The Problem Isn’t #OscarsSoWhite; It’s #HollywoodSoWhite


“People ‘mad’ that no black actors were nominated for Oscars seem to be forgetting that racism was cured 12 years ago by the film Crash,” tweeted comedian Rob Delaney, a few hours after this year’s Oscar nominations were announced and denizens of the Internet reacted with predictable outrage over the homogeneity of the competition. They were angry about how underrepresented non-white artists were going to be at next month’s ceremony; he was ridiculing the notion that anybody should expect satisfaction in matters of racial diversity from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

And for good reason. For the second year running, there are no people of color nominated for acting Oscars. There are no black directors, no black composers, no black cinematographers. Not a single one of the 17 writers nominated in two screenplay categories is black.

Clearly, something is up. Like last year, some are citing that oft-repeated statistic, that Academy voters are 94% white, 76% male, and on average 63 years of age. So assuming that makes all such people less likely to vote for non-white candidates – and that’s a bold assumption – how different would the lineup have looked if voted for by an Academy more open to candidates of any color?

Well, probably not much – because of a dearth of options in the first place. There weren’t zero black artists in the running for 2016; there were just, like most years, very few. Straight Outta Compton appeared ideal for a Best Picture nomination, and it does seem odd that AMPAS has passed up the opportunity to recognize a generic music biopic (a well-made one, but still) beyond a screenplay nod. Beasts of No Nation’s Idris Elba was perhaps more deserving of a Best Supporting Actor nom than The Revenant’s exceedingly hammy Tom Hardy, while Michael B. Jordan could have made a show for Creed in Best Actor, over The Danish Girl’s dull-as-dishwater Eddie Redmayne. But for whatever reason, these big hitters missed out.

It’s beside the point. What if they had been nominated? Or even won? Would studio execs have woken up the next morning and decided to suddenly make Hollywood a more progressive place, one that reflected reality rather than some Trumpian white fantasy? Of course not. We’ve been here before. Coming back to Delaney’s post-nom announcement gag: Crash’s 2006 Best Picture win didn’t usher in a period of peace, love, understanding, and increased casting opportunities for non-white performers. Neither did Halle Berry’s momentous Best Actress Oscar win – the first for an African-American woman – back in 2002 help black actresses secure more prominent roles. Fourteen years later, for the second year in a row, Academy voters couldn’t even find any black lead actresses to nominate in the category.

Berry’s win was supposed to represent some kind of shift, a symbolic gesture that meant black actresses had “gone mainstream.” The problem with gestures, though, is they can be merely that, while no real change of substance takes place. Such “momentous” wins by people of color like Berry let Hollywood off the hook. They suggest things have changed, when in reality it’s all basically still the same. According to a study last year by the University of Southern California, racial diversity in films has flatlined. It’s not getting better, and neither securing a higher number of black Oscar nominees nor raging about the scarcity of appearances by non-white artists at the 2016 ceremony is going to change that.

The anger is being channeled in the wrong direction. We know the Oscars are essentially meaningless; we tell ourselves so when people (and films) we adore aren’t nominated. If #OscarWasntSoWhite this year, and people of color had been represented across all categories, would that mean Hollywood’s diversity problem outside of the Oscars would suddenly be solved? Of course not.

AMPAS is made up of Hollywood’s most powerful, so this is the crowd that needs to hear the kind of outrage generated for #OscarsSoWhite, but not just one day a year. For those who really care about this issue, it’s not #OscarsSoWhite once every 12 months, but #HollywoodSoWhite every single day. The real problem is not with the Oscars – it’s with the industry. The root of this diversity issue is Hollywood, where being both black and busy is so rare that, by the time awards season comes around, it’s slim pickings if voters want to actually branch out from the traditional Caucasian male. (Let’s also take a moment to recognize the fact that Hispanic actors are also ignored at the Academy Awards almost every year, including this one.)

April Reign, who began the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag last year, thinks there needs to be “a change in how movies are nominated.” That’s true, but the effort to transform Hollywood shouldn’t stop there; what’s essential is a shift in how movies are made. There needs to be a change not just in how the rules work at some annual self-congratulation exercise, but in how Hollywood thinks all year ’round as well.