Can The Oscar Race Be Fixed?

Lupita Nyong'o

by Limara Salt |
Published on

This week some of Hollywood‘s biggest power players waded into the debacle over the Oscars – in which all 20 of the actor nominees are white – that has set social media ablaze with the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag for a second year running.

Director Spike Lee said he wouldn’t attend, Jada Pinkett Smith called for a wider boycott (possibly miffed at husband Will Smith’s snub), and previous winners Lupita Nyong’o and George Clooney called for more inclusiveness. Whoopi Goldberg said she wouldn’t refuse her invite, and suggested it’s the lack of films featuring diverse talent that’s the problem. She urged people to, ‘Make a stink all year, not just once a year.’ Then Clueless actress Stacey Dash rubbished the whole debate, saying the BET (Black Entertainment Television) Awards and Black History Month should both be abolished. Chris Rock, this year’s Oscars host, took to Twitter to call the Oscars the ‘White BET Awards’. Many had different solutions for the same problem – the continued whitewashing of the biggest date in awards season – and the momentum just keeps growing.

Tonight we celebrate Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest,’ was Neil Patrick Harris’s opening gag at the 2015 ceremony, but while last year’s lack of diversity was dismissed as unfortunate, this year it feels unforgivable. So are we really supposed to believe, or accept, that white actors have given all the best performances? The Academy seems to think so, but this has only served to highlight a deeper problem within the industry.

For Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the issue is particularly embarrassing. As the first African-American president of the Academy, she’s under huge pressure to increase representation at the industry’s biggest night and issued a press release saying she is ‘heartbroken and frustrated’ at the situation, announcing a five-year plan to change the Academy’s membership rules.

However, many are also pointing out that the Oscars are a symptom of the disease, and can’t be the cure. Listing the overlooked non-white nominees – apart from Idris Elba (Beast Of No Nation) and Michael B Jordan (Creed) – is difficult. Black filmmakers have had a great year at the box office (Straight Outta Compton and Creed especially), but these blockbusters aren’t obvious Oscars material. So why aren’t actors of colour cast in Oscar movies? Why are they only welcome when they’re playing slaves (Lupita Nyong’o) or real-life people (Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles and Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin)?

It’s unsurprising that the same types of films are considered Oscar-worthy when those doing the voting are all of a singular type, too. An LA Times investigation found that more than 90% of Academy voters are white, more than 70% are male and the average age is 62. David Oyelowo, snubbed last year for his Martin Luther King Jr performance in Selma, is an Academy member, but recently called for radical reform, as the Academy doesn’t reflect him or America.

Of course, lack of diversity is a problem here too. Last week, Idris Elba went to Parliament to campaign on the issue. He argued change has to come from casting directors and producers, echoing Spike Lee’s assertion that the real battle is ‘in the executive office of the Hollywood studios and TV and cable networks’. Actress Geena Davis has become a leading voice for women in media, suggesting their situation would improve drastically if roles were regularly gender-flipped (Angelina Jolie’s role in Salt was meant for Tom Cruise and Jada Pinkett Smith’s in Magic Mike XXL was written for Jamie Foxx). The same could easily be done for black actors.

Alas, a boycott won’t succeed unless high-profile nominees refuse to show up, but they love the back-slapping – and the bankable effect on their careers – too much to do that. Viewing numbers for the show have been dwindling, so a viewer boycott might not impact either.

For many, waiting for Cheryl Boone Isaac’s plan to kick in is too little, too late. The Best Picture nominees were increased from five to 10 in 2009 to include the films usually left out of the race, so why not the same for the acting categories? Ten slots would make it easier for less ‘Oscar-friendly’ performances to be applauded. Only 305 films were eligible this year so perhaps broadening that number would help, except some members have already admitted to voting for films they haven’t actually seen.

While audiences embrace actors from all backgrounds, the executives clearly don’t do the same – until that changes, we won’t see an end to #OscarsSoWhite anytime soon.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us