The Academy Matters Even If the Awards Don’t

Part two of our coverage of diversity on stage and screen.


Many say the Academy Awards are an awards ceremony for being “Most Popular Rich Person™”, but upwards of 43 million people tune in every year to see the Oscars. Of the 1,740 acting nominations the Oscars have given in its 88 year run, only 66 of those nominees have been black. 15 have won. Nearly 20% of Americans are black, yet significantly less than 0.5% of black actors have been so much as nominated for the most prestigious award in entertainment.

“The Oscars aren’t racist,” Biz Schaugaard, a CU Denver alum, said. Schaugaard has worked on seven film sets and countless theater productions since her graduation. She agrees that the problem begins much earlier than the January morning when the official contenders are broadcasted—but that doesn’t mean the awards don’t matter.

Films and television frame the narrative of the lived world. A person’s favorite movie is considered basic information, a question asked within a few hours of meeting someone; Disney flicks act as children’s babysitters. So what happens when the world’s most well-circulated stories are written, directed, and performed by white people? White becomes normalized–default, even. Everything else is rendered deviant, and simply including one or two people of color becomes worthy of praise.

“[The Oscars are] reflective of a larger problem we have of not listening well to diverse voices,” Jeremy Dehn, a filmmaker and College of Arts and Media instructor at CU Denver, said. “Listening to each other is how we come to understand each other, and it’s also how we learn and grow, by thinking outside of our own narrow perspectives. So if we’re only hearing stories from a few perspectives, we might not even be aware of all the opportunities we’re missing.”

If it becomes accepted that certain voices are being systematically ignored, then so too does the idea that those voices aren’t valuable. Whether this happens intentionally or not is irrelevant—there are always consequences Those consequences worsen, though, when the discrimination is calculated.

When Disney allegedly told Hasbro Toys to exclude women characters from Star Wars merchandise because boys won’t buy toys with girls on them, they communicated that boys shouldn’t like stories about women, and told girls that their narratives are lesser than men’s. “It’s all about money,” Schaugaard said. “Maybe now that people are begging for representation, movie companies will see the opportunity to profit from it.”

Niko Sotolongo, a current CU Denver Film and Television major, picked up on the same problem. “Big-budget movies need to make their investment back, so they cast well-known actors,” Sotolongo said. “We need to move more towards what the role is asking for and less of, ‘Can I make my money back by putting Bradley Cooper in my movie?’”

By that logic, though Disney took a step backwards with its handling of female action heroes, its casting of the then-unknown John Boyega might—sadly—be read as a risk for a studio of its size.

The people of CU Denver want to do more. Stacey McDole, another Film and Television major, is optimistic about how local culture is already changing. “We have several high-profile film festivals throughout the state specifically for women filmmakers,” McDole said. “In particular, the Women and Film Voices Film Festival, and also the the Boulder International Film Festival, which was founded and is still run by women.”

Sotomongo sees change coming directly from filmmakers. “A lot of us are trying to write with characters that are more open-ended; you shouldn’t have someone in mind before you begin casting,” Sotolongo said, speaking to one of many possible solutions.

“We tend to value films for their originality, which usually means they have a perspective we haven’t encountered before,” Dehn said. “I’m hoping the academy makes good on its promise to recognize the value in that, and if they do, we’ll all benefit from the result.”

—Taylor Kirby

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