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oscars so white
Vincent Paolo Villano

#OscarsSoWhite used to be a joke, now it’s a rule

Two years in a row, the twenty acting nominees have been all white, reflecting a sinister side of Hollywood and what happens when an industry lacks diversity

Last year, #OscarsSoWhite was a not very funny joke, and now it’s becoming a not very funny rule. Two years in a row, the twenty acting nominees have been all white, reflecting a sinister side of Hollywood carefully crafted by casting calls, film studios, voting bodies and what happens when an industry lacks diversity. This hasn’t happened in consecutive years since 1997 and 1998 – despite Twitter outrage and online campaigns making it feel like something’s changing, it’s actually getting worse. There’s usually a token nominee, but now we don’t even get that.

But it shouldn’t be a surprise. What options were there? All hopes to break the white monotony in terms of films were pinned on Creed and Straight Outta Compton, both by black directors with black leads. But their only nominations went to Sylvester Stallone (who, incidentally, forgot to thank Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan in his Golden Globes speech) and the white screenwriters of Straight Outta Compton you’ve never heard of. It’s like thinking Jerry Heller was what made NWA great.

Similarly, Carol – a gorgeous, heartbreaking tale of lesbian love – earned nominations for its straight actors, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, but not for its gay director Todd Haynes or the film itself. In fact, among the directors, not an eye was blinked over the all-male list. Last year there could be outrage over Ava DuVernay’s snub. Yesterday, it was a foregone conclusion. Not since Kathryn Bigelow in 2009 has a female director been up for an award. How much longer can it go on for?

Another hopeful was Idris Elba, surely a lock-in as Supporting Actor for Beasts of No Nation, but unsuccessful, despite the lacklustre competition. However, as with the obsessive talk of Elba taking over for Bond, there aren’t that many non-white actors to be rooting for, and subsequently a small pool of names get repeated. It’s actually kind of sickening it might be because there hasn’t been a major slavery film since 12 Years a Slave or that it’s too soon for another Martin Luther King biopic.

Likewise, Tangerine, a hilarious comedy with transgender actors about genuine LGBT issues, was left empty-handed, despite Magnolia Pictures campaigning for Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. Instead, nominations went for Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl, a trans story told in the straightest way possible. But so much hope was placed on Tangerine, a no-budget slice of anarchy shot on an iPhone, and deep down I sadly knew it never really stood a chance.

A recent survey unearthed that 93 per cent of Academy voters are white, 76 per cent are male, and the average age is 63.  This puts into perspective the lopsided nature of power in Hollywood, that the highest honour is overwhelmingly decided by old white dudes who vote in secret. In a film like Creed, of all the characters they’ll identify with, of course it’s the old white guy many are surprised is still working.

The majority of these voters will still be in place next year and the year after and the year after, granted they haven’t died of old age by then. There’s no short-term fix, other than to gradually add more voices to the Academy. In November last year, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced a scheme called A2020, designed to widen the staff demographic. Only time will tell if this has any effect, or is just a five-year diversion from complaints.

What also needs to change is the offering in cinemas, which means film studios need to take their heads out of the sand and promote diversity – and that includes behind the camera. Even with John Boyega proving a black person can lead the world’s biggest blockbuster, the whiteness of mainstream movies is such an ongoing embarrassment, it’s ingrained in our cultural educations. Hollywood says it’s OK to be white and mediocre. But if you’re POC, you need an angle, or just be willing to never be a traditional hero or romantic lead.

As someone who sees films all the time, for fun and for professional reasons, I’ve just had to get used to not seeing myself represented on screen. It’s a strange feeling to see dramas of thrillers or whatever, purportedly about ordinary folk, but to so rarely think, “Oh yeah, that could be me.” Instead, it’s more likely to be a racist caricature on the side that tricks me into worrying, “Oh no, I hope that’s not me.”

It’s alienating, but only when I stop to think about it – because if I noted down the lack of diversity every time I went to the cinema, I’d be sad and exhausted, rather than exhilarated and entertained. And it’s ingrained throughout the arts, right down to writing about film. Often, at press screenings, I will be the only non-white person there, and I can’t help but feel out of place.

“Even with John Boyega proving a black person can lead the world’s biggest blockbuster, the whiteness of mainstream movies is such an ongoing embarrassment, it’s ingrained in our cultural educations”

All eyes will be on what Chris Rock has to say when he hosts this year’s ceremony. Rather than boycotting the live show, I’ll be eagerly watching to see what Rock has to say to the Academy’s faces. His hiring would smack of tokenism, if he wasn’t such a hot performer. But that’s the notion I got when I watched the live stream of the nominees yesterday when Ang Lee and Guillermo del Toro announced the first wave. On the outside, the Oscars wanted to look diverse. But on the inside, when voting in private, it’s a different matter.

“Tonight, we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest,” Neil Patrick Harris joked at last year’s ceremony. “Sorry, brightest.” Acknowledging the race problem with a weak gag isn’t enough. Now it’s time to do something about it.

All of this would render the Oscars as unimportant and obsolete, right? I don’t think so. The Oscars is still an important reflection of the industry, simply because it’s voted by the industry. The scary stats suggests institutionalised racism, where from an entry level it’s harder for minorities to succeed and progress. If introducing quotas is the solution, then so be it.

That said, I think some of the blame could go all-around, to audiences who still accept the name of the game, to cinemas that don’t offer a wider fare, to writers like myself who don’t ask enough questions. Three of my favourite filmmakers are Noah Baumbach, Woody Allen and Wes Anderson, all of whom are notorious for a lack of black characters, which I’ve always conveniently turned a blind eye on because I like Rushmore and Annie Hall. It’s a widespread issue deeply ingrained in society and the human condition. Unless we keep the conversation alive, progress can’t be made.