#OscarsSoWhite Creator: With a Mostly White Academy, What Could We Expect? (Column)

April Reign Activist
Ethan Sands

When I created #OscarsSoWhite in 2015, the Academy membership was 92% white and 75% male. The Academy has improved those numbers a bit, and now its membership is 84% white and 68% male. So yesterday did not come as a surprise. When I saw the nominations, I was disappointed that there were so many talented filmmakers who were not going to be acknowledged and recognized by their peers.

Since I started #OscarsSoWhite, the pushback has often been, “Well, there just weren’t enough diverse films to nominate.” But that clearly was not the case in 2019, with films like “Just Mercy,” “Us,” “Luce,” “Clemency,” “The Farewell” and so many others. When we have this wealth of talent in front of and behind the camera, and they are still not recognized by what is considered the pinnacle in the industry, then we need to take a closer examination of who the Academy membership is, what the voting process is and see where we can make systemic change.

I believe in a meritocracy; cast a wide net, nominate the most talented and most qualified individuals, and the best person should win. But if you aren’t viewing the films, then you cannot be sure that you have actually seen the most talented and qualified.

Overwhelmingly, what we saw in 2019 with these nominations is that most of them are films that reflect the experiences of straight white men. Since the majority of the Academy are white males, and the nominations are viewed through their lens, that may explain why we are seeing the nominations that we are. I am not using words like racism or discrimination or bigotry; I am saying we all bring our own lens and our own experiences to our entertainment consumption. And it’s a problem that the Academy’s voting membership is not required to view the films before they vote, so it really becomes a popularity contest — a popularity contest among mostly straight white males.

The movie studios have a limited budget for marketing, promotion and advertising. If they are releasing half a dozen or more films a year, they have to make very tough decisions about which films they believe have the best chance of winning awards. Those are the ones that they promote during awards season. Unfortunately, smaller films, films that may not be blockbusters but are incredibly important works of art, are left by the wayside. I would love to see a world where all of the movies that are eligible are available to Academy membership online. That puts more responsibility on Academy members to actually expand their network and view these films. Then there’s no excuse.

Yes, Cynthia Erivo was nominated for playing Harriet Tubman in “Harriet.” But of the black actresses who have been nominated for best actress or best supporting actress, the vast majority play women dealing with trauma: women in abject poverty, women who were enslaved, or women who were subservient to others. What does it mean when Lupita Nyong’o can win for her performance in “12 Years a Slave,” playing an enslaved woman, but is completely shut out when she’s playing not just one, but two fully realized characters in “Us”? Those are the questions we need to be asking.

It’s hard to say who else should have been nominated this year, because then the next question is whose place would they have taken? “Parasite” received six Academy Award nominations, all very well-deserved. But none of the cast did. And then obviously we can talk about some of the female directors who were not nominated, like Kasi Lemmons for “Harriet,” Lulu Wang for “The Farewell” and Lorene Scafaria for “Hustlers.”

#OscarsSoWhite has always encompassed all traditionally underrepresented communities, not just race and ethnicity: It’s also gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, First Nations status and age. And in the 91-year history of the Oscars, only five women have been nominated for best director, and only one has won. The Academy cannot stand for the idea that there’s only been one woman worthy of being named best director in over 90 years.

What I am encouraged by is that there are more marginalized filmmakers who are creating their own production companies and saying, “We’re no longer going to wait for the big studios to create the art that we want to see. We’re going to do it ourselves.” Michael B. Jordan is a great example of that, not only creating Outlier Society productions, but also being an early adopter of the Inclusion Rider, ensuring that people behind the camera are getting opportunities as well. Because I’ve always said it’s not just about the faces that we see on the screen. It’s about who’s telling the story, and whose stories are being told.

We’re going into year number six of #OscarsSoWhite, and the Academy has never reached out to me directly about these issues. With respect to issues of inclusion and representation, I have never had a conversation with someone from the Academy about how to improve things within the Academy and in Hollywood as a whole. I knew doubling the number of people of color from 8% to 16% within the Academy was not going to be sufficient. The fastest growing demographic of moviegoers is the Latinx community. They’re almost never represented with respect to Academy nominations, or within the ranks of the Academy. That’s not the way it should be. I would love to have those conversations — making the films available online is just one of many ways that I would suggest the Academy adopt structural changes.

The last thing I will say is that some of the onus is on the Academy, some of the onus is on Hollywood. But there’s also onus on us as consumers, as regular moviegoers who pay our hard-earned dollars to either sit in a theater or stream movies at home. We must choose not to reward mediocrity. We must continue to use our platform — our ratings and our dollars — to support films that reflect a myriad of experiences. And we need to support the smaller films, the ones not playing at the Cineplex, but at the smaller art-house theaters where very often the magic happens. And to lift those films up to our friends, our family members and our online colleagues.

April Reign created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, a viral call-to-action that turned into a social movement and spurred the Academy to change the composition of its membership, adding more women and people of color. A former lawyer, she travels internationally as a speaker and inclusion consultant.