The big fact of the weekend is that the Oscars has changed its rules. In a sweeping historic move, the Academy has basically stuck it to the old white members in its ranks.
Needless to say, people aren’t happy about this, but that comes later in this article.
The support (and supportive critiques)
Many in the acting world and April Reign, the creator of #OscarsSoWhite have given their support (and in some cases, their constructive criticism) of the new changes.
“I’m very encouraged. I think that the changes that will be made will make a significant different,” Reign told the Los Angeles Times. I appreciate the fact that the vote was unanimous, which indicates to me that the academy is serious about making the organization momre inclusive and more diverse. I’ve spoken about my concern that some of the older academy members still have a vote even though they aren’t active in the film industry an that appears to be addressed. The fact that they will be proactively looking for more diverse members is [also] exciting.”
Ava DuVernay tweeted this:
— Ava DuVernay (@AVAETC) January 22, 2016
Shame is a helluva motivator.
— Ava DuVernay (@AVAETC) January 22, 2016
We’ve all felt shame even when we didn’t believe we were wrong. It’s the fact that EVERYONE ELSE thinks you’re wrong. Fix it mode kicks in.
— Ava DuVernay (@AVAETC) January 22, 2016
Marginalized artists have advocated for Academy change for DECADES. Actual campaigns. Calls voiced FROM THE STAGE. Deaf ears. Clòsed minds.
— Ava DuVernay (@AVAETC) January 22, 2016
Whether it’s shame, true feelings, or being dragged kicking + screaming, just get it done. Because the alternative isn’t pretty.
— Ava DuVernay (@AVAETC) January 22, 2016
Don Cheadle said during a Sundance interview that the changes are stage one in a much-needed process. “I think it is a step in the right direction, a needed step,” he said, according to Deadline. “But people really have to have access to the stories they want to tell. So what we really need is people in positions to greenlight those stories, not a hunk of metal.” (I’m assuming the “hunk of metal” Cheadle is referring to is the Oscar itself.)
Oscar nominated director Alejandro Iñárritu said during the PGA Breakfast that the new steps the Academy is taking is a start, but change needs to happen outside of the Academy and with the industry itself.
“I think the things the Academy has just made is a great step, but the Academy really is at the end of the chain,” he said, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Iñárritu also said, “Hopefully, active change, positive cahnge, they can start at the beginning of the chain. The complexity of the demographics of this country should be reflected not only at the end of the chain.” He also added that “cinema is the mirror where we can all see ourselves.”
Screenwriter/director/producer Jonathan Demme issued an op-ed for Deadline saying that the Academy needs to change the current nominations to reflect the diversity that was a part of the 2015 film year. He provides the example of Tangerine and how the Academy clearly ignored it. To quote him:
“Superb in every aspect and featuring dazzling, heroic performances by fantastic LGBTQ actors in leading roles, Tangerine had no campaign, but someone managed to send out screeners. The film was shot—brilliantly–on i-phones (!!!!!). This hugely entrtainiing and ground-breaking film brings fresh meaning to the “outstanding achievement” verbiage that defines the point of the Oscars. Did enough Academy voters—overwhelmingly older, white males—watch the Tangerine screener to give it a shot at nomination? Does our membership gravitate—maybe more or less exclusively—to white stories, white actors, white filmmakers? It sure feels that way, doesn’t it?”
These comments aren’t necessarily a reaction to the Academy’s changes, but Viola Davis’ comments during Elle’s 6th Annual Women in Television Dinner said the members of the Academy should ask themselves some questions about the industry.
“How many black films are being produced every year?” she said, according to BET. “How are they being distributed? The films that are being made—are the big-time producers thinking outside of the box in terms of how to cast the role? Can you cast a black woman in that role? Can you cast a black man in that role?”
Davis also touched on the pay discrepancy, which is even worse for actresses of color than it is for white actresses. “You could probably line up all the A-list black actresses out there [and] they probably don’t make what one A-list white woman makes in one film. That’s the problem. You can change thee Academy, but if there are no black films being produced, what is there to vote for?”
Malik Yoba wrote this on Instagram, stating that being included in Hollywood shouldn’t be viewed as “a birthright”:
Only in NY will this happen. Such an interesting time we’re living in. The more things change the more things stay the same. A function of living inauthentically and disconnected from the eternal truth that God is love and we were all made in His image. From atheist to believers one thing is certain, everybody wants to feel loved, honored, included, acknowledged and feel the support of their peers. Working in a business that doesn’t always see the big picture is a challenge but being included is not a given or a birthright. All we can do as individuals is continue to honor our gifts and work toward building our own pathways to get our stories out to the masses. None of this is easy and every little bit counts including the protestations. Happy Friday Fam!! It’s a great day to be alive as we take nothing from granted 🙏🏾 #truth #honor #oscars #hollywood #america #actor #blessing #pop #popculture
A photo posted by malikyoba (@malikyoba) on
Marlon Wayans, on the other hand provides a perspective that could be argued as missing the point. During an Essence Live appearance for his latest film, Fifty Shades of Black, Wayans said that while the discussion about diversity in Hollywood is important, showing up to support minority films is even more important.
“How about we all show up and we support these movies? A lot of times we complain but yet we sit in our seat opening weekend and we don’t support our films,” he told Essence. “Everybody out there, come support because Hollywood is not about black and white. Hollywood is about gree. So why don’t we support our own, make sure we make the green because as long as you make thee green, we can make more movies and then we won’t have these discussions.”
(Some would say that Wayans’ point dodges the actual issue at hand; it’s not about people not supporting minority films, because people did and have been supporting minority films—Straight Outta Compton doesn’t get to number one at the box office and stay there through just critical support. The real issue is getting the films that the people love awarded for their achievements.)
Some other things of note are some highly interesting and necessary articles about the racist underside of the Oscars and the industry at large. Entertainment Weekly has teased their magazine interview with Sacheen Littlefeather, the woman who stood on stage and delivered Marlon Brando’s message to the Academy in 1973 when he boycotted on behalf of Native Americans. NBC Latino provides a list of Latino films that could easily be nominated for an Oscar. Mashable also has an article addressing how Latino, Asian, and Native American actors are hardly nominated for an Oscar. (This also goes into why the industry needs to be changed; currently, the industry itself doesn’t greenlight enough films telling Latino, Native American and Asian stories, and when there are Latino, Native or Asian characters in films, they are sometimes played by white or “beige” actors, such as Emma Stone in Aloha and Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, while Benedict Wong is stuck with playing what could be racist stereotype—Doctor Strange’s manservant/sidekick.)
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The outrage to #OscarsSoWhite took a while to whip up, but it came, especially after the Academy changed its rules. Friday alone saw Charlotte Rampling, Michael Caine and Julie Delphy saying annoying, tone-deaf and, in Rampling and Delphy’s cases, extremely racist things.
Rampling, who is nominated for an Oscar for her role in 45 Years, said the Oscars controversy was “racist to whites.”
“One can never really know, but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final list,” she said to French radio station Europe 1, according to The Guardian. She also said in response to a question about if the Academy should have quotas, “Why classify people? These days everyone is more or less accepted…People will always say: ‘Him, he’s less handsome’; ‘Him, he’s too black’; ‘He is too white’…someone will always be saying ‘You are too’ [this or that]…But do we have to take from this that there should be lots of minorities everywhere?”
She later walked back her statement after a vicious roasting on Twitter. According to USA Today, the statement, which was given to CBS News, states, “I regret that my comments could have been misinterprted. I simply meant to say that in an ideal world every performance will be given equal opportunities for consideration.” The apology-PR damage control also stated, “Diversity in our industry is an important issue that needs to be addressed. I am highly encouraged by the changes announced today by the academy to diversify its membership.”
Michael Caine said that black actors should “be patient,” a statement that was in response to the fear of the Academy using quotas, but it’s also a statement that could be uncomfortably interpreted as telling minorities to wait their turn. As he told Radio 4 according to the Independent, “There’s loads of black actors. In the end you can’t vote for an actor because he’s black. You can’t say ‘I’m going to vote for him, he’s not very good, but he’s black, I’ll vote for him…Of course [nominations and wins] will come. It took me years to get an Oscar, years.”
Julie Delpy also put in her two cents, saying that it’s harder to be a woman in showbusiness than it is a black person. “Sometimes, I wish I were African-American because people don’t bash them afterwards,” she said to The Wrap. Her statement widely ignores the fact that 1) black women are also women, which illustrates why people should have intersectional feminism and 2) that all women of color including black women have it easier in Hollywood, when women of color have historically had it much harder in terms of finding roles, pay equal to their white female counterparts, and the respect white actresses receive on a daily basis.
The real fire came when the Academy released their new rules, leading many in Hollywood, mostly those members among the older set, to release angry statements. You can read many of their statements at The Hollywood Reporter (and again), The Los Angeles Times, and Deadline, but most of them (including those who were smart enough to remain anonymous for fear of backlash) include feelings of resentment at what they feel is the Academy’s implication that their age makes them unable to judge talent as well as the implication that their voting strategies have been biased (or as many have said, “racist.”)
While the angry members are the most vocal right now, there are quite a few members who are glad of the changes, including those who are of the older set. These members recognize that there’s a clear bias at work when most of the Academy is made of old white men. 72-year-old actor Robert Walden summed it up perfectly when emailing his response to the Times. “I can tell you now that if the voters had actually viewed ‘Beasts of No Nation’ and ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ the situation might have been different. But because of the subject matter, or presumed understanding of what the films were about, I’d venture half the members did not see thoe films. …I feel a significant segment of the older members might assume that certain films don’t appeal or ‘speak’ to them. That they speak to a ‘niche’ and not to us all.”
There’s going to be tons of Oscar talk for the weeks leading up to Feb. 28, the night the Oscars airs (still hosted by Chris Rock, thank goodness; get your popcorn ready for viewing some uncomfortable faces in the audience). But I have read enough to give some takeaways, and these takeaways are going to be just the same now as they will be in the future.
The older members who are upset (including, in an ironic twist, Tab Hunter, who is for all intents and purposes the first outed gay actor of the 1950s and 1960s) are upset for very human, very selfish reasons. Their view is that the Academy sees them as not just old, but antiquated and out of touch with the times. To a certain degree, the Academy’s view is just that; they are too out of touch and too set in their ways to see past what they think is and isn’t art worthy of being nominated. That’s a problem, and that problem doesn’t just occur with Hollywood; it occurs in many other segments of life in which an older body is trying to impose old rules on a younger, more agile, more integrated set of individuals. America, to be frank, was founded because of an older “parent” trying to rule a younger country who wanted to fail or succeed by their own terms. Just like with the War for Independence, the Academy and its sympathizers are now rebelling against some of the older set who are comfortable having things just as they were. There’s a historical analog to this too: the South wanted things to stay the same because many white southerners were comfortable with Jim Crow and other segregationist tactics because they served their interests. When stuff started changing, they started rebelling against the tides of change. They ultimately lost that fight, for the most part, and the Old Guard at the Academy’s going to lose their fight as well.
Perhaps, some of the old members who feel like they’ve lost their way will find another way to assert what remains of their power, but it’ll never be like how it was before. Hollywood itself won’t be the same after this controversy, because now the onus will not just be on the Academy to provide a facade for diversity; it’ll be up to everyone who runs anything dealing with entertainment. In order for there to be films to nominate, there have to be more films featuring non-white, non-male stories getting greenlit. There has to be more of a reliance on the now and less of a reliance on, as some members intimated, an “I’m not racist” card just because they might have participated in the Civil Rights Movement in some way.
This gets to my last point: Right before writing this, I read this tweet:
So many ppl speak on racism w/o having ever studied it. They are far more concerned w not being called racist than actually fighting racism.
— Talib Kweli Greene (@TalibKweli) January 24, 2016
I think that’s true for many things, and it’s definitely true for this. Everyone who has had their feelings hurt by #OscarsSoWhite is quick to say “I’m not a racist.” The Academy’s changes aren’t fearful for some just because it’s change; the changes are being met with fear because some of these people know that there’s more they could have done to prevent this nominations fiasco in the first place. Like what Walden said, if half of the members who didn’t view Straight Outta Compton and Beasts of No Nation actually watched the films instead of writing them off as niche, then the nominations card would look completely different. Basically, I personally think many of the ones crying foul are actually crying out because of their guilt. Who wants to own up to the fact that they might have had a damaging, insidious bias in their voting when they thought they were voting strictly on talent?
Some folks in the Academy are, if going by their statements (especially the anonymous ones) harbor clear racist sentiments. Others are ill-informed and don’t even understand the implications of what they’re saying. Others are still holding onto the good (or guilt-easing actions) they did in the ’60s to justify “voting on talent” today. But there are others up and down in the Academy who believe these changes are good for the organization and that, sadly, they are necessary. I think so, too. These changes shouldn’t have had to be implemented, but Hollywood is nothing but a reflection of society. If we all want a seat at the table–the Academy, Hollywood or otherwise–then the table has to be retrofitted or completely remodeled to accommodate. Cheryl Boone Isaacs has taken the first step towards a remodel, and now the rest of Hollywood has to follow suit. Create more films for all minorities, not just black people. We need more LGBT stories, more Asian stories, more Middle Eastern stories, more Native American stories, and more biracial/multiracial stories. We need stories of all types, including those I might have missed mentioned here.
Rampling asked why there need to be labels; little does she know that it’s the society she participates in that created those labels. If we had more stories of all types, and if those stories were valued on the same level playing field, then the negative, segregationist thinking that comes with these labels, would go away and the labels would just be mere descriptors, not assessments of a person’s entire being.