By Hugo Harris
Fourteen, a mere fourteen. That is the number of African American actors who have won an Academy Award and here is the full list for you to recite: Forest Whitaker, Jamie Foxx, Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding Jr., Louis Gossett Jr., Hattie McDaniel, Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson, Lupita Nyong’o, Octavia Spencer and Mo’Nique. Not long is it. You hardly need pause for breath. Yet, it is #OscarsSoWhite trending that is causing Academy members to inhale deeply.
I have to confess, The Big Short is my choice for 2016’s Best Picture. The movie isn’t a bastion of diversity itself – white men dominate its Wall Street setting – but that’s another argument for a later date. The point is The Big Short infuriated me much in the same way this recent Oscars controversy has, and it is all to do with ‘the system’. Yes ‘the system’, that rage inducing, nebulous concept. For all their faults, it is downright wrong to blame a particular bank or banker for the 2008 financial crisis. In much the same vein, it is impossible to identify a single person responsible for the diversity crisis facing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. How can it be that the 20 best film performances of the last two years were all made by white actors when at the same time the demographics of Oscar winners look relatively progressive? In a country where African Americans account for 12.6% of its population and an outrageously high 361 out of 438 members of the Unites States House of Representatives are white males (that’s a staggering 82%). Meanwhile, a semi-respectable 10% of Oscar acting nominees since 2000 have been African American.
So, how to topple ‘the system’? Michael Caine and Charlotte Rampling might not be too bothered about the situation at hand but make no mistake the Academy are desperately trying to avoid a repeat of this year’s and 2015’s PR disaster. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, elected to the Presidency of the Academy in 2013 as the first African American holder of the office, has realised that the Academy needs to do more; nevertheless, the ‘big changes’ already mooted appear just as pedestrian as David Cameron’s EU negotiation. Sure, doubling female and minority membership of the Academy by 2020 is a welcome move, but if sustained recognition for the talent of ethnic minority actors is to be achieved, a significant cultural change in the Academy’s membership is far more necessary than the suggested alteration/box-ticking exercise.
Those in the wider movie industry of course need to step up; studios, agents and casting directors can all play a part in promoting a more inclusive environment. Closer to home though, the Academy somehow needs to stop awarding Oscars to actors who fit their narrow-minded remit of what an ‘excellent performance’ is. ‘Bravo!’ members might have bellowed when Lupita Nyong’o transformed into the role of an oppressed, downtrodden slave – I can hear imagine their nauseatingly saccharine comments now: ‘what a worthy, admirable and (most cloying) brave effort’. You can tell, the moment they watch African Americans, Latinos or even anti-establishment white males expressing their own ‘unorthodox’ culture, everything changes. I swear you can see all 6,261 voting members recoil in the Dolby Theatre, nostrils flaring. Creed and Straight Outta Compton – this years’ most notable snubbees – are both perfect examples of how Academy members simply, albeit sinisterly, say ‘That’s not for us’.
Thank God or – when in Rome – Xenu, Hollywood’s finest are now uniting in a concerted attempt to combat this discrimination. Will and Jada-Pinkett Smith initiated cries of ‘action’ by announcing they would boycott the Oscars ceremony on the 28th and Spike Lee recently withdrew his attendance in support. Chris Rock, the ceremony’s African American host this year, could really twist the knife and make the event very, very awkward indeed. So there is a chance, however slim, that a cultural rejuvenation could actually be enforced upon the Academy. Quotas would only ruin the integrity of the Oscars and, as the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) Awards show – props to them for bestowing two awards upon Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation – most people are waiting in open arms to accept greater equality. Come February 2017, let’s all hope Michael B. Jordan and Viola Davies join the fourteen.
Image Courtesy of Youtube
This video, released before last year’s event, highlights that this is no new phenomenon for the Oscars, but goes way back.