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Why the “Oscars So White” Debate Reflects Systemic Racism

You can flip the TV on or go to any theater and see that women and minorities are barely there to be seen—and when they are, they’re usually seen as objects or props. The Directors Guild of America reported that women and minorities are underrepresented as first-time TV directors. A UCLA study also found that women and minorities are vastly underrepresented in film and TV.

Part of the problem is access. The Hollywood Diversity Report of 2015 states that 81% of films seen by black audiences don’t even feature a black lead, cast, or storyline, and Latinos are only given about 4.9% of speaking roles. From the first pitch to audition time, minorities and women are at a significant disadvantage. Then there is awards season. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) is in charge of the Oscars, and it’s 94% white, about 76% male and 63 years old on average.

As a filmmaker (well, I’m directing a small short in hopes making features someday, ok?) the Oscar season is an exciting time and even established folks in the business don’t discount what a nomination or golden statuette can do to their resume. Even those of us who are progressive and work hard to keep awards of any kind get sucked into this competitive culture. People such as Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Leonardo DiCaprio have gotten where they are because of their consistent stream of awards and/or nominations. When a person is considered “bankable” the opportunities to negotiate higher pay, be more selective of roles and even become a producer increase substantially.

When no actors of color were nominated last year, people were angry at the Academy—and why not? The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag went viral, but there were far less cries for a boycott than there are now. After a second year without any people of color except Alejandro González Iñárritu in the Big Five categories (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director), people are rightfully furious.

Spike Lee and Michael Moore have both stated they will stay home on the night of the ceremony. George Clooney has also pointed out that the Oscars have a problem, as has Selma star David Oyelowo, and star of 12 Years as a Slave, Lupita Nyong’o. Jada Pinkett-Smith has called for a boycott of the ceremony, and Viola Davis has also stated the all-white nominees represent the symptoms of a greater disease. And they’re right. I mean, just look at Cheryl Boone Isaacs—she’s the first African-American to get to be president of AMPAS. She’s discussed the importance of increasing diversity in AMPAS, but she can’t change the film industry on her own.

The anger over the lack of people of color at the Academy Awards is poignant given the issues African-Americans, minorities, and women still face on a daily basis. No one is asking for audiences to feel sorry for actors of color who are able to snag a job in Hollywood and make it—they know they’re in a privileged echelon of society. But what minority and women are saying in their anger of the #OscarsSoWhite debate is that even those who are able to be a part of the entertainment industry still face the same types of problems faced in other job categories.

We grew up facing the same systemic injustices, we are consistently denied roles and opportunities because we “don’t look the part” or because our skin color makes us somehow “less qualified” than white people with the same amount of experience, and we’re not represented at the executive level. What this is about is that directors and screenwriters tell stories about us without us on a frequent basis. This is dangerous for our culture, since the stereotypes spread about minorities and women in entertainment have a high degree of influence in our culture.

Too many of us are denied the opportunity to work with studios to the detriment of films that look the same. Like any other job category, the entertainment industry must change and reflect the diversity of their audiences. We are not a risk. We have stories to tell, and although a good film isn’t defined by the amount of accolades it gets, the lack of representation at the Oscars is just more proof that systemic racism at the beginning of the Hollywood system reduces opportunities for advancement during awards season.

 

Ingrid Cruz

Ingrid Cruz

Ingrid Cruz is a freelance writer and designer raised in Los Angeles. She's currently backpacking South America and hopes to return to the USA free of her fear of heights.

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