A whitewashed Academy: backlash against the 2016 Oscar Awards

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graphic: Helen Shrayer

Magazines after the 2015 Academy Awards all featured the same image: the all-too-familiar golden physique of an Oscar held by a set of white hands. Now, with the Academy Awards coming up on February 28, we know this year’s awards will display the same lack of diversity. For the second year in a row, all 20 nominees for Best Actor/Actress in a Supporting/Leading Role are white. Raising a furor within the entertainment community, the news has brought the resurgence of the Twitter hashtag “#OscarsSoWhite,” ​and has reignited ongoing Internet debates. Members of the backlash movement argue that the Academy’s demographic predisposes itself to reject the performances of marginalized people, which is a valid concern, because in 2014, the Los Angeles Times found that 93 percent of members were white, 74 percent were male, and that the average age of members was 63. Protesters cite actors such as Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation and Michael B. Jordan in Creed as examples of those who were snubbed by the Academy. According to The Guardian, the acclaimed actress Jada Pinkett Smith has even called for a boycott of the event, writing that “At the Oscars … people of color are always welcomed to give out awards … even entertain. But we are rarely recognised for our artistic accomplishments.” Several others—including Spike Lee, the director of Chi-Raq—are planning to follow suit.

However, not all believe that the Academy discriminates against actors of color. The Guardian reported that Charlotte Rampling, a British actress who received a nomination for her performance in 45 said that the boycotts are “racist to white people” and that maybe “black actors did not deserve to make the final.”  Many agree with her—a poll by YouGov found that 62 percent of white Americans believe the exclusion of actors of color happens because the best performances are by white actors. However, only ten percent of black Americans agreed. Either way, this criticism has been effective in getting the Academy to act: the LA Times found that the Academy is imposing sweeping rule changes, including a commitment to “double the number of women and minorities in the Academy by 2020.”

President Obama best sums up the importance of this matter, stating that “The Oscar debate is really just an expression of this broader issue of ‘are we making sure that everybody is getting a fair shot?’… When everybody’s story is told, then that makes for better art, it makes for better entertainment, it makes everybody feel part of one American family.” It is all too common for the voices of minorities, including women, queer people, and members of other oppressed groups, to be silenced despite their achievements, which undermines the importance of their art. Moving forward, many hope that new changes will be brought to media representation, beginning with acknowledgement of the accomplishments of people of color since they have worked just as tirelessly to enhance this American family.

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