#OscarSoWhite: lack of black awardees at the Oscars

Following ongoing criticism for the dominance of white actors and actresses at the Academy Awards in recent years, Luca Arfini explains why this bias is so prevalent, and discusses what steps are being taken to address it.

The most discussed theme of this famous night, maybe after Leonardo Di Caprio’s belated win, and the widespread comic viral posts about his difficulty in reaching this goal, is for sure the presumed racism of the Academy Awards.

It is the second consecutive year in which the 20 nominated candidates are all white people. The famed director Spike Lee decided not to take part in the ceremony in Los Angeles as a symbol of protest. His decision was made public on the 18th of January, which is, coincidentally, the birthday of Martin Luther King, who fought for black rights.

Saying that, “the truth is the truth. It is not a lie that it is easier for an African American to become president of the United States of America than to be put in charge of a Hollywood studio. Alternatively, a broadcast or cable network,” Lee stressed the importance of not remaining in silent about this discrimination, and that it is not enough to have some other Oscar categories that feature ethnic minority nominees.

He is not the only voice within the black community who has expressed their disappointment with the situation. As a matter of fact, Jada Pinkett Smith, wife of Will Smith, expressed through social media her decision to join Lee in his decision to boycott the award ceremony. On Facebook, the actress, who according to many deserved a nomination for the film “The Concussion,” wrote that: “Begging for acknowledgement or even asking diminishes dignity and diminishes power – and we are a dignified people, and we are powerful, let’s not forget it.”

Instead the comedian Chris Rock, conductor of the ceremony, defined the Oscars as the white version of the BET Awards, (awards instituted by the Black Entertainment Television network to celebrate African Americans), through a very ironic monologue. “This year, things are going to be a little different. This year, in the In Memoriam package, it is just going to be black people that were shot by the cops on their way to the movies … yes, I said it!”

“Begging for acknowledgement or even asking diminishes dignity and diminishes power – and we are a dignified people, and we are powerful, let’s not forget it.”

Why has this happened?

There are two main points of view on the issue. According to the first one, the fact that non-white women and men are under-represented is due to the structure of world film. There are few films that do not talk about white men, and there are few directors, producers, cinematographers, screenwriters (and so on), non-white or non-men who do their work to such a high level. So we have to blame the professional context if there are few high-level professionals. Therefore, it is difficult to reward the few that are present.

On the contrary, the second point of view, which is the most widespread and shared, says that, if the nominated and the winners of the Oscars are almost always among white males, this is because the ones who decide who wins are often white males. The Oscars are in fact awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (The Academy, for short), an organisation made up of people who are part of each role of cinema (directors, actors, cinematographers, costume designers, etc.). There are about six thousand voters, and they are composed of 93% of white members, of which 76% are men.

The Academy has now decided to respond concretely to these disputes; President Cheryl Boone Isaacs released a statement. He says that the goal of the announced changes is to double the presence of female members and members of different ethnicities. This would lead, with the introduction of two main rules, to an increase in the opportunity to award people of different ethnicities.

New rules

Firstly, the Academy will integrate the traditional process, in which the current members are sponsoring the entry of new members, with the launch of an ambitious global campaign to identify and invite new qualified members representing a greater diversity.

Secondly, there will be a change in the membership rules. Indeed, Academy membership was previously a permanent role, but now to maintain the position, it will be necessary to be active in the film industry. A new member will belong to the Academy for ten years after entry, and you will get another ten years of registration if you continue to work in the industry. After the three decades, you will be eligible for lifetime membership. Anyone nominated for an Oscar, and winners, will get a lifetime membership.

67 years after Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for her performance in Gone with the Wind,” the first black women to win an Oscar, we finally hope to have less discrimination and to put and end to this ongoing issue, which is long over due. Only time will tell.