In the weeks leading up to any Oscars, there’s always controversy. There’s discourse about who said what to whom, who’s favored to win, and the styles of clothing being worn at the Oscars. However, in the weeks leading up to the 2016 Oscars, we face another issue; are the Oscars racist towards blacks?
Here’s the problem. In the past few years, we’ve seen a startling lack of diversity in the nominations for awards in the Oscars. This year, of the twenty actors and actresses nominated for best leading and supporting roles, all twenty were white. The same goes for last year. The film industry has been dominated by white actors, directors, screenwriters and producers for almost the entire existence of film.
According to a UCLA Bunche Center study there has been some change. However, the change that has occurred doesn’t reflect what it should be, considering that the percentage composition of minorities in the country is growing while the number of minority actors remains relatively stagnant. We look up to famous movie actors, and movies are a central part of our culture; we need to remedy this racial discrepancy to accurately represent our country.
Last year, the Oscars did include a performance of Glory from the movie Selma, which recognized black culture and history. Doing so acknowledged black writers and actors, as well as highlighted the essence of the Civil Rights movement itself. However, one instance doesn’t compensate for the lack of diversity in the best leading actors/actresses category and in the Oscars in general.
Entrenchment within the academy itself explains this lack of change. According to a New York Times study of the makeup of the Academy’s actor branch, 87 percent of members are white, 58 percent are male, and possibly two thirds are over the age of 60.
After recent public outcry, the Academy scrambled to save face by introducing a plan to double the amount of minorities within its ranks by 2020 via aggressive recruiting. In addition, Academy members will now have voting status for only ten years, as opposed to a life term as it formerly was. This status can be renewed by participating in a motion picture. A member can also gain permanent voting status by serving three ten-year terms on the voting committee. The Academy will apply all of these changes retroactively to its current members. While this may seem to rectify the issue, it will create an age imbalance within the Academy, and will not bring about the desired change, equal representation of the committee.
It’s possible that this new policy will be discriminatory to the older members of the committee. While some members would already have qualified for the new permanent voting member status, others would be abruptly left in the cold, simply because of a rule change. Also, if an actor wants to retire at some point, but remain a vocal member of the Academy committee, he or she would have to stay in the industry for twenty years before retiring, or participate in the industry again to gain his or her ten year status. As actors get older, it becomes harder and harder for them to be cast in films, and therefore makes it more difficult for them to gain the voting membership status.
This plan won’t viably solve the problem that it originally intended to: inequality in representation. Here’s why. According to the current Academy plan, the group will double the amount of minorities in the voting academy by 2020. The problem is that the doubling the current number still does not yield an accurate representation. The committee would still only be composed of 23% minority members, which isn’t representative of the racial composition of the United States: 63% white and 37% minority. This is assuming that the Academy achieves the goal, which in itself will be difficult.
Changes in racial makeup need to be made in the context of each age and gender group; imposing these changes broadly will cause another set of discrepancies between men and women, and minorities and whites, as each group ages. Younger actors would be mostly minorities and women, as new actors will need to be non-white to make the figures, while the older groups would be heavily white. This in turn would have to be solved with another Academy shift.
So, how do we solve the issue? The best way to combat the imbalances presented by the proposed system would be to include new minority and female members to equalize the committee within each age group, which would prevent imbalances in each age group and would also dispose of the need for the proposed “age” limitations.
The film industry cannot continue to perpetuate systemic racism and deprive Americans of equal representation. Growing up, I looked to the characters I saw on the screen as my heroes. I especially identified with those that I thought looked like me, like Harry Potter. It is wrong and unfair for young children to go see a movie and feel uncomfortable because they don’t see anyone that looks like them in the movie.
Although more accurate representation in the Oscar voting committee cannot directly cause greater representation in film, it would put significant pressure on the film industry to create a greater visibility of minority actors.