Can Hollywood Separate Gold from White?
Confederate statues and their demise have been top-of-mind lately. But every spring, a different statue captures our attention—it’s 13.5” tall, weighs 8.5 pounds, and is a shiny, gold, art deco depiction of a knight holding a sword. His name is “Oscar.”The past several years’ Oscars (known officially as the “Academy Awards”) have raised public criticism over the White hands that nearly always grasp the gold. Trending in 2016 and 2017 respectively, #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsStillSoWhite drew social media attention to the over-representation of White actors, directors, and writers among the winners.
I have written on the “Whiteness of Oscar night” before, as well as Hollywood’s tendency to produce, defend, and award films that rely on racialized myths and narratives. There are the supernatural and folksy “Magical Negro” characters who uplift disheveled White characters, like Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty (2003), Anthony Mackie in The Adjustment Bureau (2011), and the janitor and copier-repair skit on Key & Peele. And movies that feature a White person saving a person or people of color from themselves (called “White Savior Films”) are also popular, such as The Blind Side (2009), The Help (2011), The Legend of Tarzan (2016), and The Great Wall (2017).
Now on the heels of a climatic “Best Picture” Oscar for Moonlight (2016)—the first Oscar victory for an all-Black cast—coupled with Mahershala Ali’s “Actor in a Supporting Role” Oscar (for Moonlight) and Viola Davis’s “Actress in a Supporting Role” Oscar (for Fences)—some are wondering whether the 2018 Oscars will become (as others have characterized the 2016 presidential election) a “Whitelash.”
Consider the following.
White supremacy is a historic fixture of Hollywood. In 2018, for the sixth consecutive year, there are no Latinx people nominated for an acting Oscar. Latinx folk have received just 0.94% and Asian actors only 1.11% of all Oscar acting nominations since 1929. Moreover, the type of films nominated for best picture, best screenplay, and best director often center on White men and women, with people of color as sidekicks, foils, and/or trite plot devices.
From 1929 to 2018, there were 1,708 nominations across the “Big Four” Oscar categories: “Actor in a Lead Role,” “Actor in a Supporting Role,” “Actress in a Lead Role,” and “Actress in a Supporting Role” (Note: Before 1937, these four awards were not given consistently). Only three Asian actors have won in these categories: Miyoshi Umeki won the 1958 “Actress in a Supporting Role” Oscar for Sayonara, Ben Kingsley won the 1983 “Actor in a Lead Role” Oscar for Ghandi, and Haing S. Ngor won the 1985 “Actor in a Supporting Role” Oscar for The Killing Fields. Latinx actors have garnered just 19 “Big Four” nominations, with 5 wins (the last in 2001 when Benicio del Toro won the “Actor in a Lead Role” Oscar for Traffic). When it comes to Black folks and the Oscars, there are 23 nominations and 4 wins for “Actor in a Lead Role”; 18 nominations and 5 wins for “Actor in a Supporting Role”; 22 nominations and 7 wins for “Actress in a Supporting Role,” and 11 nominations for “Actress in a Lead Role” (the lone winner among them was Halle Berry in 2002 for Monster’s Ball). Black nominations make up 4.33% of total Oscar nominations (see figure, zoom for detail; post continues below).
Of the 1,708 nominations for the “Big Four” over the past 90 years, 16 nominees have been Asian, 19 have been Latinx, and 74 have been Black. That’s a nomination percentage for people of color of 6.38%, with a win percentage of only 1.46%. Yes, 1.46%.
The 2018 Oscars hold some potential for celebration. Get Out (a satire on White liberal racism) is nominated for “Best Picture,” and Call Me By Your Name (a gay coming-of-age love story) is up for three Oscars. Directing nominations include Guillermo del Toro (for The Shape of Water) as well as the fifth woman ever nominated (Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird) and the fifth Black male nominee for directing (Jordan Peele for Get Out). Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq.) are nominated for “Actor in a Leading Role,” and Mary J. Blige (Mudbound) and Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) for “Actress in a Leading Role.”
Together, these nominations may reflect the “Oscars A2020 initiative” undertaken to improve diversity in the Academy by 2020. In 2013, Cheryl Boone Isaacs was named the Academy’s first Black president. Speaking on A2020, Isaacs stated, “These new measures regarding governance and voting will have an immediate impact and begin the process of significantly changing our membership composition.” Revealed to be only 25% women and 6% people of color in 2012, new members of the Academy now make the group 39% women and 30% people of color—and that’s important, because the Academy’s members are also the Oscars’ voting pool.
Of course, historic White male dominance isn’t just about awards or membership. Studies have shown that watching their own racial group on the screen drives higher self-esteem among children than seen in kids who watch mainly racial out-groups. This finding brings weight to the words of social scientists George Gerbner and Larry Gross: “Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.”
So, will this more diverse Academy earn the 2018 Oscars the hashtag #OscarsSoWoke?
Even with some of Hollywood’s activism in the context of the fall of Harvey Weinstein and the rise of #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns, the continued dominance of White male nominees and winners of the Oscars (even if del Toro, Peele, Kaluuya, Washington, Blige, and/or Spencer win) shows that it will take many more years for Hollywood to change its true colors. In the meantime, some of us will continue to be Black and blue.