Daniel Clowes, whose comic book “Ghost World” inspired Terry Zwigoff’s outstanding 2001 film adaptation, landed a potent dig at the Academy Monday when The New Yorker unveiled his February 29 cover illustration, “Privileged Characters.” Depicting statuettes of a darker hue roped off from the red carpet, it’s a one-glance indictment of the lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations, and all the more devastating for arriving at a moment in which one thing has become abundantly clear: the furor most frequently labeled #OscarsSoWhite is not going away.
On his HBO series “Last Week Tonight” Sunday, John Oliver got in on the game too, memorably (and hilariously) thrashing Hollywood for its history of casting white actors in roles that would logically be played by people of color, from John Wayne as Genghis Khan to Laurence Olivier’s notorious “Othello” blackface. His announcer opened the occasional segment, “Why Is This Still a Thing?,” with the irresistible Oscar hook, calling this year’s nominees “whiter than a yeti in a snowstorm fighting Tilda Swinton” before broadening the condemnation to include the industry as a whole. (Watch the full segment in the video below.)
If Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the Board of Governors had expected to stanch the criticism that followed January’s nominations — which featured not a single person of color among the acting nominees for the second year running — with the swift announcement of sweeping rule changes, their hopes have long since been dashed. Before Oliver’s “evisceration” and Clowes’ magazine cover, a slew of angry responses from members upset with the changes —including Steven Spielberg—suggested that the issue would not be put to bed so easily. Now, according to a report in the New York Times, it appears that the board’s approval of several initiatives may have even violated procedural provisions in the Academy’s bylaws. Several Academy governors have told TOH that the Academy will be lenient about how they enforce—and may even revise— their new voting rules.
As Spike Lee acknowledged in his open letter to the Academy on the #OscarsSoWhite issue, however, the exclusion of women, people of color, and LGBT people from Hollywood filmmaking, on screen and off, runs far deeper than the Academy.
This year’s Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity, released Monday, shows conclusively that Hollywood’s dominance by white, straight men remains intransigent: as both characters in and creators of film, television, and digital content in 2014-2015, women, people of color, and LGBT people were grievously underrepresented compared to their proportion of the U.S. population. “This is not a mere diversity problem,” said the study’s author, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism professor Stacy L. Smith. “This is an inclusion crisis.”
To make matters worse, the studios’ 2016 slates show few signs of improvement. According to USA Today’s diversity report card, which examined 184 announced releases from 14 studios, “almost every studio deserves a reprimand”: no studio received higher than a B, with Paramount’s resounding F bringing up the rear. Hollywood executives hold the purse strings, and until they make a concerted, measurable effort to hire more women, people of color, and LGBT people in major on-set roles — and to green-light projects that tell their stories — the Academy is destined to face future rounds of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. AMPAS has become Bill Murray, and the studios have forced them into a “Groundhog Day”-like dilemma.
Until then, the Academy may simply have to accept egg on its face Sunday night, with host Chris Rock and musical performances by The Weeknd, Lady Gaga, and Sam Smith likely to be a vain attempt to lure coveted younger viewers. And while no widespread, official “boycott” of the proceedings was organized, black leaders in the entertainment industry have, significantly, scheduled their Oscar night plans elsewhere: Comedian Hannibal Burress (“Broad City”) has organized a free #JusticeForFlint event in Michigan, to be attended by snubbed directors Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) and Ryan Coogler (“Creed”), while Russell Simmons announced that FUSION will broadcast his new All Def Movie Awards, honoring black excellence in film, opposite ABC’s Oscar telecast.
With the black directors and stars of two of the year’s most popular films (“Creed,” “Straight Outta Compton”) on the sidelines, and the “Star Wars” juggernaut relegated to the technical categories, this year’s Oscars promise to continue the event’s long, slow ratings slide, as it historically takes blockbusters on the order of “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings” to lure a wide viewership that no longer exists. That’s why ABC keeps pressuring the Academy to so something about their diversity problem, which despite their controversial rule changes, is an industrywide failure that isn’t going away.
When it comes to this year’s ceremony that may be all to the good. The powers that be need to feel the pain themselves before real change arrives.