Oscar Diversity Issue Not so Black and White

It is hard enough as it is to take hashtag activism seriously, but many of the #OscarsSoWhite crowd are making it even harder.

Now this isn’t going to be some piece about how the Oscars are fine as they are and how actors of color simply need to work harder if they want to earn nominations. Hollywood absolutely has a critical problem with diversity and having exclusively white nominees for the second year in a row is an embarrassment to the entire community.

The problem though is with the mismanaged argument most activists have been making about the issue. Most people are focusing on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences itself, attacking their voting process for neglecting to nominate performers of color. What many of them are too nervous or naïve to say is that the pickings really were slim this past year.

When pressed to name actors of color who did deserve nominations, many of these supposedly activist writers mention names like Will Smith for “Concussion” or Michael B. Jordan for “Creed.” Some of them even drop John Boyega’s name for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the type of light-hearted, comedic role that rarely gets nominations for anyone.

Is it so horrible to suggest that those performances are a bit of a stretch as far as deserving awards? None of those parts were written with a lot of potential for actors of any color, and activists are shooting themselves in the foot to champion merely above-average performances as among the best of the year.

The activist writers who have focused more on actors like Idris Elba for “Beasts of No Nation” or Kitana Kiki Rodriguez for “Tangerine” are at least getting behind genuinely award-worthy performances, but can you really blame the Academy for overlooking those? Were any of you clamoring over those obscure roles either before all of this uproar? Were any of the writers who now gleefully slam the Academy getting behind these smaller performances before it became fashionable to do so?

Of course not, because like the Academy, like Hollywood itself, most of those writers who are now on their pedestals don’t care about small films outside of the big, mainstream system.

Small system roles, that few people ever see, are often the only genuinely great parts that actors of color can get. When they do make it into the bigger system, they are relegated to second-tier leading roles like “Concussion” and “Creed,” neither of which were pushed particularly hard by their studios for award consideration.

Now, none of this is to say that the Academy itself doesn’t have a big problem with racism. The point is about how frustratingly poor the argument has been made against that racism. Article after article has brushed aside the bigger problem of actors of color being kept away from the best roles every year. Instead these articles focus on trying to convince the Academy to nominate actors of color for the mediocre roles they get stuck with instead.

This problem is far deeper than the Academy. Forcing them to make changes while allowing the Hollywood casting process to stay the same is like attacking a symptom and ignoring the disease that caused it.

If the Academy starts giving token nominations to so-so performances from people of color, we’re only going to end up with more racial resentment in Hollywood than there already is.

We need to do this the right way. We need to pressure Hollywood itself, not just the Academy, harder than ever to provide greater diversity in the top roles being offered every year. We need to make this a demand not for dubious recognition but for increased opportunity.

Don’t demand golden trophies to appease in the short term. That’s like asking for crumbs from the table anyway. Demand that everyone gets to sit at the table in the first place. Demand real, systematic change. Demand that performers of color be given real chances to earn prestigious awards because they are more than capable of doing so.

 

Brady Simenson
Managing Editor
bsime172@uwsp.edu

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