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Q&A: Al Sharpton Talks Oscar Boycott, Says African Americans Need to Send Message to Hollywood

Rev. Al Sharpton is calling for viewers to “tune out” this year’s Oscar broadcast.

The MSNBC host and former Democratic presidential candidate is incensed that for the second year in a row, members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences failed to nominate any actors or directors of color despite acclaimed work from the likes of Will Smith (“Concussion”), Idris Elba (“Beasts of No Nation”),  and Ryan Coogler (“Creed”). Lower ratings could depress advertising revenue, Sharpton reasons, noting that a similar tactic caused CBS Radio to end Don Imus’s contract in 2007 after the broadcaster called the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.”

Sharpton told Variety that the National Action Network (NAN), the civil rights group he founded and leads, will convene a series of meetings and conference calls with African-American leaders and advocacy groups  to create a campaign to encourage people not to watch the awards show. His comments come after filmmaker Spike Lee said he would not attend the ceremony and actress Jada Pinkett Smith floated the idea of a boycott.

Variety spoke to Sharpton about his outrage over the snubs and how he plans to pressure the Academy to become more diverse.

Why are you calling for a “tune out”?

We’ve talked about the climate of exclusion for people of color in Hollywood both in terms of being selected for possible awards and in terms of having power to make deals and it seems as though Hollywood listens a day or two and moves on. Now it’s time to make sure we can’t be ignored. A “tune out” can do that.

One of the things that NAN has done, whether it was with Imus or other issues, is the way we have used he cash register. If major advertisers know that people are tuning out and the ratings are down, that will impact the bottom line of the value of the Academy and the Academy has to, at some point, determine whether or not it is in their interest to continue excluding people and excluding them at what price. Now we have to escalate that price. When we were fighting people before, we went right to the advertisers and people who ignored us started saying, ‘lets sit down and talk,’ because their bottom line was effected. You have to remember advertisers have to do business, have to go before congress and the senate for regulations, they have to deal in municipalities to expand their businesses. Advertisers when they’re approached by civil rights groups, they may agree or disagree, but they don’t want to get into it. They think, why am I going to pay money? The viewership will be lower. And I’m going to have people on me for underwriting something that now is developing into a pattern of exclusion.

Are you reaching out to other groups?

Oh yeah. We’re having a series of conference calls in the next few days with other national civil rights groups as well as some of the ministerial groups and what I call “influencers,” people who have national syndicated radio shows like I do and others. They’re the ones that talk to the demographic that watch the Oscars.

This is a contest voted on by a fairly small group of people that’s a subjective assessment of art. Why do you feel the selection process has failed and why is it important that the Oscars be more inclusive?

It’s failed because it’s a small body with an even smaller percentage of people of color. When you have an industry where 40% of the theater-goers are people of color, but the representation people of color in the Academy is much smaller, you have a situation that is offensive and insulting. Secondly, the reason why it’s so important to us is because the Oscars have always been considered the ultimate prize in American cinema and culture. We can not afford in an era that we can have a black in the White House, a black attorney general, but a black for two years or a brown for two years can’t get an Oscar nomination? There’s something totally contradictory about that.

Do you think that this kind of exclusion is confined to the Oscars or is it simply reflective of a larger problem throughout the entertainment industry?

It’s much broader. It’s industry-wide, but I think that the most dramatic and the most optical in terms of relevance is the Oscars. It’s also the one to more easily organize people around. People don’t have to come out to a march. People don’t have to do anything. People can just turn the dial. Since they have tuned us out in Hollywood, we can tune them out at home.

Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs released a statement yesterday saying she was “heartbroken” by the lack of diversity and calling for a review of the membership. What did you think of her response and have you reached out to her?

We have not reached out to her. She should be heartbroken, but my battle is not with her. But again how many years are we going to take heartbreaking before we start fingering our remotes to another channel? That’s all. In fact what we are doing will help her in terms of the diversity issue. People tend to move more quickly when they know it’s going to cost them something. In many ways, if her statement is sincere, this will help her make people understand that something needs to be done.

The Academy has tapped an African-American host for the broadcast, Chris Rock. Do you think he should boycott the show?

I’m not encouraging artists either way, because I understand they have to survive in that industry. But I think that artists, as well as companies, need to understand they’re playing to a public. The public operates independently. The artists have to survive, but the public has to be respected. We can influence enough of the public to effect the bottom line.

Do you think the exclusion of black performers is a case of people being racist? Are they being ignorant? What do you think the reason is?

It could be all of the above or part of the above. It really doesn’t matter. If you’re excluded, you want to have inclusion. Or you can have exclusion continue, but I’m not paying for it. It’s that simple. They can do whatever they want, but not on my TV.

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