Why are black people being ignored at the Oscars?

White men dominate the Oscar nominations, despite the success of 12 Years A Slave last year and Selma this year. Why are black people being ignored? asks Louise O’Neill.

IN September 2014, Vulture published an article by Kyle Buchanan entitled, ‘Will This Be The Whitest Oscars in Almost Two Decades?’, in which he analysed recent predictions by 17 of the industry’s most accurate Oscar forecasters.

Buchanan calculated that white actors might take all 20 of the primary Oscar nominations, resulting in the first ceremony in years without an Asian, Hispanic, or black nominee.

It seemed almost impossible at the time, particularly after the success of 12 Years A Slave at last year’s ceremony, in which Lupita Nyong’o took home the Oscar for best supporting actress, and the black director, Steve McQueen, won for best picture.

Why are black people being ignored at the Oscars?

 Yet when the nominations were announced on January 15, Buchanan was proved correct. From original and best adapted screenplay to best director and best cinematography, all the nominations were for white men, and in the four acting categories not a single actor or actress of colour was nominated.

Writers of Colour, a group dedicated to tackling the lack of diversity in the UK’s media, pointed out that this is not unusual.

An article in the Los Angeles Times in December 2013 revealed that 93% of the 6,000 Academy members are white, 76% are male, and the average age is 63.

As Alex Nogales, the president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition has said, they tend to be “a group of people that are more comfortable dealing with people that are like them, and that’s why you have so many stories that are pretty much the same”.

In the last 85 years of the Oscars, nominated actors and actresses were both 88% white, with nominated producers and writers being 98% white.

Jorge Rivas wrote in Fusion that, “of the 80 Oscars that have gone to actors in the last 20 years, 67 have been awarded to white performers”.

Why are black people being ignored at the Oscars?

 However, this is the first time since 1998 that no actors of colour were listed among the nominees, somewhat ironic considering that the first black president of the Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, was recently appointed.

Speaking to the Associated Press about the backlash she said that, “in the last two years, we’ve made greater strides than we ever have in the past toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organisation through admitting new members and more inclusive classes of members.

And, personally, I would love to see and look forward to see a greater cultural diversity among all our nominees in all of our categories.”

Those deemed particularly snubbed by the Academy were Ava DuVernay, director of the Martin Luther King biopic Selma, and David Oyelowo who portrayed King in the same movie.

If DuVernay had been nominated, she would have been the first black woman to receive a best director nomination. Instead she has the ignominious distinction of becoming the ninth woman to be denied a nomination in that category for movies that garnered best picture nominations.

There were issues surrounding Selma’s bid for Oscar glory, most notably that Paramount, the production company that released the movie, only sent out screeners two weeks before the nominations, perhaps because they had erroneously assumed that their Oscar hopes would lie with another Paramount release, Interstellar.

There were also mutterings of historical inaccuracy, with critics saying Selma diminished the role that US president Lyndon Johnson played in the fight for civil rights, portraying him as “patronising and skittish”, according to Maureen Down in the New York Times.

DuVernay is not the first director to take artistic licence with history. The iconic abolitionist Frederick Douglass was removed from Spielberg’s Lincoln, and that movie was nominated for 12 awards in 2013.

Why are black people being ignored at the Oscars?

From this year’s selection of movies, American Sniper, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and Foxcatcher could not be described as 100% historically accurate either, and that hasn’t hurt the volume of nominations accrued.

It is proving very difficult not to come to the conclusion that Selma was largely excluded from the awards because of racial bias.

Of course, as David Carr said in the New York Times, being snubbed for an Oscar “lands fairly low on the list of indignities visited on African-Americans. No unarmed people died, no innocent citizens were patted down or jailed.”

But after a year of great unrest in the US, after the riots and the protests, after the horrors that occurred in Ferguson, after the Mike Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions, after #ICantBreathe trending worldwide, and after #BlackLivesMatter was named the word of the year by the American Dialect Society, the lack of diversity amongst this year’s nominees only highlights the continued, pervasive racism that is plaguing American society.

In an editorial for NPR, the historian Peniel Joseph argues that the criticism of Selma is “part of a larger debate about who owns American history, especially the portions of that history that were led, organised, and shaped in large part by African-Americans... Selma is unapologetic in depicting the movement as one that was primarily led by black women and men...

The real problem many critics have with this film is that it’s too black and too strong. Our popular reimagining of the civil rights movement is that it’s something we all did together and the battle is over; that’s just not true.”

There has been a backlash on social media, with many arguing that a white actor or actress can’t help it if their work is deemed to be superior, and that people of colour should simply “make better movies”.

This is reductive.The lack of diversity has very little to do with talent; race or ethnicity does not affect ability. The issue is not only the quality, but the quantity, of the roles that are being offered to people of colour in comparison to their white peers. They are simply not being offered the same kind of opportunities.

After Nyong’o won last year, one could have predicted that her career would follow a similar trajectory to Jennifer Lawrence’s after the latter’s win for The Silver Lining Playbook. Nyong’o is beautiful, talented, intelligent, and regularly lauded for her impeccable fashion taste on the red carpet. Yet in April 2014, a mere two months after her victory, an article appeared in The Hollywood Reporter where industry experts openly discussed whether her ‘darker skin’ would prove problematic, saying “her dark skin challenges an industry prejudice that traditionally favoured black actresses and performers with lighter complexions”.

That agents and studio executives would feel comfortable openly discussing whether audiences were “ready” for “someone who looks like her, with a distinctly black, African face” in 2014 is astonishing.

Nyong’o is not the only one who has faced difficulty finding roles worthy of her talent as a result of her race.

Viola Davis, twice nominated for Academy Awards, and widely regarded as one of the best actresses of her generation, has been outspoken about her experiences as a woman of colour in Hollywood, telling the New York Times she has tired of being offered roles that she describes as “downtrodden” or “mammy-ish.”

Her nomination for her performance in The Help in 2012 prompted the Association of Black Woman Historians to release a statement saying: “The Help’s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy… the caricature allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low-paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them.”

Davis told Essence magazine at the time that, “Of course I had trepidations.

Why do I have to play the mammy? But what do you do as an actor if one of the most multi-faceted and rich roles you’ve ever been given is a maid in 1962 Mississippi?”.

Speaking to More magazine recently she said: “I don’t have Angelina Jolie/Reese Witherspoon power. I can’t walk into a room and go, ‘I want a movie where I play someone sexy, and I want to be the producer on it.’ I don’t have A-List Caucasian actress choices — that’s the bottom line.”

Taraji P Henson, nominated for best supporting actress for her role in 2009’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, told Ebony magazine that, despite her accomplishments, she is, “treated like I’m on the DList.

I’m still being considered with actresses who haven’t done half the stuff I’ve achieved.”

White actresses are given better roles, more opportunities, and receive more attention in the press.

Since 1989, only eight black women have made the cover of US Vogue, and the calibre of these women is impressive, including Beyoncé, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Rihanna.

In the same period, Blake Lively, best known for her role in teen soap Gossip Girl, has graced the cover three times. As Chloe Angyal of The Hairpin has said, “In rom-com land, love is for white people, and occasionally for Jennifer Lopez.”

The 2005 movie Hitch was the last time two non-Caucasian actors were cast in the leading roles of a major Hollywood romantic comedy, with the studio choosing a Latina actress to star opposite Will Smith, as they feared two black leads would alienate white audiences.

Smith said: “There’s sort of an accepted myth that if you have two black actors, a male and a female, in the lead of a romantic comedy that people around the world don’t want to see it.

We spent $50-something million making this movie and the studio would think that was tough on their investment.”

The leaked Sony emails, in which a producer tells Sony studio head Michael Lynton that Denzel Washington’s movies were underperforming because “in general pictures with an African American lead don’t play well overseas”, only confirms long-held suspicions about deeply entrenched racism among Hollywood’s powerful decision makers.

Movies are supposed to mirror the world in which we live, and yet while over a third of all Americans belong to an ethnic minority, the Bunche Centre report found that 51.2% of the 172 movies surveyed had casts that were 10% minority or less.

Since 2012 was the first year in which the majority of babies born in the US were non-white, and it is predicted by 2042 that the nation’s white population will no longer constitute the majority, it would seem natural that Hollywood adapt to reflect these changes.

As has been usual for the last number of years, the world of television is leading the way, with Fox in particular seeing ratings soar after deciding to tackle their diversity issues.

“Diversity to us is a strategy, not an ideal,” says Nicole Bernard, senior VP of the Audience Strategy unit, who is African-American. 

“It’s about the practice of accepting and understanding how the country is changing in order to grow your business.

The goal for us is (to attract) more viewers. I don’t care what they look like, I just want more.”

With TV shows with casts made up of 50% minorities (such as Fox’s New Girl and Brooklyn Nine Nine and NBC’s The Night Shift) attracting an exponentially larger audience share, it’s clear that diversity is not only the ethical choice, but the sensible business decision.

According to the Motion Picture Association of America, most movie-goers are now women, with Latinos being one of the fastest growing audiences.

It’s time for studios and filmmakers to realise that they don’t need to tell yet another story about a white man in order to make money, and it’s time for the Academy to reward those who do make more diverse movies.

As Boone Issacs said: “It matters that we pay attention to, again, the diversity of voice and opinion and experience, and that it doesn’t slide, it doesn’t slide anywhere except for forward.”


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