Well before the event itself, the world knows there will be no black person receiving an acting award at the 2016 Oscars. Not Idris Elba or Abraham Attah in Beast of No Nation. Not Michael B. Jordan in Creed. And this goes beyond the acting categories.
Ryan Coogler, the much praised director of boxing flick Creed, has been snubbed. Straight Outta Compton, about a group of black rappers and made by a black director, received a single nomination: for its white screenwriters. In fact, the only chance of a black winner on Oscar night is a pair of songwriters who have been nominated.
Actress Jada Pinkett Smith has released a video where she gently but firmly asks if boycotting the event is the way to go, informing the world that she will neither attend nor watch the Oscars. Director Spike Lee, whose film Chiraq received great reviews, posted a not-quite polite response: “How is it possible for the 2nd consecutive year all 20 contenders under the actor category are white?” Lee queried. “And let’s not even get into the other branches. 40 white actors in two years and no flava at all. We can’t act?! WTF!!” The black community in Hollywood can indeed be angry – as it was last year – but one fears that the outcry may lead to subsequent accusations of overcompensation when a black actor does win.
It has happened before.
Back in 2002, speculations greeted Denzel Washington when he won Best Actor for Training Day. Did he win because he played a bad guy instead of his usual heroic characters? Did Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind lose because he had won for Gladiator the previous year? Was Washington’s win just another case of affirmative action? Similar talk attended Halle Berry’s Best Actress win in the same year.
A rap song summed up the reactions. “Why Halle have to let a white man pop her to get a Oscar?” rapper Jadakiss asked. “Why Denzel have to be crooked before he took it?” Kate Winslet, the 2009 winner, would be just as “popped” as Ms. Berry in The Reader. No song asked why.
In other words, black performers are in an awkward position. Damned if they win, damned if they don’t win. Yet the lack of black nominees at the Oscars is not the problem. #OscarsSoWhite, as the twitter hashtag goes, is just the symptom. The disease is at the Academy, where an unfair racial disparity holds. In 2013, an investigation by the LA Times put the white composition of the Academy at around 93 percent.
Let that sink in. 93 percent.
That is a dangerously high percentage in a country as diverse as the United States. Invariably, a bias, subconscious or not, creeps in. (The Atlantic put it this way: The Academy is “whiter than all but seven states.”) To simplify, if performances by an Elba and a DiCaprio are rated as equal, the latter just might pip the former to a nomination because voters in the Academy can identify with one character a lot more readily. On the other hand, an Elba win opens the process to questions, as seen with Denzel Washington’s win.
Also, it must be said that there is a deep problem in an industry where an auteur as acclaimed as Spike Lee finds it difficult to fund a project, where perhaps the most regularly working black filmmaker is the not-for-Oscars-director Tyler Perry. (To invert the case: it would be hard for white America at the Oscars, too, if only Michael Bay made films.)
The broader truth untouched by the planned boycott is that in Hollywood, in any given year, only a handful of black filmmakers find good work and only few films with complex black characters, if any, get made. Why does anyone expect this pattern to disappear come award season?
The black boycott may succeed in making the Oscars less white, if only to counter the bad PR. That, however, is in the short term. For anything lasting and less open to charges of compensatory racism, first, the Academy has to take that proverbial look at itself. It has to wonder if the uniform colour of its members is representative of its own goals and the film industry.
Also, attention should be drawn to Hollywood’s funding system. Great actors are produced by great roles; great roles are to be found in many a great film. Great films need to be funded to get made.
One recalls Halle Berry’s teary acceptance speech at the 2002 Oscars. “This moment… is for every nameless, faceless woman of colour that now has the chance because this door tonight has been opened,” she said between sobs. The door was indeed open for Berry as it was for some men and a few other women in the Supporting Actress category, until Lupita Nyong’o in 2014. That Kenyan lady’s win ended the streak of nominations for black actors. So that if the door was open in 2002, the gate now is shut in 2016.
Following widespread protests, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, President of the Academy and one of its few black people, has promised change. “The academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership,” she said in a statement. Well, if those ‘dramatic steps’ do work out, the black community in Hollywood can consider it one hurdle down. Nonetheless, the larger issue of funding remains. Will that be addressed anytime soon?
Dear reader, don’t hold your breath.