Movies Pop Culture

The #OscarsSoWhite controversy goes beyond pity handouts

It’s going to take a lot more than a yearly self-congratulatory awards ceremony to rectify that.

On a larger scale, it’s absurd to expect any sort of satisfaction in matters of representation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but that doesn’t make the #OscarsSoWhite outrage any less valid. The Academy is well-known for being predictable and a bit obtuse (which is why terms such as “Oscar-bait” have made a place in our vocabulary).

It’s a bit ridiculous that in the year 2016 we’re still having conversations surrounding racial equality and representation in one of the world’s biggest industries. Yet, the same issue has come up again for the second year in a row— the Academy Awards are so, so white. There are no people of color nominated for acting Oscars. Not one nonwhite person has been nominated for directing, composition, cinematography, or writing. There’s a large (and vocal) handful of people who believe these nominations are solely based on merit, and nominating PoC for the sake of having PoC is a “handout” and a consequence of “the race card.”

[bctt tweet=”What truly needs to change is the way that films are made.”]

This flawed perception on racial dynamics in Hollywood could be shut down with one word: Creed. Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan’s second collaboration deserved to be recognized beyond its Best Supporting Actor nod (and to Sylvester Stallone, the prominent white man in the film), but it was criminally underlooked. There are other big-hitter PoC-led films and artists (Straight Outta Compton, Tangerine) that were a huge part of the Oscars conversation that missed out. Yet, the superficiality and ultimate emptiness of the Academy Awards makes the focus on their ballot fruitless.

Winning an Academy Award is largely symbolic, a win for the artist’s ego more than anything else. Studios love touting their wins, and it might increase a filmmaker’s chance of getting future work, but in itself, an Oscar is just a trophy. Halle Berry’s 2002 win for Monster’s Ball— which made her the only woman of color to have won for Best Actress to date— was supposed to be symbolic for the advancement of Black actresses in Hollywood. However, the Academy has yet to award another Black actress the trophy, and the past two years have failed to even nominate one.

[bctt tweet=”Winning an Academy Award is largely symbolic.”]

The problem with symbols like this, though, is that they are exactly that. Halle Berry’s win didn’t change anything about the presence of WoC actresses in mainstream films. The overwhelming whiteness doesn’t begin and end at the Oscars— they are the most high-profile film awards we have in the United States, but their whiteness is indicative of Hollywood’s race problem.

Most people angry about the issue understand this, and the outrage over the homogeneity of the nominations is understandable. For the casual moviegoer (and it’s important to remember that this is most people), the Academy Awards define the best of the bunch, and the fact that zero filmmakers of PoC were nominated reinforces negative notions about PoC filmmakers. To those who take the Academy Awards seriously, films by PoC are either niche (the way indie or genre films are, and thus ignored by the Oscars), or they aren’t worth major recognition. This is harmful in itself.

[bctt tweet=”Here’s the truth: the Academy Awards are so, so white.”]

People are circulating the widely reported statistic that Oscar voters are 94% white, 76% male, and average 63 years of age, then it’s clear that something needs to change within the institution of the AMPAS. However, that shift would be only the first step; what truly needs to change is the way that films are made.

That means hiring more PoC, more women, more LGBTQ artists, and greenlighting the stories that they champion. That means understanding that it’s not #OscarsSoWhite once a year, but rather that #HollywoodSoWhite every single day. And it’s going to take a lot more than a yearly self-congratulatory awards ceremony to rectify that.

By Shayan Farooq

Shayan was creating mini documentaries profiling Pacific Asian artists for the USC Pacific Asia Museum of Pasadena. You can follow her on Twitter, but not in real life.

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