Diversity and Representation: This Year’s #LilyWhiteOscar

Lucy Anna Gray

Entering its 86th year, the annual Academy Awards has yet again been shrouded in controversy. The ongoing issue of lack of diversity in the film industry has stolen the limelight from the glitz and glamour of the Oscars.

For the second year in a row no black actors have been nominated for either the best actor or actress categories or best supporting actor or actress. Although the rest of the film industry cannot make many bold claims of racial diversity, the Oscars have been particularly shamed this year.

The Screen Actors Guild awards, for example, honoured four black actors in major categories. British actor Idris Elba won both outstanding performance by a male actor in a supporting role for Beasts of No Nation, and outstanding performance by a male actor in a TV movie or miniseries for Luther.

In his acceptance speech he said: “Ladies and gentleman, welcome to diverse TV.” The Oscars, however, overlooked him for his role in Beasts of No Nation.

If you look at the other awards up for grab at the Oscars, for the 20 actors nominated only white faces can be seen. That’s the second year in a row that this has been the case.

This has caused uproar among the general public and celebrities, with actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith boycotting the Academy Awards, alongside renowned directors Spike Lee and Michael Moore. On this issue Lee wrote in a statement:

“How 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. We can’t act?! WTF!!”

There are however those that disagree with the accusations of racism against non-white actors. Actress Charlotte Rampling, who has been nominated for best actress for her role in the British drama 45 years, has said that the boycotting is in fact racist to white people.

Although a bold claim, her simple point that “perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final list” is perhaps a valid one. It could indeed be the case that both 2015 and 2016 haven’t purposefully avoided nominating black actors, it is merely about the films that have been released.

If we look back to 2014, 12 Years a Slave picked up the prize for best picture and best adapted screenplay, with black actor Lupita Nyong’o winning best supporting actress.

If you look to the Academy’s history, however, the lack of racial diversity does seem to be an ongoing issue. No actors from ethnic minorities were nominated in an extraordinary streak between 1975 and 1980.

Throughout the entire 20th century, 95% of Oscar nominations went to white film stars. So what is it about the Oscars that causes this issue to spark debate almost every year? One could point the finger at the Academy’s approximately 6,000 voting membership. 94% of these members are white.

The view from behind the camera is just as revealing into the backwards selection of the Oscars.  Only three black people have been nominated for best director in the entire history of the awards, with none of these taking the prize home.

It’s also worth noting that only four women have ever been nominated for an Oscar, with none of these four candidates being black women.

In light of the media frenzy and controversy surrounding this year’s awards, the Academy board has issued a statement that its goal is “to double the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020”. There’s something familiar about this line…perhaps the fact that it was trotted out in 2015 after the fury at the lack of diversity in the 85th Academy Awards.

President Cheryl Boone Isaacs said: “The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” and perhaps they will. As film-maker Ava DuVernay – a black woman whose film Selma was nominated for an Oscar last year – tweeted: “Shame is a helluva motivator.”

Whether or not the Academy mean what they say is impossible to know. It’s also hard to tell whether the board actually care about this issue, or whether it’s simply a knee jerk response to bad press.

What is clear is that something must change. As the world’s most famous and arguably prestigious film awards ceremony, the Academy Awards must begin to reflect the world in which they are situated.

It is easy to disregard the awards – at the end of the day they are lumps of metal that make rich people even richer – but they have the opportunity to represent so much more. Different races, colours, genders, sexualities, physical abilities; we are all people that need to be fairly represented in the films we so readily devour.

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