Warning: if you are a person of color entering the film industry, understand that all odds will be stacked against you. You will get less work because white people are more often than not the leads, the directors and the writers.
All anticipated the announcement of the 2016 Best Actor/Actress Oscar nominations. Brilliant actors were nominated, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Jennifer Lawrence. The only issue? Every nominee is white. But the problem doesn’t come from something as surface as Oscar nominations; no, the whole industry itself is the issue.
Every year, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies at UCLA creates a Hollywood Diversity Report. For 2015, minorities were underrepresented on every front in film.
The cinematic fan base isn’t making things any easier, either. After it was revealed that a black woman, Noma Dumezweni, will play Hermione Granger in the staged production Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, racists on Twitter held none of their opinions back. User @claireodonnell posted, “No seriously f***ing unhappy with this! Why do we keep changing characters race?” Even more illogical, user @WhoPotterVian tweeted “Not being racist but how can a black woman play Hermione? This play has lost all credibility.”
I understand some movies that have historical context, like Steve Jobs or Spotlight, require certain races for their roles. And I also grasp that a film’s geography has a lot to do with casting. If the plot was about a boy riding horses in Montana, it would be odd to cast an Asian actor. But in movies in which anyone could play the role, casting directors should be ashamed for always choosing the bankable actors over diversity.
And, as all things do, casting comes back to money. The reason why white people receive the potential award-winning roles that get awards is because of the Euro-centric beauty standard marked by fair skin, blonde hair and round blue eyes. Almost all of the nominees have, most if not all, of these three traits. Attractive people are aesthetically pleasing and a film with enticing actors makes the movie more appealing to watch, whether the viewer is subconsciously aware or not.
The way I see it, the Oscars are the “frogs” of the Hollywood “rainforest.” Frogs are known as ecological indicators because their populations are radically affected when their habitat is changed (often by pollution). In forests, biodiversity makes an ecosystem healthier and more prosperous. Based off of the 2015 and 2016 nominations, Americans can tell the environment is incredibly unhealthy because it has no biodiversity.
The backlash certainly got to the Academy. On Jan. 22, it released a statement announcing the goal of doubling the number of women and diverse members by 2020. They also will limit each voting member’s rights to 10 years unless that voter is still active in the industry, has been active for three decades, or has won an Academy Award. By doing this, outdated voters cannot influence modern Hollywood. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs said, “The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up.”
Alumna Jennifer Ricchiazzi ’92 has a lot of insight on the issue because she is a casting director herself. However, she works for independent features, and thus she has more freedom than casters who have to please large corporations.
“It starts where I am, in the casting. It’s not the Academy; they are the scapegoat for the dialogue,” she said.
Many prominent black figures in the film industry, like Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith, have voiced their disapproval and will boycott the 2016 Oscars. Although I agree that the award show is whitewashed, boycotting is the wrong way to bring change. The Academy has recognized its mistakes and has vowed to change; that is as much as one could have hoped for this year.
Next year, activists must hold the Academy to their promise of diversity. But right now, it’s important to recognize that those nominated should be supported for their great work. It’s just as racist to not be involved with something because it’s all white.
I support Chris Rock for keeping his decision to host the Oscars. It’s important that he has the microphone that night for at least some PoC representation—and it also gives him the opportunity to make a statement about the issue at hand, which will be directed at the perfect audience.