How long does history have to repeat itself before you recognize you’re marooned on an island of cultural apartheid? That question, when viewed through the rubric of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, has a definitive answer: 87 years. Since the very first ceremony was hosted by Douglas Fairbanks in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel in 1929, the Academy Awards have established the strata for what is considered high art in film. A golden statue puts a premium on particular stories that are deemed worthy of being told. A golden statue validates the voices that get to tell them. A golden statue is also a golden key — opening doors to ownership, access and financial latitude. So what happens when those golden statues are hardly ever awarded to black artists compared to their white peers? What message does that send to black people, about black stories, about black lives, about black humanity?
“If the complex and beautiful and nuanced stories of all marginalized communities aren’t even being written down and respected at the embryonic level, then how can we expect to see them celebrated on the big screen?” April Reign, creator of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, asked me this during our phone conversation this week. Reign’s hashtag began incubating a year ago when the 2015 Oscar nominations were announced and not a single black actor could be spotted—in a year where Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights, and Justin Simien’s Dear White People boasted predominantly black casts in dynamic, complicated, grounded roles. If the hashtag made ripples then, it’s causing a cleansing tidal wave now, as a response to zero black actors receiving nominations in a year that featured critically exalted and commercially lucrative art about the black experience like Creed, Tangerine, Beasts of No Nation, Chi-Raq, and Straight Outta Compton.
But Hollywood’s lack of inclusion for non-white performers and storytellers, the hyper-invisibility and erasure of the black condition, and the societal conditioning to view white as default and anything else as niche has always existed. One can look back exactly 20 years ago to the 1996 Oscars, where just one out of 166 nominees were black (Dianne Houston, director of the live-action short Tuesday Morning Ride) and see the blatantly shameful parallels to 2016. That year, the Academy scrambled to cover their ass by enlisting high-profile black celebrities to be the face of the ceremony: producer Quincy Jones, and presenters Will Smith, Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, and Sidney Poitier, who presented the award for Best Pictures. In 2016, it’s Common, Morgan Freeman, Kerry Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, and Quincy Jones (see how that came full circle?). The Academy's perfunctory “diversity hires” are meant to illustrate that they are in fact aware of the problem, but really they’re sending a message that black people can help present awards, just not accept them.
Even the acting categories of the 1996 mirrored the uniform whiteness of 2016. Don Cheadle was considered a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actor for his baleful performance as Mouse Alexander in Devil in a Blue Dress, especially after winning that honor from the National Society of Film Critics. And yet, silence from the Academy. This year, Michael B. Jordan was also recognized by the NSFC for his emotionally and physically taxing turn as Adonis Creed in Creed. Silence from the Academy. Laurence Fishburne in Othello in ‘96, Samuel L. Jackson for The Hateful Eight in '16. Silence from the Academy. Angela Bassett for Waiting To Exhale then, Teyonah Parris in Chi-Raq now. Silence from the Academy. A deafening silence that remains complicit in marginalizing black artists.
The Academy though, to this day, is merely a henchman carrying out and reinforcing the studio system’s dirty work. As Reign told me, “The onus doesn’t lie with the Academy. The lack of inclusive nominees is a symptom but not the root problem. The problem is that the Hollywood studio executives must approach films from a broader perspective. They need to be speaking in more representative terms, not only with respect to who will be seen on film, but also who tells the stories behind the camera.” There’s an oppressive trickle-down economy propping up the filmmaking pipeline. With 94 percent of studio executives being old white men hiring other white men to write and direct movies about white men (and sometimes, rarely, white women) that are eventually to be voted on by the Academy which is also 94 percent white and 76 percent male with a median age of 63, what kind of representation do you expect to be reflected?
And a movie’s chances at Oscar recognition live and die by the campaigning done by its studio benefactors. If Warner Bros. doesn’t even believe they have something prestigious or awards-worthy in a universally beautiful piece of cinema—like Creed, because black equals other—then they won’t send out screeners for critics and Academy members to view and vote on, thus eliminating Creed’s chances of gaining momentum in the Oscar conversation. Compare that to 1996, when Fox sent out thousands of screeners of the Keanu Reeves debris known as A Walk in the Clouds, but not a single copy of Waiting to Exhale. It’s all political, and we already know how American capitalist politics treats marginalized groups. Creators and consumers alike have been programmed to see an inherent value in white art, even when it is positively mediocre. Black art that is triumphant and transcendent is still relegated to the sidelines.
That’s not to say nothing has changed in the past 20 years. Whereas Jessie Jackson’s attempt to boycott the 1996 Oscars was unfairly met by derision and plugged ears, in 2016 the Academy and the culture at large were forced to pull their heads out of the sand and listen thanks to the viral reach of Reign’s #OscarSoWhite hashtag. She is the catalyst for this monumental boom. Filmmakers and actors of color are speaking candidly about their experiences in Hollywood with unprecedented vigor and solidarity. In 1996, the Academy scoffed at the idea of being labeled as racist because of that oh-so-ignorant canard that “liberals can’t be racist.” In 2016, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of AMPAS, has promised swift systemic reform to the membership of an Academy that has operated with privileged impunity for over 80 years.
Hell, even pop culture is properly adjusting to a climate of diversity and inclusion. In 1996, SNL mocked Jessie Jackson’s ultimately futile attempt of shining a light on the entertainment industry’s embedded racial bias with a tone-deaf Ross Perot sketch starring Nathan Lane. In 2016, SNL produced their most pointed, most hilarious upward punch to date at the expense of Hollywood’s racism with an #OscarsSoWhite sketch.
Change doesn’t have to be a scary thing. But change must absolutely be revolutionary. And if it is considered “revolutionary” to celebrate the stories, the experiences, and the humanity of people of color, of women, of the LGBT community, of the differently-abled everywhere they intersect, then we can no longer afford to be reactionary. The time is now. Revolt against the exclusionary status quo representation by propping up filmmakers of color at every turn. You can even engage in counter-programming alongside April Reign by turning on The Wood on Netflix and live-tweeting that on Sunday instead of watching the Oscars. Hit em’ where it hurts: their numbers.
This essay is part of Complex's Racism in Hollywood series.