A nervous energy filled the Beverly Hills theater on the morning of January 14, 2016, as agents and reporters sipped coffee, made predictions, and rubbed sleep from their eyes. It was a lull before the storm, the very seconds before the announcement of the 88th Academy Award nominations. For a moment, Hollywood stood united, excited and prepared to honor the most spectacular achievements in film. But when the four presenters stepped onstage and began to speak, all sense of unity disappeared.
For the second year in a row, all of the nominees were white. Moments after the 5:30 A.M. announcement, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began to trend on Facebook and Twitter. Actress Jada Pinkett Smith took to Twitter to call for a boycott, causing Mark Ruffalo (nominated for his work in ‘Spotlight’), George Clooney, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, and Matt Damon (nominated for ‘The Martian’) to similarly admonish the lack of diversity in awards shows. Even Saturday Night Live joined in, airing a sketch in which the “best actor” trophy was awarded to “all white guys” (Oswald 2016).
Charlotte Rampling, nominated for her work in “45 Years,” sang a different tune, commenting that all performances should be judged equally and that “maybe black actors didn’t deserve to be in the final stretch.” Rampling found herself within minutes labeled as insensitive and prejudiced. To many, Rampling’s statement only validated the claim that Hollywood is inherently racist, and that changes must be made (Sage 2016).
So who is right? Is the Academy comprised of racists, as Jada Pinkett Smith suggests? Or is Rampling correct in suggesting that this year’s minority performances were subpar? A close study of the voting Academy and of the film industry as a whole reveals truths in the arguments of both Smith and Rampling.
The nominations are less surprising (but no less noteworthy) with an understanding of Academy demographics. In 2012, the median age was 62, with voters under 50 years of age making up only 14% of the Academy (this makes voters less likely to support a profane film like “Straight Outta Compton”). In 2012, the Academy was a staggering 94% Caucasian, with African-Americans comprising only 2% of voters, suggesting a fundamental racial inequality of representation. (Horn, Sperling, and Smith 2012). The Academy is therefore what sociologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter would describe as a “skewed” group, containing “a large preponderance of one type (the numerical “dominants”) over another (the rare “tokens.)” Kanter’s theory of tokenism holds that interactions and perceptions inevitably form around stereotypes imposed by the majority and sometimes accepted by the minority. This subconscious racism applies directly to voting biases and their roots (Kanter 1977).
The problem is both with the “skewed” Academy and with a shallow, white-dominated industry. Minority actors are often given the spotlight only to portray characters which are either underdeveloped or shaped by harmful stereotypes. For example, many black actors fall into type casting, playing maids or slaves. This underscores Kanter’s aforementioned theory that minorities tend to accept imposed stereotypes. University of Connecticut professor Matthew Hughey discusses this phenomenon in his book The White Savior Film, focusing on films where a “white messianic character saves a lower- or working class, usually urban or isolated, nonwhite character from a sad fate,” using Oscar-winning examples like “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) and “The Blind Side” (2009).
Portrayals of black characters as poor and in need of saving only reinforce a harmful and historically supported power dynamic, reminiscent of the American notion of the White Man’s Burden. The representation of “nonwhite characters and culture as essentially broke, marginalized, and pathological,” reveals within the industry a deep bias; the product of both subconscious racism and rampant type casting. This bias keeps minority actors out of the juiciest roles, and therefore out of Oscar contention (Hughey 2014; 1-2, 10). Should minority actors be given more complex, abundant roles, their names would show up alongside those of their white peers on nomination day.
But how much does this matter? Does the racial composition of an awards show which bestows privilege upon the most privileged bear any apparent weight? During Gina Rodriguez’s tribute to actress Rita Moreno at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, she spoke of seeing Moreno on screen and realizing for the first time that Puerto Rican women could be actresses. “You gave me hope, you gave me a reason to fight and to speak up, you gave me a voice,” she said through tears (Brucculieri 2015). When the Oscars aired on February 28th, young children of all ethnicities watched as white actors won gold statutes. For any racial minority, dreams of becoming an actor seemed that much less attainable. Just like that, dreams stayed dreams, and stars were unborn. This is why Hollywood is angry. This is why it matters.
The Academy should nominate the actors who give the most outstanding performances of the year. That’s it. No race. No campaigns. No politics. In a society characterized by subconscious racism, this is no easy task. But after accounting for the limitations and prejudices of the industry, I am confident that through increased awareness and calls for industry-wide reform, changes can be made. Actors can transcend race. They just need to be given the chance.