The Oscars is notorious for being super white. The whitest of the flock, with little to no representation of minorities. Straight Outta Compton, a 2016 blockbuster depicting the black community’s contribution to modern pop music, was represented in the Oscars by a single nomination for its writing. And even then, the writers were white. You would think that with the push for better minority representation in all aspects of society, there would be more coloured actors in major Hollywood films and more coloured Oscar nominees. But that’s not the case. For the second year in a row, the Oscars had only white nominees for lead and supporting roles.

In protest, several famous actors and actresses boycotted the Oscars. Jada Pinkett Smith wrote, “At the Oscars…people of colour are always welcomed to give out awards…even entertain, but we are rarely recognized for our artistic accomplishments.” In fact, this year’s Award Show host, Chris Rock, was a black comedian. He joked that the Oscars were the “white-people’s choice awards.” [1]   And he was completely justified in doing so. But at the same time, the underlying issue was not addressed. It is not only the Oscars that is a “white-people’s choice awards,” but Hollywood itself that greatly favours white people.

The Oscars may be overwhelmingly white, but they should not shoulder all the hate. This problem is rooted in the makeup of Hollywood—in the film industry. The film industry is mostly white, especially the A-listers, and that affects the diversity of award nominees. We cannot shame the Academy for choosing the nominees that they have, as they may have indeed been  decided on merit. Each film should be judged equally, and is that not what people want?

Illustration: Valiant Chan

Illustration: Valiant Chan

Between 2007 and 2014, the Academy and the film industry had grossly overrepresented white actors and the white population of U.S.A. But this is not new information. What is surprising, though, is that the representation of black actors has been inline with the U.S. population. The main issue, then, is that , the Oscars and the film industry have disproportionately underrepresented Hispanics, Asians, and other ethnic minorities. This is even more odd considering that minorities are overrepresenting themselves when it comes to box office sales. In 2013, Hispanics purchased 25% of movie tickets sold, even though they are only 17% of the population. [2] Did you know that 75% of Straight Outta Compton’s audience was non-Caucasian? [3] It seems that the big-shots in Hollywood are missing out on a huge market by not giving representative speaking time to minorities.

It is widely agreed that the reason for the two-year whiteout is because of the constitution of the voting members of the Academy. Only 6% of the members are non-Caucasian—a very poor  reflection the industry and the actors of top-grossing films.

On 22 January 2016, the Academy boldly declared that they are “going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” [4] by recruiting members that will represent the diversity desired. They have recognized that their current voting committee is made of 94% white members, while the actors of the 100 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2014 have only been 63% white. This is a great leap forward for the Academy. But in order for Hollywood to follow suit, their top dogs will need to change too.

Unfortunately, the directors, who are majority white, will not regulate themselves. For the most part, they have not been motivated to cast diverse sets of actors. There have been many cases where white people were cast to play other races in films, notably Johnny Depp as a Native American in The Lone Ranger and Angelina Jolie as an Afro-Chinese-Cuban character in A Mighty Heart. Plenty of times, white actors have played a character of a completely different ethnicity—even though there are capable actors of a matching ethnicity available. We can only hope that there will be initiative by directors to work towards proportional representation. But if there is no urge to be fair, the race composition of directors must change—just as how the Academy is diversifying. There have already been some small shifts — in 2011, 11% of directors were non-Caucasian and in 2013, that percentage rose to 17.8%. [5]

Hollywood needs to right its wrongs. With its current direction, popular films reinforce centuries-old interracial dynamics. The Guardian has remarked that the role of coloured actors is usually to empower the lead actors, who are often Caucasian. [6] This is not the reality today, so why should it be the reality of films set in the present day or an imaginary universe? Both the Oscars and Hollywood need to have a better representation of minorities. It is our concern as much as it is their concern. The industry is missing out on a demographic that wants to see someone physically relatable with a major speaking role. People want to see people of colour in films. Hollywood, it’s time to get with the program.

Illustration: Jeffrey Liu

Illustration: Jeffrey Liu







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