An Academy Award, aka an Oscar, is the most prestigious award an artist in the film industry can take home. Yet year after year, when nominations are announced, backlash over who is up for what is inevitable. One of the most obvious critiques is of the lack of diversity among nominees. “#Oscarssowhite” has become a popular hashtag since 2014, calling out the nominations evident favor of white artists. In addition to the whiteness of the Oscars, the maleness of the nominations has also been of great concern.
This year, zero women were nominated for best director, despite several box office hits, “Little Women”, “The Farewell” and “Hustlers”, all having been directed by women. People of color were yet again severely underrepresented with all best actor and actress nominations being white except for Cynthia Erivo in “Harriet”.
Yet, thinking back to films which were released this year and could have potentially been nominated, it seemed to have been a more diverse year for Hollywood than the public has seen in a long time.
The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s most recent study showed how despite still being dominated by white men, Hollywood has made strides in the last few years to be more inclusive. CNN reported the study’s findings saying that 31 of the 100 top-grossing films from 2019 cast a person of color in a starring or co-starring role, a 14 percent increase from 2018 and a 138 percent increase from 2007.
However, all of these efforts by Hollywood to include members of marginalized communities both in front of and behind the camera are going unnoticed by one of the top institutions who supposedly validate prestigious work. In 2019, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 2013 to 2017, wrote an article for The Washington Post. Throughout the article, Isaacs lists reasons why the Oscars matter in a modern world. Her first reasoning stated, “First and foremost, the movies the Oscars celebrate are about seeking out new ways to see the world.” She then goes on to write, “Second, the Oscars demonstrate what we all have to gain when people around the world are allowed to use their talents to tell stories here in the United States.” These statements feel incredibly contradictory when seeing how awfully underrepresented the “new ways of seeing the world” are when it comes to actually nominating and celebrating those who are in fact telling the stories.
The injustice of not recognizing the women and people of color in Hollywood hasn’t gone unnoticed by the stars themselves. Many have used acceptance speeches for other awards to call out the unfairness of the nominations. Joaquin Phoenix, who is nominated for best actor for his role in “Joker”, addressed the whiteness of the Oscar nominations while accepting his British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award, saying, “I think that we send a very clear message to people of color that you’re not welcome here.”
And he’s right. A New York Times article from 2016, following a previous uproar of the whiteness of the Oscars, put it best by saying, “The underlying issue of the Academy’s failure to recognize black artists is the presumption that baseline experience is white experience and that black life is a niche phenomenon, life with an asterisk.”
By excluding the work of filmmakers, actors and actresses of color from receiving recognition on a global platform, and only presenting a narrative of all white casts, the films that go down in history as the best, go down as the stories and efforts of white males.
This issue of underrepresentation by the Academy is a reflection of the Academy’s lack of diversity amongst themselves. This year, the Oscar Academy invited 928 new members to join in on the decision-making process, a record-breaking number of new invitations. Of those 928, 49 percent are women and 38 percent are people of color, making efforts towards accomplishing a more diverse class. However, according to NPR, if everyone who was sent an invitation actually accepted it, it would only diversify the Academy by a small percentage. If the 928 invited members accept, the percentage of females in the Academy would increase from 28 percent to 31 percent, and non-white members would rise from 13 percent to 16 percent. These numbers reflect the lack of variance and difference in experience in those who make up the voting body for who and what receives an Oscar.
The effort of the film industry to be more inclusive to race and gender should be reflected and respected by the Academy. However, these efforts will not be reflected by the Academy until the voting body of the Academy becomes more diversified itself. So, as viewers, should we stop expecting the archaic system of the Academy to ever represent modern culture? Or should we demand that the systems in place to recognize greatness actually do their job and represent those who make the world of cinema great? In an effort of hopefulness, we can dream that those who benefit from the Academy’s biases, like Phoenix, continue to call the inequality. With those receiving the awards using their platform for awareness, and film critics continuing to uplift and represent marginalized communities’ work in the film industry, maybe one day the Academy will catch up.