For anyone who watches the Academy Awards, it is a familiar sight. A megawatt celebrity stands on stage, envelope in hand. The camera cuts to a split screen of five actresses, all hoping to hear their name called, all trying to not act anxious. And they are good at it because they are Academy Award nominated actresses after all. Typically there is the up-and-comer with a break out role, the veteran with many nominations and zero wins, the character actress who showed us something new, the one who played Queen Elizabeth, and Meryl Streep.
The megawatt celebrity, oftentimes a previous Oscar-winner themselves, opens the envelope and dramatically says, “And the Oscar goes to …”
In the 92-year history of the Academy Awards, only 6.4% of best acting nominations have gone to non-white actors and actresses. In the last 25 years, that number has grown to a still meager 11.2%. But 2016 didn’t get the memo. This year, as well as last year, every single one of the 20 nominees for acting awards is white. A white person’s victory is guaranteed.
And the “internets” went mad! Immediately after this year’s nominations were announced, #OscarsSoWhite was trending on Twitter. In a year with strong performances from non-white performers like Will Smith in Concussion, Idris Elba and breakout child actor Abraham Atta in Beasts of No Nation, Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson in Creed, and Benicio Del Toro in Sicario, it was surprising to not see a single nomination for a person of color.
What if these 20 nominated white performers were just … better?
Maybe they were. Or maybe, just maybe, art and the judgment of art is a highly objective endeavor. And you can never know what will resonate with the voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. So what do you think these voters who are 94% white, 77% male with a median age of 62 would like? Obviously by their selections, it wasn’t Jason Mitchell’s standout performance as Eazy-E in the critical and box office hit Straight Outta Compton.
But why does it matter? Isn’t it just an award given by a self-congratulatory industry?
It matters because this isn’t some participation award without meaning. Winning an Oscar, not to mention just being nominated, greatly impacts the performer’s career. Following an Oscar win, an actor or actress can expect an 81% bump in their salary. They are offered better roles. More creative control is achieved. And all of that equals more power and influence. An influence that will continue as they themselves become members of the voting Academy.
The reason #OscarsSoWhite matters is because it’s not only about the Oscars, it’s about Hollywood as a whole. Up to this point we have only discussed actors and actresses, and haven’t even touched on the lack of diversity among directors, writers, and producers. The lack of non-white nominees in any category is just the end result of an industry that sorely lacks opportunities for People of Color.
This lack of opportunity affects not only jobs in film, but the stories being told as well. An industry more likely to award its own homogeneity is less likely to greenlight, finance, and champion stories and creators from outside the established norm. And even when it does, the perspective is often changed to become more “marketable.” That is how a Tom Cruise becomes The Last Samurai, why Driving Miss Daisy beats Do the Right Thing for the Best Picture award, and how blonde-haired green-eyed Emma Stone plays a hapa character named Allison Ng. I repeat. Emma Stone plays a hapa character named Allison Ng.
In this current system the stories of People of Color are not only going unrewarded, but also stereotyped, co-opted, tokenized, or completely ignored.
Speaking of ignored, where do APIs fit in in all of this? Unfortunately in this mostly binary discussion of Black and white, APIs don’t even register. In the history of the Academy Awards only two API American performers have ever won an Oscar; Dr. Haing S. Ngor in 1984, and Miyoshi Umeki in 1957. In both cases, these two naturalized Americans played foreigners in supporting roles. No American born API has ever won an acting award. And no API American themed film has had major studio distribution since Better Luck Tomorrow in 2002. This independently financed film almost didn’t happen. That is until MC Hammer thought it was 2 Legit 2 Quit and wired money to director Justin Lin so he could complete it.
How do we change this paradigm?
#OscarsSoWhite is a start. On the strength of this trending hashtag that has been publicly supported by many celebrities, the Academy has vowed to double the number of female and non-white members by 2020. They will also immediately add three new seats to its board of governors, which sounds pretty good until you realize that of their current 51 members, only two are People of Color. And one of them has only been on the job for less than a year.
Beyond that, Hollywood only cares about dollars and buzz. Go see films led by People of Color wherever you can find them, be it multiplexes, online, or at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival (shameless plug!) this weekend at the Northwest Film Forum (for tickets go to www.seattleaaff.org). Use those Twitter fingers the next time Hollywood casts white people in non-white roles. Give to filmmaker’s crowd funding campaigns. Love Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu as much as I do!
So that one day you will see Constance Wu on stage, envelope in hand. The camera will cut to a split screen of five actresses, all hoping to hear their name called, all trying to not act anxious. And they are good at it because they are Academy Award nominated actresses after all. There will be the up-and-comer who first came to Hollywood’s notice from her role in Broadway’s Hamilton, the veteran who grew up on the Southside of Chicago, the character actress whose parents immigrated from Mexico, the one who played Queen Rania, and Meryl Streep.
“And the Oscar goes to …”