The Academy Must Honor More Than Straight White People
For 87 years, the Oscars ceremony has been a celebration of the best in the entertainment business. But for 87 years, there has been a sizable lack of diversity when honoring the best of the best with a golden statue. Out of 2,900 Oscar winners since the beginning of the awards show in 1929, only 32 have been African-American, 10 have been Latino and eight have been openly gay. These numbers are appalling.
And today we learned that none of the acting nominations — for best actor, best supporting actor, best actress and best supporting actress — are for people of color.
In Hollywood there is still a perception that people of different cultural backgrounds, sexual orientation, or gender expression are being blacklisted. Though it may be just a rumor now, blacklisting is part of Hollywood's dark history. The original Hollywood blacklist denied employment to screenwriters, actors, directors, and other U.S. entertainment professionals because of their suspected Communist affiliation. But today, the term blacklist refers more to a fear that many working in the industry have. This fear dictates their behavior when speaking up against the injustices within the entertainment industry. Diverse actors, writers, and directors are afraid to speak out because they don't want to be added to the “industry blacklist."
But Oscar nominations aren’t chosen by 12 angry men in a secret room checking names off an imaginary list. It is the duty of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to select those individuals working in entertainment who've shown the highest level of excellence during the previous year. But who are these members of the Academy? In summation, white people. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 2012, the Academy is predominantly white (94 percent of membership as of 2012) and predominantly male (77 percent of membership as of 2012). At the time, black members accounted for just 3 percent of the group, and no statistics on LGBT members were compiled. This is important, because it’s the Academy members who vote for nominees and winners each year. If there is no diversity in the Academy, then how can we expect to see diversity in the nominees and winners?
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is the president of the Academy and an African-American woman, shared her views about diversity in an interview with the Associated Press. "In the last two years," she said, "we've made greater strides than we ever have in the past toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization through admitting new members and more inclusive classes of members.” Her sentiments are altruistic and show good intentions, but little has changed to incorporate more diversity in films and awards shows like the Oscars.
On the eve of the 2015 awards season, Chris Rock, who will be hosting the 2016 Oscars, wrote an eye opening op-ed in The Hollywood Reporter on the lack of diversity in the industry. Hollywood, Rock said, is "a place where at every level, from the top on down, diversity is lagging behind society. It's a white industry.” His observation about how white the entertainment industry and its award shows are is true but not fully accurate. It's not just white; it's straight too.
Its rare to see a proud and out LGBT person win an Oscar in a lead or supporting actor role. It’s been over 30 years since Sir John Gielgud became the first known gay actor to win an Oscar, for his performance in 1981 for the film Arthur, and he didn't even grace the Oscar stage that night. (Gielgud had been outed in the 1950s after London police arrested him for cruising in a public restroom, and was not forthcoming about his sexuality with the press.)
Recently, screenwriter Graham Moore, who won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for The Imitation Game, gave a heartfelt speech at the 2015 Academy Awards that brought the audience to its feet. Referring to the film's protagonist, Alan Turing, a gay man believed to have committed suicide, Moore revealed that he tried to kill himself at 16 "because I felt weird and different and didn’t belong.” He went on to say, "I want this moment to be for that kid ... stay weird, stay different and when it’s your turn ... please pass the same message on.” LGBT people latched on to his words and were excited that one of their own had inspired LGBT youth to be strong and give back. But their pride was short-lived. Moore revealed in an interview after his win, “I’m not gay,” he said; he was just depressed.
But the LGBT audiences's response to his speech, before he came out as straight, showed how important and desired diversity is on the Oscars stage. The power of his words to and their significance to this underrepresented group were immeasurable. Believing we had seen one of our own win made us feel as if we had won too.
The LGBT population wasn't the only disappointed demographic at last year's Oscars. People of color also lamented the fact that every nominated actor was white, despite the release of Selma, a groundbreaking film about the voting rights marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Not a single member of its stellar cast was nominated, nor was its African-American director, Ava Duvernay, even though the film was up for Best Picture.
We are all the sum totals of every positive image we have seen in our lives. But when you don't see yourself, you can begin to question your importance. Thirty-six million people watched the 2015 Academy Awards, which reached over 200 countries around the world. The lack of diversity is sending a clear message to a majority of the audience that you too don't deserve to be recognized.
If the Academy doesn't want the world to believe that a new incarnation of the blacklist is “circulating,” keeping people of different cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations, and gender identities from working and being recognized, then change needs to happen now. This year we can only hope that we will see more diversity among the Oscar nominees for the sake of those millions of people worldwide who watch the Academy Awards. They hope to be seen and validated through the win of someone who looks like them.