You don’t have to be a struggling member of the working class to feel disenfranchised by a gamed system. A rising tide of Hollywood’s movie industry professionals are feeling the same way.
For the second year in a row, each and every actor in the 2016 Oscar nominations is white. That’s 20 best actor, actress, supporting actor and supporting actress candidates in Sunday’s telecast, with zero people of color.
That ongoing inequity has launched a very public outcry — call it the Black Roles Matter movement. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite is a trending social media uproar, just as it was in 2015. And the show’s focus now is less on who wins this year than who will be nominated next year.
How did the Oscars find itself in this embarrassing controversy? The competition is overseen by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an exclusive private club of invited industry professionals founded in 1927. Its lack of parity in this year’s acting roster struck Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith as a snub — the power couple said they would skip the ceremony and encouraged others to do the same. Spike Lee, who received an honorary Oscar in November, quickly followed suit, calling the nominees “Lily White” on Instagram. Tyrese Gibson and 50 Cent urged Chris Rock to step down as this year’s Oscars host.
Academy member Don Cheadle, a best actor nominee for the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda,” put it bluntly:
“The Oscars suck,” he said while attending the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, shortly after the all-white slate was announced last month.
He said the exclusive focus of the extravagant awards show is just part of the inequities in a company town. To focus on a popularity contest rather than on which films are put into production “is dealing with the symptom, not the root cause. It has to do with access, it has to do with glass ceilings, the inability of stories, not just black people’s stories,” to explore the range of human experience across gender, racial and ethnic status.
The spectrum of life in the United States doesn’t appear to inspire what gets onto movie screens. A timely, major inclusivity study released Monday paints a bleak image of Hollywood’s blinkered vision. A much higher percentage of white people, men and straight people appear on-screen than in the nation’s demographics, according to the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
More than 11,000 speaking characters were analyzed for gender, racial and ethnic representation and LGBT status in 414 films and scripted TV series released in a recent one-year span. The findings: Only 28 percent were from minority groups — about 10 percentage points less than the makeup of the U.S. population. Just 2 percent of speaking characters were LGBT-identified.
The mind of an Oscar voter
History shows most Oscar-friendly entries are movies by white directors about white people, starring white people. This year, the only nominees from films focused on black characters — Sylvester Stallone as best supporting actor in the “Rocky” reboot “Creed” and the screenwriting team from the hip-hop biopic “Straight Outta Compton” — are white, as well. Maybe that has something to do with who does the voting.
The roster of all the academy’s 5,765 voting members is a closely shielded secret. According to a 2012 study by the Los Angeles Times, the private organization’s associates were 94 percent white and 77 percent male. Blacks were approximately 2 percent of the group, and Latinos less than 2. The academy’s least varied branches were film industry executives and screenwriters, both 98 percent white. The acting branch, 88 percent white, was the most mixed.
The Screen Actors Guild awards, voted on by 160,000 film, TV and radio actors, threw a jab at the Oscars last month, with Idris Elba’s win for best supporting actor in “Beasts of No Nation” seeming like a sharp rebuke. Uzo Aduba, Queen Latifah and Viola Davis were among the night’s other winners.
The academy acknowledged the lack of multiracial representation in a statement released on Martin Luther King Jr. Day: “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,” pledged academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the only black member of the 51-member Board of Governors.
Isaacs promised to lead the organization in dramatic steps to alter the makeup of its membership. That includes recruiting a new class of voters and reducing participation for some longtime members, new rules aimed at doubling the club’s female and minority presence by 2020.
For some Oscar veterans, the sense of an affirmative action initiative feels “overblown,” said Pat Proft, a Twin Cities-based screenwriter (“The Naked Gun”) and director since 1982.
“For me this year, there were films I liked that didn’t have black faces in them,” he said. “But when something’s good, I like it. I don’t care who’s in it. I don’t think people are holding off because there are black people in a movie, that there’s a feeling of racist-prejudice stuff going on.”
In 2014, he enthusiastically supported “12 Years a Slave” to win best picture, hailing it as “a good movie that told something that is good to tell.” This year he applauded the hip-hop biopic “Straight Outta Compton,” helping vote it into the best screenplay race, and hopes the best foreign film title will go to “Theeb,” a World War I drama about the Bedouin Mideast.
“It’s not that I don’t enjoy watching a movie because it has minorities in it. That’s ridiculous,” he said. “I like ‘Theeb.’ It’s all Arabic, so what can I tell you?”
In a discussion about the minimal diversity in the casting of their latest film, “Hail, Caesar!” Joel and Ethan Coen told the Daily Beast that such concerns miss the point of their creative process.
“It’s important to tell the story you’re telling in the right way, which might involve black people or people of whatever heritage or ethnicity,” Ethan said. “Or it might not.”
Joel added: “It’s an absolute, absurd misunderstanding of how things get made to single out any particular story and say, ‘Why isn’t this, that or the other thing [included]?’ It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how stories are written.”
Co-starring parts played by Irma P. Hall and Marlon Wayans in “The Ladykillers” are the only times black actors have had key roles in the Coens’ 17 features.
The color of money
By ignoring diverse stories, the industry may sacrifice other colors. Black and brown may not enthrall Hollywood, but Oscar gold and box office green do.
The Motion Picture Association of America’s theatrical market stats for 2014 found that Hispanics — 17 percent of the population — buy 25 percent of movie tickets, leading any ethnic group. How many more would line up for a film with a Hispanic story line and Hispanic stars? Last year, “Straight Outta Compton,” “Fantastic Four,” “The Perfect Guy” and “War Room,” with blacks in principal roles, led the summer box office for five straight weeks.
Studios consistently underestimate how black-focused movies can perform as they decide which features to greenlight. Presenting his upcoming Miles Davis biography “Miles Ahead” at the Berlin Film Festival, Cheadle explained to reporters what he called “the realities of the business we are in.”
“There are different metrics by which those who are going to spend money on films determine if it’s a good risk or not,” he said. He recruited Scottish-born actor Ewan McGregor as his co-star not simply because he appreciates his talent but because “having a white actor in this film turned out to be a financial imperative.”
To soothe the overall controversy, Oscars organizers promise that Sunday’s ceremony will be the “most diverse ever.” The academy’s push to promote ethnic inclusiveness (and perhaps to court Oscar viewers of color) has recruited a cadre of minority notables to on-camera service positions, announcing trophy winners. The presenters include actors Morgan Freeman, Kerry Washington, Priyanka Chopra and Lee Byung-hun, along with musician John Legend and producer Quincy Jones.
Disney-owned ABC, which will air the Academy Awards through 2020, hopes it doesn’t repeat 2015’s tune-out, when, according to Nielsen data, black viewership fell about 20 percent. That may be partly why ABC this month became the first major broadcaster to hire a black president of entertainment.
Will the furor mark a pivotal turning point? The answer depends on the reaction of the academy and the industry it serves.
The breakout film at January’s Sundance Film Festival — the starting block for many Oscar entries — was “The Birth of a Nation,” a dramatic account of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion. Fox Searchlight, a studio with an impressive roster of Academy Award nominees, bought the independent film for a record $17.5 million, which surely indicates confidence that it can sustain momentum and compete for a host of Oscar gold next February.
That film’s main competition? A slate of 184 movies scheduled for release by 14 Hollywood studios with few featuring significant multiracial casts except for those in superhero and sci-fi/fantasy titles — genres known as Oscar poison.
In other words, change isn’t coming anytime too soon.