It has long been an open secret that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a mostly white, and male, operation. But we didn’t quite know just how white and just how male, until the Los Angeles Times’ eye-opening investigation into who makes up the 5,765 member roster of the Academy Awards.
Even knowing this ‘secret,’ the results are jarring. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Oscar voters are nearly 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male,” with African Americans comprising “about 2 percent of the academy, [while] Latinos are less than 2 percent.”
Some will say that this revelation is not a big deal and that award shows like the NAACP Image Awards, which recently aired on NBC, rarely recognize non-black people. The difference is that the Oscars purport to represent the best in film, not the best in white film.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bills itself as “the world’s preeminent movie-related organization,” of “the most accomplished men and women working in cinema.” Therefore, it is increasingly problematic that only certain types of films, and a particular race and gender, are consistently recognized.
“In the past 83 years of Oscars,” reports Los Angeles Times, “less than 4 percent of the acting awards have been bestowed on African-Americans. Only one woman — Kathryn Bigelow — has received the Academy Award for directing The Hurt Locker.”
And, in that 4 percent, most of those roles have not been meaty ones.
Although there is no arguing that both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer delivered excellent performances in The Help, the problem is that roles for non-white actors remain extremely limited, even in 2012, and somehow the Academy seems okay with that.
Some have written, in defense of the Academy, that it has managed to recognize films like Slumdog Millionaire, which had a non-white cast. They fail to acknowledge, however, that that film’s director, Danny Boyle, was another white male. Who is to say that there was not another version of Slumdog Millionaire, just as worthy, but overlooked because it didn’t have the right connections?
Actually, it is the lack of the right connections that continues to plague aspiring film professionals of color. If the pot from which the nominees are selected is indeed closed to many non-white practitioners, then the winners will be, too. So, once again, we are at the chicken and egg argument. Sort of. There are indeed great actors of color who, despite being in decent projects, manage to remain unrecognized.
To be truthful, very few black Academy Award nominees have been acknowledged in films where the director has not been a white male. Denzel Washington in Training Day is the only exception that immediately comes to mind.
But the Academy Award brass, past and present, don’t appear rattled by that reality at all. Former president Frank Pierson, who won the Oscar for original screenplay for Dog Day Afternoon in 1976, said, “I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population. That’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for…. We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”
After the 2011 ceremony failed to feature one black male presenter, Samuel L. Jackson complained loudly through an email that, “It’s obvious there’s not one black male actor in Hollywood that’s able to read a teleprompter…”
This year, when asked about diversity, current president Tom Sherak responded that the year’s producers, Brian Grazer and Don Mischer, were not instructed to make the show more diverse and quipped, “Producers produce the show, end of subject.”
It is this attitude of helplessness that continues to plague diversity efforts in this country. Just because things have always been a certain way, does not make it right. Yes, we know that Chris Rock and Whoopi Goldberg have hosted the Oscars and, in the last decade or so, Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’Nique, Forest Whitaker, Morgan Freeman and Jamie Foxx have all won Oscars. Those exceptions, however, don’t detract from the rule.
As with anything else in this country, until we insist that the contributions of African-Americans and other Americans are readily acknowledged in general American history, we will be plagued with this problem. If our nation continues to see African-American value, in particular, as only being valid in the areas of civil rights and sports, we will continue to be overlooked, from the casting of a film to the recognition of its greatness.
“People of color are always peripheral,” actor Bernie Casey, who withdrew from the Academy, told the Los Angeles Times, “Asians, Latinos, black people — you never see them. We are 320 million people in America and about 48 million black people and the same of Latin descent — but you would not believe that based on what you see in films and television shows.”
Denzel Washington suggests, “If the country is 12 percent black, make the academy 12 percent black…. If the nation is 15 percent Hispanic, make the academy 15 percent Hispanic.” While that may not be the best route, Washington definitely has the right idea. At some point, the Oscars must decide that film is not just the bastion of white males.
The Academy should be ashamed that, in the almost 20 years since Rev. Jesse Jackson led a very well-publicized protest in 1996, regarding the lack of inclusion at the Oscars and, ultimately, the film industry itself, it has improved very little.
Sherak told the Los Angeles Times that, “I’m hoping your story runs and 7,000 phone calls breaks the lines here…. We’ve been trying to reach out to the constituency and we’re looking for help…. If you are sitting waiting for us to find your name in our make-believe book and we are going to call you, we are not going to do that. Come to us, we’ll get you in. We want you in. That would help us a lot.”
Those comments tell the whole story. In this country, white men often don’t feel the need to act when it comes to diversity. The onus is always on people of color. At the end of the day, the people who run the Oscars, which supposedly represent the best films on earth, could care less that they are leaving some deserving people and films out. If we are not in the club, they believe it’s not their fault. Even in 2012, it’s still our fault that they changed the locks and threw away the key.
Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @rondaracha