Race, Hollywood, and the Boycott

With film industry icons like Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Spike Lee, and Michael Moore boycotting the 2016 Academy Awards at the end of this month due to lack of nominations for black professionals, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided in late January to broaden racial and gender diversity in Academy membership.

Its board of governors has committed “to doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.” Further, older members that are no longer active in the film industry will be phased out.

Spike Lee summed up the sentiment of Oscar protesters, who connect their discussions on social media using #OscarsSoWhite, when he said:

[H]ow is it possible for the 2nd consecutive year all 20 contenders under the actor category are white? And let’s not even get into the other branches. 40 white actors in 2 years and no flava at all.

While the 2015 and 2016 Oscars were and are characterized by a lack of diversity in acting roles, in 2014 Lupita Nyong’o won best supporting actress for 12 Years a Slave. She became the fourteenth black woman or man to win an Oscar in the Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, or Supporting Actress categories in the 88-year history of the Awards.

Over that same span of time, three black directors were nominated for Best Director, but none won. Steve McQueen became the first black producer to win Best Picture in 2013, for 12 Years a Slave.  

The whiteness of the past two years is troubling to many, as it was partly built on films Academy voters used to praise white professionals while ignoring the black professionals who worked on the same projects. Creed had a black star and black director, but only its white actor earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Straight Outta Compton had a black cast, director, and producer, but its white screenwriters were nominated for Best Screenplay. Many consider black acting performances in Beasts of No Nation, Concussion, and last year’s Selma unjustly ignored (Selma was nominated for best picture, but its black actors and black director received no nominations).

However, The Economist, looking at the Oscar wins since 2000, says, “The number of black actors winning Oscars in this century has been pretty much in line with the size of America’s overall black population.”

Blacks are 12.6% of the American population, and 10% of Oscar nominations since 2000 have gone to black actors… But blacks are under-represented in the roles that count for the Oscars, getting just 9% of the top [acting] roles since 2000… [But] once up for top roles, black actors do well, converting 9% of top roles into 10% of best-actor nominations and 15% of the coveted golden statuettes, a bit above their share of the general population.

The Economist concludes that the lack of diversity starts in drama schools and casting offices, putting blacks at a disadvantage in the competition for the Oscar wins (for example, black male directors are nowhere near the black population percentage, and black women directors are “nearly nonexistent”). It also notes Hispanics and Asians receive even less representation than blacks. Yet black underrepresentation is slight and confined to landing top roles in films, and by extension nominations, but then disappearing when the Academy votes on its winners.

So while there is work to be done to increase black representation in film roles, and to correct widespread conscious and subconscious anti-black biases that research undeniably demonstrates exists, it is pleasing to note African Americans are not underrepresented among Academy Award winners in recent history.

Yet it is perhaps beneficial that #OscarsSoWhite launched a discussion on Academy voting methods, as what’s truly lacking isn’t so much diversity among the victors, it’s diversity among the Academy voters, as well as a more democratic process of voting.

The Oscar nominees and winners are chosen by the 6,000 Academy members, a voting group about 94% white and 76% male. It’s only about 2% black.

To become a member, certain qualifications must be met; for example, qualifications for an actor include:

(a) have a minimum of three theatrical feature film credits, in all of which the roles played were scripted roles, one of which was released in the past five years, and all of which are of a caliber that reflect the high standards of the Academy,

and/or

(b)  have been nominated for an Academy Award in one of the acting categories

Once qualifications are met, “each candidate must receive the favorable endorsement of the appropriate Branch Executive Committee before his or her name is submitted to the Board of Governors for final approval.”

So while there are only slight disadvantages for blacks in film roles and nominations, the board of governors clearly needs to enact the reforms #OscarsSoWhite inspired. With 9% of top film roles, 10% of Oscar nominations, and 15% of the wins all going to blacks, either the Academy has been slow to admit blacks to membership or simply does not admit enough of them to offset the large number of old and new white members. As the Los Angeles Times wrote this month,

The academy has invited 452 people to join its ranks over the last two years, an unusually high number even though 20 of them were non-voting slots. By accepting more members, the academy hoped to bring more women and minorities into the organization.

Although the two new classes are noticeably more diverse than in past years, they failed to change the face of the academy in a material way because new members make up such a small percentage of the entire constituency, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.

Since membership is controlled by the board of governors, there’s no democratic way to broaden diversity in the Academy. That power rests with the few. If the board does not take purposeful action, as it has decided to do, the demographics of the Oscar voters largely remain static.   

And by extension, if the voting body does not become more diverse, Oscar nominees and winners could tend to look the same year to year. So if a group is underrepresented at any point during the lifetime of the Academy, whether blacks, or Asians (underrepresented in nominations and wins compared to top roles and national population), or Hispanics (underrepresented in wins compared to nominations, top roles, and the national population), etc., there is no democratic, bottom-up, grassroots way to correct this.

This is quite different from a selection process like a popular vote. A meme went around the Internet recently about the NBA All-Star lineup being dominated by black players, to mock the #OscarsSoWhite boycott. It read: “2016 NBA All-Star Game has zero white players selected. Boycott for more diversity. #NBASoBlack.”

Yet the All-Stars are selected by a popular vote that is open to anyone–so not quite an adequate comparison. If white NBA fans (about 40% of viewers) felt there weren’t enough white players, they could theoretically “get out the vote” and see change, even if the 45% of NBA viewers who are black preferred to vote for black players. They could theoretically expand the pool of voters. Change the voter base, change the outcome.

The same mechanism isn’t in place for the Academy. Ordinary Americans can’t vote for nominees and winners. It’s just several thousand voters whose numbers and demographics remain unchanged except by a decree from the board of governors.  

Considering the Academy is never going to switch to a popular vote, the changes #OscarsSoWhite sparked are necessary to raise the 2% of black Academy voters to a percentage more equitable to their population in both the film industry and the country.

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