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Are The Oscars So White? No, Not Really.

Are 2016's Academy Awards nominations the 'whitest' ever? Well no, not really... Yet according to Gotham’s Jada Pinkett Smith, it is. While for the second year running no black actors were Academy nominated, the African American president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Cheryl Boone Isaacs described herself as “frustrated by the lack of inclusion.” As a result the ensuing social media hysteria boosted by the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag have bought to the table the important matter of the representation of race and Hollywood. 

Issacs promised a review of recruitment efforts, saying, “This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes.” 

But is the correct conversation being held? Although Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett, Will Smith and even Sylvester Stallone all point fingers at the Academy for not including the ‘black element’ of several of 2015’s highest rated movies, such as Creed and the NWA bio-pic Straight Outta Compton, should they really be pointing their fingers at film studios, production companies, distributors, financiers and even the filmmakers themselves, for not investing more time and money into cinema of color? The truth is, not enough high quality ‘non-white’ movies are being made and not enough black actors are being chosen for good roles. The Academy can only select from the best of what exists and thus conversely should not reward films simply because they exist. It’s integrity rests with its ability to select the best films of any given year, to nominate and reward them accordingly. The day its voters begin to award filmmakers according to ethnic quotas and not merit, will be the day it will no longer have integrity.

To this date, and even to this very year, The Academy has done a reasonably good job of recognising ethnic talent. Sometimes good films miss Oscar nods simply due to the luck of the draw, and not racism. Although Straight Outta Compton was not recognised for its elegant cinematography, nor Will Smith and Benicio Del Toro for their moving performances in Concussion and Sicario, the past 15 years have seen a very good representation for black and other minority actors and filmmakers. Within this period, 12 Years a Slave won best picture. Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Forest Whitaker, Jamie Foxx, and Jennifer Hudson have all picked up Oscars while the Martin Luther King bio-pic Selma amongst others have received favourable Academy acknowledgment. 

Even if it were the case that a greater investment was already being put into the production of Oscar worthy black films, the basic math of how many African American’s have been recognised over the past 20 years is consistent with the ethnic makeup of the US population. Although it is a far from scientifically sound comparison, the below chart originally compiled by a user on 4Chan shows that African American’s represent approximately 13 percent of the population and have received 12.5 percent of the acting awards in the last 20 years. 

Black ‘Best Actor’ recipients since 1995

2001 - Denzel Washington | Training Day
2004 - Jamie Foxx | Ray
2006 - Forest Whitaker | The Last King of Scotland

3/20 = 15 percent

Black ‘Best Actress’ recipients since 1995

2001 - Halle Berry | Monster’s Ball

1/20 = 5 percent

Black ‘Best Supporting Actor’ recipients since 1995

1996 - Cuba Gooding, Jr. | Jerry Maguire 
2004 - Morgan Freeman | Million Dollar Baby

2/20 = 10 percent

Black ‘Best Supporting Actress’ recipients since 1995

2006 - Jennifer Hudson | Dreamgirls
2009 - Mo’Nique | Precious
2011 - Octavia Spencer | The Help
2013 - Lupia Wyong’o | 12 Years A Slave

4/20 = 20 percent

Best Actor | 15 percent Black since 1995
Best Actress | 5 percent Black since 1995  
Best Supporting Actor | 10 percent Black since 1995
Best Supporting Actress | 20 percent Black since 1995

(20% + 15% + 10% + 5%) / 4 = 12.5% of the past 20 Academy Awards recipients in the Acting category were black. Blacks make up 13% of the US population and hold 12.5% of the Best Acting Awards given out since 1995.

Ex-NWA member and actor Ice Cube posited an opposing view to Spike Lee et al by criticising the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. The actor said he did not join the Hollywood trend of boycotting the Academy Awards as “You can’t boycott something that you never went to anyway,” adding he views award shows like a horse race. “Once your horse loses the race, you tear up your ticket and go home.”

While critics posit that Straight Outta Compton was snubbed by the Academy, achieving only a Best Original Screenplay nomination, Ice Cube, the film’s producer disagreed. “We got accolades from all levels,” he said, adding that being mad about not getting one guild or Academy’s recognition is like “crying about not having enough icing on your cake.”

As with so many politically charged arguments, other basic facts are sometimes omitted from the discourse out of fear that it will compromise any given stance. In addition to the above statistics, this year has seen the inclusion of other non-white nominees, even in the major categories. The Revenant saw two Mexican filmmakers, its director and cinematographer Alejandro González Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki be nominated (Lubezki recently received two statuettes for Birdman and Gravity in 2015 and 2014). Arab British director Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb has been nominated for Best Foreign film for Jordan, whilst other non-white filmmakers of various ethnic backgrounds have found themselves up for Academy Awards in 2015.

Yet, even though the Oscars may not be as ‘white’ as its critics claim, more creative and financial investment still needs to be put into movies produced by black and other ethnic minorities, if people want to see greater racial inclusion come awards season. Change in The Academy should not be forced and can only organically evolve in its voting habits once Hollywood’s film industry as a whole changes. 

Abdullah Yahya* is a Producer and Film Editor at One Nine Seven One Media in Dubai.
Follow him (@yehya_ae) on Twitter and Instagram 
and One Nine Seven One Media on Twitter (@1971Productions)
and Instagram (@1971Media)

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*The views of The Review AE’s writers are independent and do not represent the views of One Nine Seven One Media.

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Are The Oscars So White? No, Not Really.


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