What #OscarsSoWhite gets wrong
DIVERSITY CRISIS IN HOLLYWOOD BIGGER THAN A HASHTAG
On January 14th, the 2016 Academy Award nominations were announced to a violent uproar: for the second year in a row, the 20 acting categories were occupied entirely by white actors and actresses.
In response, the Academy hosted a press conference to address diversifying the makeup of their membership.
“This is not about political correctness,” CEO Dawn Hudson said, who commanded the stage with President Cheryl Boone Isaacs.
“The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” Isaacs said.
Many asserted that it was too little, much too late, but on top of implementing changes to double the presence of women and people of color within their voting ranks, the Academy redirected its audience to the more pressing issue: an award show that can’t nominate a full 10% of people who aren’t white is merely the footnote to a year lacking minority representation.
When people attach #OscarsSoWhite to their tweets, they aren’t decrying a 1950s manifestation of racism. No member of the Academy failed to nominate Straight Outta Compton or Creed because he disliked black people. The Hunger Games production team didn’t distribute a “Caucasian Actresses Only” casting call for the biracial character Katniss Everdeen because they thought actors of color weren’t equipped for the role. Racism in modernity is much more insidious than all that—its power stems from the invisibility of proclaiming that racism is dead, which then renders the overrepresentation of white people as a matter of coincidence rather than bias. Systematic racism finds strength in a culture that believes you have to set a cross on fire to be racist, when in reality, you only have to think that race is no longer a point of contention.
The whitewashed Oscar nominations are a direct result of a whitewashed Hollywood. In contrast, the theater industry was celebrated for a year of nearly unprecedented inclusion: 2015’s most successful Broadway debut, Hamilton: The Musical, boasts a majority non-white cast in its portrayal of America’s founding fathers; the role of Hermione Granger in the upcoming West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was recently given to South American actress Doma Dumezweni. But that’s not to say diverse representation on the stage isn’t wrought with its own set of challenges.
“Actors of color in Denver—not just black actors, but Asians, Latinos—are frustrated, because [inclusion] starts with the playwrights. There aren’t enough playwrights of color who are getting produced, and not enough white playwrights writing for actors of color,” Dr. Catherine Wiley, associate professor of English and playwright, said. “The actors are certainly present.”
When bringing her play about homeless women, Sheltered, to the stage, Wiley encountered significant trials in reflecting the diversity she specified on her cast list. “We had two different casts for Sheltered, and I was insistent both times: ‘We have to get an actress of color,’ Wiley said. “I was told by two directors and one producer that it was very hard to find good actors of color in the Denver community, which I don’t believe.”
Though both productions of Sheltered did cast its actors diversely, local minority actors are pushed to the margins in additional ways. “Look at the Denver Performing Arts Center,” Wiley said. “Every once in awhile, they will produce a play by an African American or Latino playwright, and the cast will include mostly people of color—but even though Denver is crawling with wonderful actors of color, 95% of the cast is brought in from out of town.”
When racism is systemic and institutionalized, it becomes harder to recognize. Even movements trying to advance the cause fall into old traps—like believing that people of color simply aren’t trying to be included in the entertainment industry, which slows progress. But people are always trying to push the momentum of progress forward, even if it has to crawl.
“The Performing Arts Center is changing: the fact that they’re letting local playwrights be in the Colorado New Play Summit is a big deal,” Wiley said. “Three years ago, that never would have happened. They’re now especially focusing on women and women of color.”