Prior to the 88th Academy Awards on February 28th, film director Spike Lee (Malcolm X, Inside Man) caused huge controversy when he openly accused the Academy of discriminating against black filmmakers and therefore he demands a boycott of the Oscars by skipping the official Ceremony. The lack of diversity is also what convinced Jada Pinkett-Smith and her husband Will Smith. Questions about the Academy’s policies as an institution were inevitable.
Incentive for the entire debate is that for the 2nd year in a row, no black actors or filmmakers received a nomination. Due to Lee’s accusation, people around the world tend to use the word ‘racist’ and this is also how the media describes the entire debate. Using the terminology ‘racist’ is rather judgmental though, which I think should be avoided whenever possible. With all due respect, I think, in this heated discussion the use of ‘discrimination’ is more in place, leaving the issue raised by Spike Lee too one-sided when you take all aspects of race and gender into account. On the other hand, the USA and Hollywood are unfortunately still patriarchal systems dominated by a white male-only mentality. Consequently, amendments are necessary, but I do like to raise some other issues that could be raised, that make Spike Lee’s accusations too one-sided. What About Asian, Middle-East or North-African actors and actresses? Or the Hispanics, since they make up for 17,32% of the US population (in reports of 2014)? The US counts multiple nationalities from all over the world, so what about all the others and their ambitions. And I don’t even mention other minorities such as transgenders. Which means that other minorities than only the black actors also deserve representation, without denying the fact that black actors are facing severe institutional problems. This community now gets the acknowledgement and support by other Hollywood-actors and actresses, mainly Caucasian, like George Clooney.
Also Spike Lee raised the issue and although last year no black filmmakers were nominated as well, he nonetheless received and accepted an Honorary Award. And this year’s ceremony will be hosted by Chris Rock, who refused to step back, despite calls for him to quit the job. He will focus his opening speech on the #OscarsSoWhite-Issue though.
There are 3 possible solutions to avoid racial rows like this in the future and to keep the Oscars-ceremony a peaceful happening:
- The Academy could add 5 more nominees to each category to increase the likelihood for black actors and directors to become nominated. But taking Spike Lee’s words literally, that when the racism is a deeply-rooted institutional problem, the addition of more nominees will have no remarkable outcome for the minority group.
- The Academy could come up with diversity quota or a black filmmakers-only category, which would result in a revival of Apartheid, as we know from our history books. (Apartheid is the racial segregation system in South-Africa from 1948-1994)
- Maybe cutting members from the Academy, who haven’t been active in voting or in the film industry for a certain period would be the best way to change the entire institutional mindset.
According to recent news from The Guardian on January 24th, the Academy Awards organisers announced a series of substantial changes, like the aim to double the number of women and ethnic minority members by 2020 after above mentioned complaints. The changes also include a 10-year limit on a member’s voting abilities, which also can be removed if the member is no longer active in the film industry. President Cheryl Boone Isaacs said that “these new measures regarding governance and voting will have an immediate impact and begin the process of significantly changing the membership composition.”
It is an undeniable fact that the Academy and its approximately 6,000 members is a bit out-dated, because of those non-active members that also belong to a different generation in time. It is therefore important to point at the current US census and importance of diversity. According to reports by the US Census Bureau 13,2% of the US citizens is Afro-American. When you compare to the list of nominees and winners of the Oscars since the year 2000, 4 years were without any black nominees, but still you have 31 out of 320 nominees (and 9 winners) who were black, which makes up for 10% and is more or less equal to the census and therefore makes sense. Very talented black actors and actresses like Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby, 2004), Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball, 2002) and Jamie Foxx (Ray, 2004) are being hired, nominated and winning Oscars at a proportional rate. And this is where you should keep the artistic, rather than political or racial, aspect of ‘talent’ in mind. Who the Academy considers the best logically gets nominated and many talented actors like those in Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray, 2015) of to compete with actors with the calibre of Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant, 2015).