The Academy Awards are not a reflection of cinema, but rather, it is a symptom of a film industry that has historically stifled the artistic achievements of minorities.
On Jan. 15, 2015, April Reign, managing editor of Broadway Black, an entertainment publication, tweeted the hashtag “#OscarsSoWhite,” expressing her frustration about Oscar nominations that year. The phrase has since been used to highlight the academy’s neglect of black filmmakers and actors.
But the academy’s, and by extension, Hollywood’s, race problem is nothing new. The Oscars were conceived in 1929, an era in which racial segregation was codified and enforced.
Even when Hattie McDaniels became the first black actor to win an Academy Award in 1939, other black actors were not even allowed to attend the awards ceremony, according to the LA Times. The academy was built upon a foundation of racial exclusion and dehumanization.
While times have changed; somewhat because racial discrimination is no longer explicitly written into U.S. laws, the impact of racism and de facto segregation has not fully diminished. Hollywood champions films about race, but these only illustrate the movie industry’s shallow understanding of racism. In 2006, “Crash,” a film which dilutes racism into its most reductive, stereotypical elements, won an award for Best Picture.
“I don’t think there’s a single human being in ‘Crash.’ Instead you have arguments and propaganda violently bumping into each other,” author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote for The Atlantic. “If you’re angry about race, but not particularly interested in understanding why, you probably like ‘Crash.’”
It’s worth noting that the film was written and directed by white men, a demographic which composes 93 percent and 77 percent of Oscar voters, respectively, according to a 2013 report by the LA Times. A group that has not been subject to systemic, historically rooted racism is hardly qualified to determine what films best communicate such experiences.
Richard Brody, film critic for The New Yorker, wrote that the academy only recognizes black artists when presented with a “narrow, fragmented” depiction of the black experience in America.
“If the stories were told — if the daily lives and inner lives, the fears and fantasies, the historical echoes and the anticipations of black Americans were as copiously unfolded in movies as are those of whites — then lots of white folks would be forced to confront their historical and contemporary shame,” Brody wrote. “They’d no longer be able to claim ignorance of what they’d like not to know — which includes their own complicity in a rigged system.”
When black filmmakers are celebrated at the Oscars, it is often for films which portray racism from a historical standpoint, such as 2013’s “12 Years a Slave” and 2014’s “Selma.”
That isn’t to say directors Steve McQueen and Ava DuVernay were undeserving, but the message is clear: Hollywood is most comfortable with racism when it is viewed at a distance, and the violence and humiliation that white America has inflicted on black people exist solely as a relic of the past.
It’s easy to say that the Oscars are just a joke or unimportant, as artists such as the Coen brothers have done, but that is clearly untrue. Movies that are nominated for awards not only receive greater mainstream exposure but also higher box office grosses as audiences are compelled to see what the academy considers the most important films of the year.
Before being nominated for Best Picture, “Selma” earned $16.5 million at the box office, according to Box Office Mojo. Post-nomination, it earned $35.5 million, 68.3 percent of its total gross.
The Academy Awards, which is composed of artists and producers who work within the industry, is far from apolitical. Its failure to recognize the work of black artists within cinema places a greater implicit, quantifiable value on the work of white artists.
In its 88 years, the academy has only nominated three black directors, the first of whom was nominated in 1991. Only five black producers have ever been nominated for Best Picture.
To presume that the academy has adequately represented the breadth and history of black filmmaking in America is nothing short of ignorant. In a world where black Americans must insist that their lives matter and plead that their bodies do not deserve to be strewn on the streets, it’s unforgivable.