The Long Read: #Oscar(TryingNotToBe)SoWhite

Image credit: Prayitno

This year’s Oscar nominations were released on 24 January, with the biggest number of minority candidates up for Academy awards to date. Six black actors and actresses in four separate films were nominated, alongside six black filmmakers. This comes after the seemingly annual reprise of the #OscarSoWhite Twitter trend, a dig at the Academy’s diversity drought.

In the directing category, Barry Jenkins, is up for his work on the hugely-hyped Moonlight, which scored an impressive eight Oscar nominations in total, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, and was winner of ‘Best Motion Picture - Drama’ at the 74th Golden Globe Awards. Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, it “chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami”, according to iMDb. It joins two other black-themed Best Picture nominees, Fences and Hidden Figures, which, together, make up a third of the nine nominated films. Amongst those contending for Best Documentary Feature are Ava DuVernay’s 13th, Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro and Ezra Edelman’s OJ: Made In America. On the acting side, the six black actors and actresses with nominations are Denzel Washington (Best Actor), Ruth Negga (Best Actress) Mahershala Ali (Best Supporting Actor) , Naomie Harris, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis (all for Best Supporting Actress). Dev Patel, who hit close to home in his portrayal of incredible mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity, set in Trinity College, is also in competition for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Lion. In the writing categories, Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney and August Wilson will contend for Best Original Screenplay, while Moonlight’s editor Joi McMillon, an African-American woman, shares a nomination with Nat Sanders, and Kimberly Steward is up for Best Picture for Manchester By The Sea.

African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) President Gil Robertson IV stated, “The African American Film Critics Association is totally thrilled with the record-breaking number of nominations earned this year by actors and other creative artists of color. AAFCA applauds the Academy’s efforts and we hope that their progress continues to reflect America’s rich diversity.” It sure is a promising list, especially compared to that in past years. 2016 saw all white actor nominees for the second year in a row. Worse still, films with a black cast or filmmakers were sidelined. Variety.com reports: “Creed was written and directed by the black Ryan Coogler and starred a black man, but the only nominee was a white man. Straight Outta Compton had a great acting ensemble of mostly young, black unknowns, and was directed by the black F. Gary Gray. But the film’s only nomination: for its screenplay, written by two Caucasians.” The evident whitewashing was met with thousands pledging to boycott watching the awards ceremony on television, celebrities Jada Pinkett-Smith and Spike Lee stating publicly that they would not attend, and flooding of tweets labelled #OscarSoWhite on Twitter.

The Academy is shaped by its members; the responsibility to increase diversity lies with those who vote for the nominees, and eventually winners. This has not gone unnoticed by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body behind the awards. Rather promisingly, they seem to have made efforts to diversify membership in recent years. The number of invitees has increased consistently, with a record 683 invitations sent in 2016. In comparison, 2015 saw 322 new members, 271 in 2014, and 276 in 2013, yet another spike in the average of 133 for years between 2004 and 2012. In 2015, it also launched a 5-year diversity initiative called A2020, which Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs describes as “a five-year plan to study practices at the Academy with the aim of improving the diversity of its own staff and governance while also bringing new voices into the organization. It is also intended to encourage and to push the industry to examine its hiring practices and to begin to make changes."

Yet the responsibility to increase diversity extends yet further. Rashad Robinson, executive director of the online racial injustice organisation Colour Of Change, puts it like this: it begins “with casting directors, studio executives, and financial backers who have a moral responsibility to support projects that tell authentic, compassionate stories that reflect the diversity of our country and to offer opportunities on screen and behind the scenes to Black film professionals, as well as Latino, Asian American, and Native American film professionals, who also remain severely under-recognized and underrepresented in Hollywood.” Diversity in the film industry goes beyond seeing non-white men on the screen. A truly diverse film industry is one where cinema is an accurate representation of reality, not of what its gatekeepers, the major film production companies, see. This means producers beginning to decide which films get made by asking themselves “what stays true to reality?” instead of “what would people like to see?”

Right now, the Academy still faces a lack of Asian American, Native American and Latino representation. Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, has stated “Latinos are outraged, our actors are not getting the opportunities to work in front of camera, and with few exceptions, in back of camera as well.” Female filmmakers face similar problems - to date, a woman has yet to be nominated in the cinematography category. With regards to the improvements this year, The Twitterverse is still reeling with tweets ridiculing the idea of abolishing #OscarSoWhite because there are at least some black nominees. We are nowhere near our ideal, which is when minority nominations are so commonplace that the only discussions they spark are of their cinematic finesse, not what they represent politically - then, they will truly be on equal footing with white filmmakers, actors and actresses. This year’s list is a start, at least. The Academy Awards will air 26 February.

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