Last year’s Oscars ceremony in Hollywood was engulfed in controversy over the lack of major nominations for black and minority artists. The controversy this year is even greater with a movement to boycott what are being called the ‘lily white Oscars’.
Does Hollywood and the Academy have a problem with race? Are black and minority actors and artists in the movie industry regarded as second-class citizens, denied a seat at the table of mainstream acceptance even in 2016? This is the inference behind the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter campaign attacking this year’s Oscars ceremony in Hollywood, which sees all twenty acting nominations going to white performers.
This year’s controversy has gained serious traction with a campaign to boycott the ceremony being spearheaded by Jada Pinkett Smith, wife of Hollywood star Will Smith. It’s a boycott campaign which has so far attracted the support of black director Spike Lee, who said: “I would like to thank president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for awarding me an honorary Oscar this past November. I am most appreciative. However my wife, Mrs Tonya Lewis Lee and I will not be attending the Oscar ceremony this coming February. We cannot support it and mean no disrespect to my friends, host Chris Rock and producer Reggie Hudlin, president Isaacs and the Academy. But, how is it possible for the 2nd consecutive year all 20 contenders under the actor category are white? And let’s not even get into the other branches. 40 white actors in 2 years and no flava at all. We can’t act?! WTF!!”
Interestingly, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the President of the Academy who was thanked by Lee in his statement, has added her voice to the criticism of the very academy over which she presides, claiming that it needs “to do more” and that she is “heartbroken and frustrated” at the lack of diversity among this year’s nominations.
So back to the question of if there is indeed a problem, or whether the controversy amounts to one of political correctness? Considering the evidence it is undeniably a case of the former rather than the latter. Firstly, let’s take the composition of the Academy itself. Of its 6,300 members, comprising people involved in the film industry, only 2% are Black, while less than 2% are of Latino ethnicity. There is also a problem when it comes to gender balance within the Academy, given that not only are 94% of its members Caucasian but 77% are also male.
Moreover, it’s not as if there are no strong black and minority candidates for Oscars this year. Samuel L Jackson for his performance in Tarantino’s latest movie, The Hateful Eight, is an obvious contender for best actor, while the aforementioned Will Smith has likewise been surprisingly overlooked for a nomination for best actor, considering his superb performance in one of this year’s stand out movies, Concussion. Other black and minority actors who’ve been bypassed this year are Benicio Del Toro for Sicario, Michael B Jordan for Creed, and the British black actor Idris Alba for Beasts Of No Nation. Meanwhile, the absence of Straight Outta Compton in the Best Film category has likewise drawn fierce criticism.
Jada Pinkett Smith, a major star in her own right, is taking no prisoners when it comes to calling for a boycott of this year’s ceremony, explaining in a series of Tweets that, “At the Oscars people of color are always welcomed to give out awards, even entertain. But we are rarely recognized for our artistic accomplishments. Should people of color refrain from participating all together? People can only treat us in the way in which we allow. With much respect in the midst of deep disappointment.” She followed this up with a video message on Facebook, elaborating on the need for black and minority performers and artists to take a stand over the lack of respect and acknowledgement with which they are receiving within the industry.
For obvious reasons, it will be difficult for many to be sympathetic to the plight of people who are rich and wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of mere mortals, actors and directors who enjoy the inordinate rewards associated with Hollywood. But such a perspective fails to factor in the wider significance of the issues involved and the fact that Hollywood does not exist in isolation from the rest of American society. On the contrary, it both reflects and reinforces societal and cultural norms. Seen in this light what we seem to be witnessing is a return of racism and racist views to mainstream acceptance.
Just consider the evidence. The sheer number of unarmed black people being killed by the police over the past year, the overwhelming number of black and minorities among the largest prison population in the world, the success of Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination for President with its overtly racist attacks on Mexicans and Muslims.
Taken together, what we are witnessing is the mask of equality and freedom slipping from the face of the ‘land of the free’ to expose the ugly reality of a nation in which racism, both conscious and unconscious, is as American as that proverbial apple pie, with Hollywood and this year’s Oscars controversy merely another symptom of the problem.
This is why Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee deserve credit for confronting the issue head on. Along with the Black Lives Matter movement, which has succeeded in forcing the issue of systemic racism in US law enforcement into the mainstream, they are representative of a growing consciousness among blacks and minorities that social and racial harmony in American is at its lowest ebb in decades.
As the writer and director Quentin Tarantino said in an interview explaining his participation in a Black Lives Matter protest march in New York last year: “Police brutality is a problem of white supremacy.”
Sadly, this problem of white supremacy goes further than police brutality. It infects every level of society in a country that was built on the African slave trade and in which African-Americans today continue to treated by too many in positions of power and influence as less than equal.