This will be my last piece on the #OscarsSoWhite protests. Several of you have sent me the above statement from Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs for comment, so here’s my $.02 on the matter, which shouldn’t be news to long-time readers of this blog.
In short, I think too much of the burden is being placed on Isaacs’ shoulders, and it’s unfair. The root of the problem doesn’t start with the Academy. Yes, the fact that the membership is predominantly white and male is certainly a problem (one that she’s promised to address as president, in past statements as well as the one above which was released yesterday). However, even if “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton” were both nominated for Best Picture, Will Smith and Michael B. Jordan were nominated for Best Actor, Mya Taylor or Kitana Rodriguez for Best Actress, Ryan Coogler was nominated for Best Director, Idris Elba for Best Supporting Actor, Tessa Thompson and Gugu Mbatha-Raw for Best Supporting Actress, and others, yes, we likely would’ve all been pleased, and there would be no #OscarsSoWhite protests.
But that pleasure will be short-lived, because the Academy Awards are really just one branch of the tree that we call Hollywood. We haven’t gotten to the root of the problem yet. And until that happens, #OscarsSoWhite has many futures ahead of it.
What has to first change is the psychology of those in positions of power, who decide what films get made, what actors are cast, what directors are hired, etc, etc, etc. Until there’s more of a balance in terms of the volume, variety and quality of films made by and about white people compared to those made by and about people of color, nothing really changes. We’ve been here before folks. Just last year these very same conversations and protests were being had. There have certainly been years when the number of black nominees (or nominees of color) have been significant enough to cheer about, and even encourage us to tune in and watch the Oscars event. But those years tend to come around once every 5 years or so, it seems. So it’s not that black talent has been entirely ignored by the Academy, because there have been black nominees and winners over the years. But the problem is the lack of consistency in terms of the volume, variety and quality of black films, or roles for black actors, or films directed by black filmmakers that are greenlit and released theatrically every year. That’s, in part, why we tend to argue a lot over almost every single black film, or role given to black actors, because there are so few of them. We all want to see more of our diversity represented on screen, but that’s simply not happening, and that’s an area where we could really use the help – more-so than at the Oscars.
So I would urge you all to instead aim all your anger and frustrations at the studio executives, the financiers, the producers, maybe even the casting directors who seem to routinely run to the same handful of actors and actresses for almost every role (although they aren’t always the final decision makers in terms of who gets cast). Don’t let these folks off the hook, while you’re busy burying Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Go after them as well. In fact I’d go after them far more forcefully and vigilantly than I would Isaacs. Maybe someone can start the hashtag #HollywoodSoWhite (maybe someone already has); or #HollywoodStudiosSoWhite; or #HollywoodMoneySoWhite… something along those lines. I’m just throwing out possibilities.
I would also encourage you to ask the black Hollywood elite what they are doing to bring about change, since they are in far more powerful and influential positions than any of us are. A boycott of the Oscars by a few isn’t going to do much to change anyone’s mind about anything here, when, ultimately, they really don’t care about us. Maybe it’ll draw some attention to the celebrities themselves, and maybe we’ll all have some exchanges on the lack of diversity in Hollywood, but we’ve been doing that for decades now, and little change has been seen. So maybe it’s time to take a different approach because what we’ve been doing since “The Birth of a Nation” 100 years ago, hasn’t had the kind of effect we’ve been hoping for. Sure, there has been some progress here and there over 100 years, but when I can dig up a *think* piece from 1980 on the lack of opportunity for black people (and people of color in general) in the film business, and read it today, and it still very much has relevance, that implies that very little has changed over time.
But that’s my take in response to the reactions to Isaac’s statement.
Once again, I’ll leave you with this: as Viola Davis said during her Emmy Awards acceptance speech last year, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” That statement is widely applicable. She was given an opportunity to star in a TV series (“How to Get Away With Murder”) playing a character she never gets to embody, and obviously relishing it. And because she’s talented, she excelled and was recognized for her work. But it all started with the opportunity itself. If ABC/Shonda Rhimes had cast a white actress as Annalise Keating, there is no Emmy award nomination and win for Viola Davis. And the fact that Shonda Rhimes is herself a black woman, and one in a position of power, given the success she’s brought to ABC with all her previous series on the network, cannot be overlooked in this case. The opportunity given to Davis may not have been there for her to take advantage of if Rhimes was a white woman. So that’s one example of a black creative in Hollywood using her influence to make a difference. It would be nice to see a lot more of that, from both sides of the aisle.