It is that time of the year again, the super bowl of the film industry, the Oscars. It is when the stars and starlets of Hollywood come out to pat each other on the back and congratulate themselves for all the hard work they accomplished over the past year. We all watch as the names are called and the nominees sit fidgeting in their seats, a sea of nervous and expectant and very much white faces. For the second year in a row, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated only white actors for the actor categories, and though we here at The NYRD are not big on award shows -mostly because we have never been nominated for anything- we feel it is time we explore this trend in more depth.
The Nominations for Best Statistic in a Historic Context
One in 10,000. When the Economist looked at the demographics of actors who are members of the Screen Actors Guild they found that roughly 30% of the SAG members are minority actors. so, if all the guild members were equally likely to receive Oscar nominations then each year -statistically speaking- minority Guild members would receive 12 out of the 40 available acting nominations. Yet, for 2016 and 2015 that was not the case, but just by shear numbers alone the odds of no single minority actor being nominated in back to back ceremonies, even during a 15-year period, are around 1 in 100,000. However, both you and that racists guy on the subway know that Oscar nominations are not handed out based on the statistical analysis of sample groups.
The first black actor to win was Hattie McDaniel for Best Supporting Actress in 1939. She portrayed Mammy in Gone With the Wind, and accepted the award at a time when black people were not even allowed to be guests in the hotel that the Oscars were being held in. Yet, this milestone was not as historic as you might first think. McDaniel -herself the daughter of two former slaves- won for portraying a sassy black slave in a white-led picture. That was one of only few “acceptable” roles for black people to play in the 1930’s and 1940’s, let alone win an award for, but at least we have moved beyond that… right? Well, it was 27 years until Sidney Poitier won a Best Actor award, 73 years until a black woman, Halle Berry, won for Best Actress, and the most recent black actor to take home an award was Lupita Nyongo in 2014 for her stirring portrayal of… you guessed it… a slave woman. Only 15 African American actors have ever won an Oscar since the Academy began giving out awards in 1929.
Of course, the statistics get even more depressing when you move from black Americans to other racial minorities. African Americans make up about 12.6% of the American population, and since 2000 10% of Oscar nominations have gone to black actors. Latinos make up 16% of the American population and have only nabbed just 3% of nominations. Only 1% of actors with Asian backgrounds have received any nominations, and only 2% of actors from other heritage groups have ever been nominated. No one from those last two categories has ever won. It is even worse if you a woman or a member of the LGBTQ community.
Behind the Scenes
So why does this happen? Isn’t prejudice over in America? The answer to that, by the way, is a resounding, “No.” Like Hattie McDaniel, minorities are still finding themselves saddled with new but “acceptable” roles. They may no longer be the role of the sassy slave -even if some of them still are- but they exist. For African Americans it is the role of the rapper or the sports star. For Asians it is the role of the buffoon or the dragon lady. For Hispanics the role of the gang member or cleaning lady, and the list goes on and on. All of this happens, while white actors continue to get roles meant for minorities, such as casting Emma Stone as a Hawaiian, Ben Afleck as Latino, or Johnny Depp as Native American. Studios will tell you that these decisions are made for financial reasons. It can take over $100 million to get a movie off the ground and most studio executives are not be willing to risk that kind of cash on an unknown minority lead, which is sort of like saying you never want to risk trying asparagus because you’ve never tried asparagus before. It becomes a slow self-perpetuating problem.
Yet, surely Hollywood -the bastion of liberal America- has moved beyond institutional racism by 2016? The answer again, is a resounding “No.” Hollywood is much like any other industry in America, and despite the left-leaning views of its actors, the establishment is still very much entrenched in the racial notions of the past. The majority of the current membership of the Academy is still white and over 50, with an average age of about 63. Many of the people who are doing the nominating and decision making in Hollywood are still very much old, rich, male, and white. We here at The NYRD are not saying these gentlemen are overtly racist, but they are overtly stuck in their ways. Anything in the entertainment industry moves at glacial speed and change doubly so. When it comes to the movies themselves, they have become about opening box-office weekend profits, or chasing the current movie trend whether it be video game nostalgia, superheroes, or Chris Pratt. So studio executives will claim they are only following the trends set out by movie-goers, and that brings us to our next problem.
According to the LA Weekly, 61% of people in California who give their money to the entertainment industry are non-white, and yet even with such an overwhelming number of minority viewers and movie-goers Hollywood still chooses Jack Black to voice a kung-fu Panda while Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan have about five lines apiece in the same movie. So, what do we do as the viewing audience, protest? No, we go and see the movie anyway. We give our money to studios and say, “Ehh whatever, it’s just a cartoon. It’s just a movie.” It’s just a fictional representation internalized by society and subconsciously perpetuated everyday in America. Movies are not mindless entertainment, they are art imitating life imitating art.
Yet, we continue to support films that cast white leads as opposed to minorities. Even majorly minority movies, like Glory still prominently feature Ferris Bueller in the lead, because studios fear audience will not show up to see the movie otherwise, and in a way they are right. Selma has a 99% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and yet it was beat in the box office by -in no particular order- a terrible movie about a kid with spider-powers, a story about Matthew McConaughey in space, a story about giant robots destroying our collective childhoods, a story about Jennifer Lawrence looking for her pita bread, and the list goes on. Of IMDB’s top 50 movies for 2014, only one of them stars a minority lead, and its a wacky comedy. In fact, compare Selma, a historic account of the Civil Rights movement, to 2014’s American Sniper, a historic account of a Bradley Cooper killing brown people and you start to see some disheartening numbers. Selma made $66.8 million, American Sniper made $547.4 million. Most of us cannot vote in the Oscars, but we do vote with our feet and our wallets.
When a child in a minority group looks up at a movie screen and sees no one who looks like themselves, they may not necessarily think, “I’m the weird one,” but when they see that same whiteness spread out across several movies and TV shows, then at least part of them begins to see that as “normal.” It is a problem when the things we pay hard earned money to entertain us also gives us subtle messages that white is normal, and non-white is the “other;” or that white equals the hero while black equals the gang member, Middle Eastern equals the terrorist, or Indian equals the IT guy. This is a trend that is not entirely the fault of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but it most acutely represented by the Oscars. All we can say is that maybe it is a time we took a good hard look at both Hollywood and ourselves. Change needs to come from theater seat, because right now it is not coming from the nominator’s or the director’s seat.