So it is currently award season, a time where individuals are given accolade for their contribution to film, music and other forms of media. Following the release of the Oscar nominations back in December 2015, there was a social media uproar when it was revealed that no people of colour had been nominated for any acting roles. Twitter responded with the hash-tag #OscarsSoWhite to highlight the institutional racism that has existed within the Academy from it’s conception, 88 years ago.
When 93% of the people responsible for choosing who gets nominated are white, and 76% of those people are also male, should it really come as a surprise when no Black or Latinx* people are nominated in the acting categories? I mean it’s not like there is a lack of talented actors worthy of nomination. John Boyega (Star Wars), Michael B. Johnson (Creed), Will Smith (Concussion), and Idris Elba (Beast of No Nation) have all been involved in high grossing films in 2015. “What’s the big deal? Loads of black people have won in the past!” I hear you yell. Yes, but doesn’t the fact that you can name all 14 winners raise some suspicious eyebrows? Also, when you take a closer look at the roles black women have played (maids, house servants, abusive mothers, slaves), it’s pretty hard to deny that women are only here for the male gaze. In contrast to the Oscars, the recent Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards hailed many People of colour with trophies. One of which was Idris Elba, the first single performer to have won two SAG awards for two different roles in the same night. He joked “Welcome to diverse TV!”
Personally, I find it disturbing that we have normalised the idea that the bodies of people of colour are only here to be commodified for the consumption of white liberals. Bell Hooks, in an interview on popular culture described this consumption by stating “mainstream culture [is] obsessed with blackness, but it is blackness primarily in a commodified form that can then be possessed, owned, controlled, and shaped by the consumer”. Put simply: forget being here to uplift people, “if you aint talkin money, I don’t wanna talk”. Some may argue that people of colour only get Hollywood roles and award nominations when they are playing stereotypical characters or when women of colour are presented as props to enhance the white lead actor. The danger of this is that it reinforces a narrow idea of what it means to be Black, Latinx, Asian or any other ‘ethnic minority’ to those who are not exposed to ethnically diverse communities outside of film and media.
While there are clear issues with misrepresentation of people of colour (particularly females) in Hollywood film, one part of the conversation that seems to be missing is the underrepresentation of the Latinx community. Despite overwhelmingly contributing to box-office sales (25% according an MPAA report) whilst being roughly 17% of the US population, no Latinx people have received Oscar nominations in the past two years. While we may focus on why the Oscars are ‘so white’, it is also imperative that we use this as a platform to discuss how other areas of media lack diversity. For instance #OscarsSoWhite has also opened up conversations about the lack of diversity in British music awards through the hash-tag #BritsSoWhite.
So when we talk about making the Academy more diverse what are we really saying? It is one thing to increase the amount of nominations for Black, Latinx, Asian or LQBT people both on and off screen. However it is another thing to allow these groups to have narratives in mainstream films, which truly reflect the population as it continues to grow with multidimensional identities.
What can we take away from this? I guess we must look at how to resolve this issue or at least make it better. Well I believe there are at least two solutions to #OscarsSoWhite. One is to, as Michael Cain so eloquent remarked, wait and “be patient” for the Academy to recognise the talent produced by people of colour in the film industry. The second is to focus on building and placing value on awards that acknowledge the accomplishments of people of colour. Ceremonies such as the Image Awards, the BET awards and the MOBO Awards have made it their duty to recognize the talent of marginalized groups. Although focusing on the achievements of people of colour, recipients of these awards are not exclusive to non-white people. The third solution, well I’m not too sure about that one.