Every year, a bunch of beautiful famous people come together and celebrate filmmaking and being beautiful and famous. The Academy Awards. The event we all love to hate. For 88 years in a row, we’ve sat on our couches with tubs of ice cream as men and women in glamorous designer clothing accept awards for being exceptional at their job, and convince ourselves that “I could totally do that if I wanted to”.
This year, for the second year in a row, all of the major nominees were white. Host Chris Rock wasted no time in pointing that out: “[We’re] here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards” (x). This year’s Oscars were met with a ton of controversy. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blew up on Twitter (x). Actors and performers of colour even boycotted the show in protest of the lack of diversity in nominations (x). All of them had their reasons to do so, and I respect that.
But, in my opinion (and I understand that I speak from a position of white privilege), the issue isn’t that no actors of colour were nominated for Academy Awards. The issue started a long time before the 2016 Oscar nominees were announced.
An Academy Award means a potential invitation to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the “Academy”), giving you a say in who is nominated in the future for your category (acting, writing, directing etc.). Past Oscar winners choose future Oscar winners. (x)
The Academy Awards (and thus the Academy) began 88 years ago. In 1928. America was young, fresh home from war, and slightly more racist than it is today. The Oscars were invented by white people, and in a time of national prejudice, the white people celebrated the creative work of more white people. And so on, and so forth.
The first African-American to be nominated for an acting category was Hattie McDaniel, in 1939. (She won, for best supporting actress in Gone With the Wind. She played a slave (x)). The first black woman to win Best Actress was Halle Berry in 2001, and when Denzel Washington won Best Actor in the same year we celebrated that two black actors won “best” in the same year.
Black actors aren’t the only underrepresented ones, of course. Only one Asian woman has ever been nominated for Best Actress: Merle Oberon in 1935 (x). Three Latin American men have been nominated for Best Actor, and only two Latina women have ever won in an acting category (one of which, according to this list, is Lupita Nyong’o) (x).
The way to get more diverse Oscar nominations is to diversify the Academy, which can be achieved through diversifying Oscar winners. How’s that for a broken system?
I have a lot of respect for those speaking up and demanding better. I don’t understand even a little bit what it’s like to not be represented in popular culture, and I don’t believe that my surface-level research makes me an expert on anything. If my voice strengthens the call for representation, I’ll gladly raise it. If I don’t, let me know and I’ll shut right up.
If I wait 10 years and move to Hollywood, according to Bloomberg Business, I can win an Academy Award (x). I don’t have many plans until then. Hopefully, by the time I join the ranks of the beautiful and famous, people of colour will be there too.