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Does It Matter That the Oscars Are Overwhelmingly White?

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Posted on Feb 28, 2014

By Sonali Kolhatkar

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The short answer to the headline question is yes and no. It matters because the prestige that Academy Award nominations lend to filmmakers and actors can pressure major studios to insist on greater diversity in films. But Hollywood and its award institutions are so far behind in representing the modern demographic shift in the U.S. that filmmakers of color and audiences who want diversity are creating their own content, buzz and accolades. And so, it doesn’t matter as much if the Oscars are overwhelmingly white because, well, the Oscars themselves matter less and less.

In examining the most important categories of this year’s Academy Award nominations, there are a handful of actors and filmmakers of color who were recognized. Mexico’s Alfonso Cuarón (“Gravity”) and Britain’s Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) are notably up for best director. Britain’s Chiwetel Ejiofor (best actor, “12 Years a Slave”), Kenya’s Lupita Nyong’o (best supporting actress, “12 Years a Slave”) and Somalia’s Barkhad Abdi (best supporting actor, “Captain Phillips”), are all deservedly up for awards for their spectacular performances. Veteran Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s latest (and likely final) endeavor, “The Wind Rises,” easily made it into the category of best animated feature.

But not a single one of these nominees is a person of color from the United States. And that is perhaps because films featuring Americans of color are likely to touch on issues that make the Academy uncomfortable. The voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, according to an analysis in 2012 by the Los Angeles Times, are overwhelmingly white men. Blacks and Latinos are together less than 5 percent of voters.

The Oscars’ biggest snub was “Fruitvale Station” by first time Oakland-based filmmaker Ryan Coogler. Coogler’s deft storytelling and heartbreakingly honest portrayal of Oscar Grant’s final day before he was gunned down by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle was a critics’ favorite when released last summer.

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The film opened just as the trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin was making headlines. There was a palpable national outrage over the unjust killing of yet another young black man. I recall my feelings sitting in a dark theater at the end of the film, my tears rolling faster than the credits, having just experienced the visceral grief of watching Oscar Grant’s humanity being eviscerated, albeit in a fictional re-enactment. All around me were other viewers also quietly sobbing. I was convinced that Coogler, who had just won the prestigious Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for dramatic films at the 2013 Sundance festival, would be recognized by the Academy Awards too. But he wasn’t.

Coogler explained to me in an interview that he made the film because “so often in the media young African-American males are shown in very shallow ways. They’re shown in ways that aren’t 360 degrees, rarely shown in domestic situations, rarely shown doing things that are outside of being criminals.”

To help understand why the Oscars snubbed Coogler and other films dominated by people of color, I turned to Courtney Morris, assistant professor of African American and women’s studies at Penn State University and a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Rice University. According to Morris, “Young black men in particular, and people of color generally, continue to be vilified, they’re criminalized, and there’s a lot of fear around those people. And so there’s a sense that those kinds of people don’t get to have their stories told, to be humanized, and to be seen as sympathetic people.” She added, “If we were going to have a real conversation about who Oscar Grant was, that would also prompt us to have a conversation in this country about how it is that killers of young black men can continue to be exonerated and given a slap on the wrist.”

Morris boiled it down by saying, “The shunning of the ‘Fruitvale Station’ film was really about not wanting to have to trouble our own narratives around police violence and how it is that young black and brown men continue to end up dead at the hands of the police and they don’t get to tell their stories. Period.”


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