#OscarsSoWhite: the Academy Awards boycott

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Selena Drake
Writer

“You don’t get an Oscar for the colour of your skin,” columnist Katie Hopkins argued in response to Jada Pinkett-Smith’s decision to boycott the Oscars. Pinkett-Smith based her decision on her belief that black actors are not receiving due acknowledgement by the Academy for their contribution to film. While it is difficult to empathise with Hopkins in the majority of her statements, which are often blatantly racist or sexist and offensive, it is possible to understand the reasoning behind her argument in this particular article. Hopkins has suggested that Pinkett-Smith was triggered to boycott the Oscars by the alleged snub of her husband Will Smith, who was not nominated for his role in Concussion. This view has been supported by Janet Hubert, who acted alongside Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and who has also argued that there are more major instances of racial discrimination occurring in the world, that attempting to ignite a protest relating to awards for highly-paid actors is a superficial cause. While it is impossible to decipher Pinkett-Smith’s true motives, it is hard to not be cynical about the fact that she of all people chose to raise awareness of the issue, as it became clear that her husband had not been nominated. That being said, even if her motives were partially self-interested, does that mean that the issue that she addressed should be undermined?

It is statistical fact that few black actors have received award recognition in the Oscars’ almost nine decades of history. Only 21 black actors have been nominated for Best Actor and Actress, compared with over 350 white actors. In 87 years, only 7 percent of winners for Best Actor have been black men, and so far Halle Berry is the only black woman to have won Best Actress. It is therefore understandable that Pinkett-Smith’s challenge to the lack of diversity among Oscar nominees has been supported by her peers in film. In light of Pinkett-Smith’s protest, Steve McQueen, Idris Elba and Lupita Nyong’o have all publicly claimed that black actors are not being given a sufficient amount of award recognition in proportion to their achievements. McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave, felt black actors were not being given a “fair bite.” Similarly, Elba also argued that black actors were being discriminated against in The Oscars. Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work in 12 Years a Slave, suggested that a lack of recognition for black actors may be due to “unconscious prejudice.” Spike Lee, the director of Malcolm X, not only agreed with Pinkett-Smith’s argument but has decided to actively support her in her method of protest by not attending February’s ceremony.

It could be argued that the lack of Oscar nominations for black actors is due to the lack of black actors cast in award-winning films in the first place. This issue has been raised by Matt Damon, a nominee for Best Actor for his performance in The Martian, who stated that Hollywood has “a long way to go” in relation to tackling the lack of diversity in film, and Spike Lee, who has suggested that the real reason for a lack of black nominees is due to a lack of black actors being cast by “Hollywood studios and TV and cable networks.” George Clooney, however, pointed out that this year there have been a notable amount of talented black actors who have starred in critically acclaimed films, but simply have not been given award recognition for their performances, citing Creed; Concussion, Beasts of No Nation, and biopic Straight Outta Compton. Clooney makes a reasonable point. Beasts of No Nation is rated 96% by Rotten Tomatoes and Idris Elba has been widely praised by cinema critics for his performance, yet he has not been nominated for an Oscar this year. Michael B. Jordan also received critical acclaim for his starring role in Creed alongside Sylvester Stallone, and while both actors received a similar amount of praise, Stallone has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, while Jordan has not received an Academy Award nomination. Straight Outta Compton earned a rating of 90% from Rotten Tomatoes, and the performance of several black cast members were also widely praised, yet none of these actors were recognised eiher.

2015 nominee Charlotte Rampling and Sir Michael Caine digressed from the view that the industry itself is at fault. Rampling suggested that black actors “did not deserve to make the final list.” Sir Michael Caine similarly stated that “You can’t vote for an actor because he’s black,” and went on to say that black actors should be “patient” about Oscar nominations. Caine and Rampling implied that colour isn’t an issue with The Oscars, and that this year the most talented actors simply happened to all be white. Whether or not this is indeed true, Clooney also drew attention to a deeper issue. He highlighted the limited options available to “minorities” in “quality films”; implying, like Lee and Damon, that not enough actors of colour are being cast in major films.

So why aren’t more black actors aren’t cast in these movies? Hollywood whitewashing is notorious. In the 2014 flop epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ancient Egyptian characters in the story from which the film is adapted would realistically have had darker skin due to their Egyptian or Hebrew heritage: and yet the cast was predominantly white. In December a black actress was cast as Hermione Granger in the eighth Harry Potter installment, a play due to open soon in London’s west end. This casting decision created significant controversy, as people attacked the apparently far-fetched notion of “changing” a beloved literary character’s race. J.K. Rowling took to Twitter to remind fans of the original description of Hermione: “brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified.” Thus highlighting a sad habit ingrained into the mindset of greater society: we often automatically assume a character to be white unless it is specifically stated otherwise.

The lack of black actors being nominated for Academy Awards is only one symptom of the root problem. Another is the lack of actors of colour being cast in film and television roles in the offset – and according to the Screen Actors Guild, this issue is worsening, with the percentage of film and television roles played by black actors having fallen to just thirteen percent, from fifteen percent at the beginning of the century. Our expectations have been effectively been whitewashed. To address the lack of Oscar nominations of actors of colour will involve societal recognition that we have been socially conditioned to assume that the leading roles in a film will be white, unless otherwise specified. Hollywood itself needs to see beyond skin colour to talent, and provide equal opportunities in casting, presenting actors in leading roles from a diverse variety of cultural backgrounds, in order to reverse the effects of whitewashing it has contributed to over the past century of film making.

In boycotting the Oscars, Jada Pinkett-Smith is addressing a massive issue in the film industry that needs resolving, in order to achieve more equal rights for people of colour. That being said, the fact that Pinkett-Smith is married to an actor who was not nominated for his film this year somewhat undermines her protest, as it has triggered considerable backlash and could be seen to have made a real problem appear superficial. Nonetheless, despite the massive range of attitudes in response to Pinkett-Smith’s protest, the fact remains that black actors are not receiving sufficient award recognition for their achievements in film and television. For the past two years, all of the actors (yes, all) who have received Oscar nominations have been white. This can likely be, and regularly is, connected with 93% of Academy voters being white. The issue may likewise be attributable to, not so much consciously racist attitudes, but rather societal expectations of protagonists as white. Whether or not Pinkett-Smith was the best person to challenge this issue, this boycotting of The Oscars is a demonstration that highlights the need for more black actors to be given award recognition for their contribution to film, and for more black actors to be given the chance to prove themselves by actually being cast in the first place.