In 2015, a former Black woman lawyer, April Reign, created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite on Twitter to bring special attention to the extreme lack of diversity in the Academy Award nominations, especially for actors of color, female and male, in lead and supporting role categories. In that year, all of the nominees were white.
Once #OscarsSoWhite went viral, it brought to light that of the approximately 6,000 members belonging to 17 branches in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, 92 percent were white and 75 percent male. Promises were made by the Academy hierarchy to put more serious effort into adding more people of color and women members in front of and behind the camera.
Fast forward to five years later. Very little progress has been made. This same Academy is 84 percent white and 68 percent male. (variety.com, Jan. 15)
Actors of color have been nominated and even won Oscars for acting after 2015, like Lupita Nyong’o, Regina King, Rami Malek and Mahershala Ali. However, when the Oscar nominees for films released in 2019 were announced on Jan. 13, only one person of color was nominated for acting: Cynthia Erivo for her stirring portrayal of abolitionist Harriet Tubman in the film “Harriet.” Some of the most noteworthy actors of color were overlooked for their critically acclaimed performances, including Lupita Nyong’o in “Us,” Jennifer Lopez in “Hustlers,” Awkwafina in “The Farewell,” Alfre Woodard in “Clemency” and others.
Besides the lack of nominations for actors of color, not one woman was nominated in the best director category. The lack of a nomination for the screenplay writer and director of “Little Women,” Greta Gerwig — who is white — was viewed as the most egregious oversight in this category. But women of color directors were also overlooked for their work, like Kasi Lemmons for “Harriet,” Chinonye Chukwu for “Clemency” and Lulu Wang for “The Farewell,” to name just a few. This year’s protest should include #OscarsSoMale.
Over the 91-year history of the Academy Awards, only five women directors have been nominated, with only one win. That was Kathryn Bigelow for the all-male, pro-war film “The Hurt Locker” in 2010.
The vast majority of the nine best film nominations mainly focus on white male characters. When “Little Women” was nominated for best picture, but not Gerwig for her direction, the question was raised sarcastically whether “Little Women” had directed itself.
Movies reinforce racism, sexism
In repeatedly calling for structural changes in broadening the Academy membership, April Reign stated in a Variety op-ed that “#OscarsSoWhite has always encompassed all traditionally underrepresented communities, not just race and ethnicity: It’s also gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, First Nations status and age.” (Jan. 15)
Not surprisingly, Hollywood reflects the rest of U.S. class society with its sordid history of funding racist, sexist and homophobic films for mass consumption since the late 1800s. In the same op-ed, Reign remarked, “[O]f the black actresses who have been nominated for best actress or best supporting actress, the vast majority play women dealing with trauma: women in abject poverty, women who were enslaved, or women who were subservient to others. What does it mean when Lupita Nyong’o can win for her performance in ‘12 Years a Slave,’ playing an enslaved woman, but is completely shut out when she’s playing not just one, but two fully realized characters in ‘Us’? Those are the questions we need to be asking.”
This is because the heads of major studios, who control multimillion-dollar budgets for films, have been majority rich, white males. There are only a small handful of filmmakers of color, along with women, who have the clout to write, direct and produce their own films, like Gerwig, Spike Lee and Michael B. Jordan. And even then, they are still at the mercy of the banks for the necessary funding to make their films. It remains to be seen if any kind of symbolic protest will take place for the blatant snubs at the Feb. 9 Academy Awards, viewed by an estimated 1 billion people worldwide.
On the other hand, the Independent Spirit Awards — known as the “Indies,” held the evening before the Academy Awards broadcast — recognize films with much smaller budgets that portray in a more positive light people of color, women and LGBTQ2S+ people who speak different languages on a global scale.