The Academy Awards Diversity Issue Is A Symptom Of A Much Deeper Problem

As Danny DeVito blasts Hollywood for its institutional racism amid the #OscarsSoWhite row, Rory Fish takes a look at some of the key issues behind the diversity problem in Hollywood…

Academy Awards, Oscars - Top 10 Films

“We’re a bunch of racists,” said Danny DeVito when asked about the Oscars diversity row at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The Hollywood veteran didn’t hold back. “We are living in a country that discriminates and has certain racial tendencies, so sometimes it’s manifested in things like this and it’s illuminated, but just generally speaking we’re a racist.”

The row, distinguished on social media by the #OscarsSoWhite tag, highlights the imbalance of the Academy’s voting membership, not just in its lack of cultural and ethnic diversity but its domination by white men over 60 years of age. The Academy’s membership has not been publicly revealed but announcements like the one last year about more than 300 new members drafted in to increase the voting group’s representation of young women (for example, Emma Stone) and, killing two birds with one stone, young non-white men and women (Kevin Hart, Dev Patel, John Legend, Gugu Mbatha-Raw) gives us a taster of who’s who.

Caroline Moreno, The Huffington Post’s Latino Voices Editor, rightly said the “first step to fixing the problem is admitting that it exists.” The Los Angeles Times, in a study in 2012 of the membership’s then 5,100+ active voters, revealed some interesting statistics. A staggering 94% were white, 77% male, and 54% over the age of 60. To give us some idea of the people voting, 33% of voters were either former winners or nominees.

I Am Legend, Will Smith

“We’re part of this community, but at this current time, we’re uncomfortable to stand there and say that this is OK.”

But last year’s voting additions don’t seem to have changed the make-up of 2016’s nominees in the major categories. Indeed, The Huffington Post, in its editorial Why It Should Bother Everyone That The Oscars Are So White, said this year’s nominees was the “least diverse group of contenders since 1998”. It prompted Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith to lead a boycott of this year’s event.

“We’re part of this community, but at this current time, we’re uncomfortable to stand there and say that this is OK,” said Will Smith on Good Morning America. “There’s a position that we hold in this community, and if we’re not a part of the solution, we’re part of the problem. It was [my wife’s] call to action for herself and for me and for our family to be a part of the solution.”

With other contemporaries like Dustin Hoffman acknowledging it’s a wider problem, Smith feels this latest row can refocus attentions on stamping out institutional racism. “For my part, I have to protect and fight for the ideals that make our country and make our Hollywood community great,” he said.

Of course, the Oscars should be down to who, quite simply, is the best. There shouldn’t be any other consideration than evaluation of talent and the celebration of great artistic achievement. But one must admit to being a bit naïve in crediting the Academy Awards with such respect. It is, after all, Hollywood’s greatest pat on the back.

Charlotte Rampling, who is up for Best Actress this year for 45 Years, made this point with ill-advised wording in an interview with French radio when she said: “Perhaps the black actors did not deserve to be in the final straight.” She has since clarified her comments saying that, quite rightly, “every performance [should] be given equal opportunities for consideration” and that “diversity in our industry is an important issue that needs to be addressed.”

And that again raises the imbalance of the voting demographic. It isn’t open to everyone, it’s a selected group of people whose membership today is only slightly less “white” than it was in 2012 when 94% of voters were Caucasian. Okay, let’s consider for a second they’re only voting for the best of the best, and this year, the best were exclusively white. Does that suggest a further imbalance in the opportunities for non-white actors and filmmakers in Hollywood? For instance, is this year’s “whitewash” indicative of a lack of good roles for black actors?

Moreno, in her article for The Huffington Post, highlighted research published last year from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism that evaluated gender, race/ethnicity and LGBT status in top grossing films between 2007 and 2014 (excluding 2011). The study found that just over 75% of speaking roles went to white actors despite 46% of 2014’s ticket sales bought by Latino, black, Asian and “other” moviegoers.

“I think in the end you can’t vote for an actor (just) because he’s black. You can’t say: I’m going to vote for him, he’s not very good but he’s black, (so) I’ll vote for him. You’ve got to give a good performance."

“I think in the end you can’t vote for an actor (just) because he’s black. You can’t say: I’m going to vote for him, he’s not very good but he’s black, (so) I’ll vote for him. You’ve got to give a good performance.”

So, maybe Michael Caine is right – if the sample size is skewed towards white actors then white actors are going to be ones more likely to get nominated. After all, enforcing an acceptable number of non-white nominees is surely just as wrong-headed in a celebration of artistic achievement as the Academy’s membership imbalance.

“I think in the end you can’t vote for an actor (just) because he’s black. You can’t say: I’m going to vote for him, he’s not very good but he’s black, (so) I’ll vote for him. You’ve got to give a good performance,” he said.

For the Oscar’s to maintain any kind of integrity, Caine’s opinion is one that holds weight. But like DeVito said at Sundance, the problem is far greater, and it begins at the top. Most execs are white males, preferring to surround themselves with people from the same demographic, while a UCLA study of major talent agencies found that only 12.2% of minority film leads in 2013 were represented by them.

Furthermore, only 17 of the 100 top films of 2014 featured a lead or co-lead actor from an underrepresented racial and/or ethnic group according to the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s study. And how many Academy voters were black when the Los Angeles Times carried out its research in 2012? Just 2%.

Is the question therefore not necessarily about Academy voters but about the films themselves – and by extension those in them and making them – underrepresenting black and ethnic minorities and the wider institutional traditions that continue to put up barriers?

The problem with making it a problem exclusive to the Academy sets us up for token awards for actors less deserving in order to paper over the inherent flaws in the system. If next year we see a significant increase in black representation, for example, are we to accept it’s because these films, filmmakers and actors have produced the best work of the year or happen to fit the demographic?

The frank Spike Lee, who has a hate-hate relationship with the Academy at the best of times, thinks it’s already happening. “Anyone who thinks this year was gonna be like last year is retarded,” he told The Daily Beast. “There were a lot of black folks up there with 12 Years a Slave, Steve [McQueen], Lupita [Nyong’o], Pharrell. It’s in cycles of every 10 years. Once every 10 years or so I get calls from journalists about how people are finally accepting black films.”

But since the Oscars is the face of Hollywood, and its reach is far beyond the Californian border, it’s important there is at least impartiality in its process. We mustn’t forget its influence: 43 million watched it last year across 200 countries.

Don Cheadle, who, like DeVito, spoke about the row while at Sundance, acknowledged the diversity issue plaguing the Academy but said the lack of black nominees was a “symptom” of a deeper institutional problem and we must address “the root cause of how we get to results like this.”

Words by Rory Fish

About the Author
Rory Fish has loved movies since he can remember. If he was to put together an "all time" top 10 of absolute favourites it would have to include North By Northwest, 12 Angry Men and Sunset Boulevard.

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  1. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    I’m in agreement with Michael Caine – you shouldn’t be nominated solely on the colour of your skin, and the Academy shouldn’t be *mandating* more people of ethnic background be nominated just to balance some scales in people’s minds. Talent should be rewarded purely on talent, not appearance – a tough ask considering Hollywood is entirely about appearance.

    This is an issue with no easy fix, but the foot-stomping and grouching from certain sectors of the industry does smell a little like sour grapes to me.

    For the record, my own article about this issue is here:

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    Ruth Reply

    I think most people would agree w/ Caine’s comment and of course nobody should be considered for ANYTHING other than merit, but I don’t think #OscarSoWhite is advocating that. But the fact is, the root of the problem starts w/ the decisions being made by the heads of the studios and TV companies, as Steve McQueen just said about this whole ‘lack of diversity’ issue. “Most execs are white males, preferring to surround themselves with people from the same demographic…” Yep, exactly. It’s a VERY exclusive club that seem to only benefit white MALES. I think sexism is an ever bigger problem in the industry. I’ve talked to a bunch of female filmmakers whilst covering TCFF and the stories they’ve told me are appalling.

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    Dan Grant Reply

    I don’t see this as a problem at all with the Oscars. I don’t think 6000 members get together and decide to not vote for Michael B Jordan and Ryan Coogler because they are black. You can name ten other performances this year that were worth of nominations, and they are all white. People are going to get snubbed, it happens. This year, imo, Creed was over looked and so was Jordan and Coogler, but at the same time, the five nominees this year all did outstanding work. So imo, it’s not incumbent on the academy to nominate people of different races. They nominate…ostensibly, the best performances of the year. I think there is a lot of bribery and nepotism in the Oscar, which is why the Weinsteins get something nominated seemingly every year, but that’s a conversation for a different time. The problem, as pointed out by many stars and by Rory, is that there aren’t enough roles being offered to minorities in Hollywood. If there were more roles for black people, Asians and latinos and so on, then maybe there would be more nominations for more ethnicities. But as it stands, the academy is not there to fill a quota so I see no reason why any of this can be construed as racism. As for Will and his annoying wife, these are people who have made million in an industry that has been very good to both of them. Now, Will doesn’t get nominated for a role that most said he wouldn’t anyway, and now they are pissed? Ice Cube said it best when he said that crying over not getting a nomination is like crying because there isn’t enough icing on the cake. This is not the Academy’s problem.

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    Callum Reply

    You’d like to think those films that didn’t get nominated just weren’t good enough but I get the feeling there’s more going on. But like Dan G says above, it’s not really an Academy problem but an issue with the top execs deciding which movies get made.

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    Keith Reply

    I wrote a piece on this a while back and stand by the idea that #OscarsSoWhite has a misguided focus. There is absolutely no glaring omission from the nominees that screams racism or that points to a white-leaning Academy. The movies that are frequently being highlighted have just as many reasons why they shouldn’t be there. And none of the performances are what I consider bad. I don’t agree with them all (I still believe Elba gave the best supporting performance of the year) but good arguments could be made for others.

    So now we hear of boycotts of the Oscars and other misguided actions while Hollywood, the true point of issue, basically gets off the hook. There lies the problem. There is where the conversation needs to be focused. Sure the Academy needs to diversify its voters, but I still don’t see any merit in insinuating racism based on this year’s nominees.

    I see Hollywood as the bigger question mark. Are they offering opportunity for minority voices? Are minority actors, writers, and directors getting equal opportunity to express themselves in cinema? Thankfully some are looking in that direction. Unfortunately some are too short-sighted and their aim is on the Oscars. Basically the Academy is taking Hollywood’s bullet.

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    Evan Crean Reply

    I definitely think the Oscars are lacking in diversity, both in the types of films and in the types of actors nominated/considered. I don’t think anyone is advocating that people be considered for anything else other than merit or talent, but I do believe the results are skewed due to the voting body. Doing some things to shake up who is allowed to vote is a good first step in helping to solve the overall diversity issue in Hollywood. If you’re old and not working in the industry anymore, you shouldn’t be allowed to keep voting. It’s not really allowed in other types of industries, so why should this one be different? In addition to shaking up the voting body, Hollywood needs to hire more diverse filmmakers and cast more diverse actors to help the overall diversity issue.

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    CineGirl Reply

    Interesting discussion. Having now seen many of the contenders and many of the films that don’t feature at this year’s Oscars, I feel they’ve got it pretty much right in terms of the nominations. That’s not to say there isn’t a deeper issue at hand but it seems unfair to lump the criticism squarely on the shoulders of the Academy when it isn’t – directly – the entity investing in productions, casting the films, writing the scripts etc. I can understand there’s a point to be made but it’s detracting from the achievements of those that have produced some fine work.

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