DuVernay, and its star, David Oyelowo, weren’t even in the running for any of that year’s gold statues.

Yet despite increased discussion around the awards’ pattern of excluding non-white work, 2016 was more of the same — all 20 of the nominees in the lead and supporting categories were white, leading critics to take up the hashtag once again. (Particularly galling to many was the fact that Ryan Coogler’s Creed, an all-around excellent film that revived the Rocky franchise and was tipped to land Oscar nods in several of the major categories, secured only one — for the film’s white co-star, Sylvester Stallone.)

Now, two very white years later, have the Oscars — a stamp of approval saying that you belong in American cinema — gotten better at recognizing the work of people of color? Let’s have a look.

Over the past year, black performers, especially, have ruled Hollywood both at the box office and critically. They’ve slapped down the idea that black isn’t bankable.

Denzel Washington’s role in Fences has earned him a nomination for Best Actor, and Ruth Negga is vying for Best Actress for her performance in Loving. The Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories are also noticeably less lily-white than in past years. In the former category are Dev Patel (Lion) and Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), with Viola Davis (Fences), Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures), and Naomie Harris (Moonlight) in the latter category. Meanwhile, Barry Jenkins is up for Best Director for his poignant drama Moonlight, a film that, with eight Oscar nominations, is tied for the second-most nominations at this year’s ceremony.

This isn’t nothing. Over the past year, black performers, especially, have ruled Hollywood both at the box office and critically. They’ve slapped down the idea that black isn’t bankable — Hidden Figures has raked in over $150 million globally, and Moonlight, despite having had only some $5 million to work with, has grossed over four times its budget — while also allowing black people to move and speak with a depth that we aren’t typically afforded onscreen, in a medium that carries huge cultural cachet.

Of course, Hollywood has a skittish relationship with racial progress — a relationship that’s almost as old as the ceremony itself. So the key concern should be one of momentum, and how people of color might keep it going.

Perhaps one tack to keep the needle of progress moving is to shake up the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hosts the awards each year. Luckily, this process is already underway. Last year, following the reanimated backlash against the Oscars, the Academy announced a series of changes in an attempt to fix the persistent paleness of the ceremony, making a commitment to “[double] the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.” (In 2016, the Los Angeles Timeslaid out just how ambitious this challenge will be, reporting that Oscar voters that year were 91 percent white and 76 percent male.)

Yet this doesn’t entirely crack the code of how to solve Hollywood’s race problem. Other, deeper aspects of the film industry’s racial myopia are its choice of black stories — almost invariably, award-worthy titles tend to center around slavery, where blackness is put onscreen to expiate a white audience — and the reality that structural racism within the business shuts out non-black marginalized groups too. To get at these more entrenched biases will require a fundamental shift behind the screen — not just on it.

As Jezebel’s Kara Brown, who’s doggedlyfollowed Hollywood’s penchant for whitewashing, told me in an interview: “There’s a conversation to be had that asks, where else are people of color [besides on the big screen]? Are we in the boardrooms? In the development positions? Are we doing the editing? We should be everywhere.” She continued: “Think of all the films that have been passed over because the people making those decisions weren’t able to recognize art unfamiliar to them. We need to be in those positions.”

Indeed, involving artists of color throughout the entire production process, instead of merely plugging them in when it’s time to cast and shoot, is crucial. According to the University of California–Los Angeles’ 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report, minorities make up only 10.1 percent of Hollywood directors. Ramping up diversity behind the camera would, at a minimum, prevent the skewed representation that Hollywood has perfected. For instance,Hidden Figures tells the under-sung story of a small army of black women whose contributions to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the 1960s were key to several historic space missions, such as putting John Glenn into orbit. It’s an important, feel-good film, but it also shines a light on how whiteness so often takes center-stage, even in black work. We see this when Kevin Costner’s character dramatically desegregates the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s bathrooms for his ace mathematician, played by Taraji P. Henson.

Hidden Figures wasn’t written or directed by black people, and I could tell that,” Brown said, drawing distinctions between the Space Race drama and other Oscar darlings, such as 13th and I Am Not Your Negro, directed by black filmmakers DuVernay and Raoul Peck, respectively. “But [Hidden Figures] is also in line with the sorts of experiences that Hollywood acknowledges. It’s set during the civil rights movement, and white Americans eventually come around and save the day — because God forbid black women overcome discrimination on their own.”

In a few days, Oscar chatter will address whether the ceremony actually reflects fundamental change — or is continuing as an avatar of whiteness. Davis, after sweeping the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards for her performance in Fences, spoke to this point, saying at a press conference, “I believe what still is a deficiency is that we have one year a plethora of African-American movies, and then the next year nothing.” Davis cautioned further, adding that, given how few black Americans feature in predictions being floated for next year’s awards, we may already be looking at black backsliding.

Correcting Hollywood’s genteel racism won’t come easily. Neither will it come comfortably. Rather, it demands that we recognize (including with our pockets, since the industry recognizes films that make a lot of money) the excellence of work by people of color. It demands, as well, that we don’t tune into the Oscars on Sunday and then tune out the conversations on the value — always real, never imagined — of non-white art for the rest of the year. Truly doing justice to the wealth of talent out there has to be an unapologetic, unflinching, and unyielding task — or else we’ll just return to another, paler time.

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