Academy Voters Don’t Seem to Understand #OscarsSoWhite and Fear It Might Come Back

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It seems like Academy voters are afraid that #OscarsSoWhite will once again be making an appearance on social media. You’ll remember that #OscarsSoWhite was the banner under which people blasted the 2015 Academy Awards for its whitest Oscars since 1998. Judging by the current nominee frontrunners, it’s easy to see why they’re so worried: There’s only one person of color predicted to get a nod in four acting categories (Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation).

The worry about the backlash has taken many forms. Many voters are afraid that a new crop of overwhelmingly white nominees may shake confidence in the academy. USC history professor Steve Ross, who’s written several books about Hollywood politics, said, “If it’s all-white again, nobody’s going to be happy, and there might be a growing perception that the academy is out of touch.”

But Ross also introduces another viewpoint, one that sounds a lot like the argument people usually use against affirmative action. He said, “It has to be a good performance, but for some, if they’re deciding between Will Smith and somebody else, they might just go for Will Smith because of what happened last year.” This seems to suggest that those responsible for selecting the nominees are buying into tokenism, handing down a nomination only to avoid potential backlash.

F. Gary Gray, director of Straight Outta Compton and new addition to the academy said that he’s “not going to allow politics to influence [his] judgment, because then that defeats the purpose.” Some of the Oscar voters involved anonymously shared their thoughts on the matter with the LA Times. One Actors Branch Academy member said, “I don’t see how you can nominate another group that doesn’t include any actor of color and think you’ll be taken seriously.”

One thing is incredibly, incredibly clear from this handwringing over a potential backlash: Hollywood still has a serious problem with representation. The idea that one should vote in a vacuum of merit alone only works in a world where people can be thought of as completely and utterly equal, and that is not the case here. #OscarsSoWhite seems to point not just the problems within the selection process but also at the problems littered throughout Hollywood’s perception of people of color in general.

I can’t speak for actors and actresses of color, but I doubt that anyone wants to feel like they are where they are because of the color of their skin. So rather than trying to treat the symptom (lack of people of color in acting categories), it’s important to treat the actual disease, the root of the problem (lack of roles for people of color in general, or same pigeonholed stereotypical roles). To suggest that the solution is to “throw a bone” to people of color with token nominations is incredibly shortsighted and speaks to an ignorance of the greater problems of representation and lack of opportunity facing the academy, and by extension, Hollywood.

Ryan Coogler, who directed Creed, echoes a lot of the same sentiments with regards to representation within the academy. “You definitely want the people who decide these things to reflect society,” said Coogler. “There’s empowerment in representation. It means so much when you see somebody who’s like you up there on that stage.”

Ava DuVernay, whose strong critical voice joined the many supporters of the #OscarsSoWhite backlash after Selma‘s snubbing, takes it a step further with her own viewpoint, one that actually does speak to the root of the problem. She said:

It’s a privileged point of view to think that everyone’s end goal is to be in that fancy room. This work needs to be done so people of color can seem themselves as real people on the screen. That’s an issue of survival, essential to our personhood and our humanity and our dignity. It has nothing to do with those hashtags.

As stated earlier, it seems like the hashtag was not created to bring in token nominations, but rather to call attention to the fact that this problem is just one symptom of a disease endemic to Hollywood and its status quo regarding people of color. The academy plays an admittedly large part in incentivizing the creation of these roles, but the responsibility of encouraging greater representation lies on the shoulders of studios and the individuals creating these films.

(via Jezebel, image via Flickr/Craig Piersma)

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Jessica Lachenal
Jessica Lachenal is a writer who doesn’t talk about herself a lot, so she isn’t quite sure how biographical info panels should work. But here we go anyway. She's the Weekend Editor for The Mary Sue, a Contributing Writer for The Bold Italic (thebolditalic.com), and a Staff Writer for Spinning Platters (spinningplatters.com). She's also been featured in Model View Culture and Frontiers LA magazine, and on Autostraddle. She hopes this has been as awkward for you as it has been for her.