#OscarsSoWhite and the Problem of Diversity in Hollywood

Andrew Carroll looks at the history of Hollywood’s diversity problem and how it has led to contemporary controversies.[br]For as long as it has existed Hollywood has had a history of racist exclusion, from the problem of Black Face in the early 20th century or the virtual lack of any leading roles throughout the 60s and 70s. It is a complex issue that has caused a massive amount of controversy and inspired thousands of tweets, articles and blog posts around the world. Most recently, the Oscars made global headlines for all of their acting awards nominees being white. While the most recent controversy has made headlines, this is in no way a new issue.Early cinema in America was segregated much like everything else. There were cinemas marked “White” and others marked “Coloured”. Black actors, directors and screenwriters could only find work for black production companies. These companies produced some true classics such as Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, while a mostly white Hollywood was obsessed with black people as comedy figures and clumsy clowns to laugh at. Black characters were often portrayed by white actors in black face make up. The most famous examples are D.W. Griffith’s bigoted epic Birth of a Nation and Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer. Hollywood eventually moved away from this technique reminiscent of racist minstrel shows but maintained a set of characters designed to typecast black people.As Hollywood cinema matured and improved, so too did the roles for African-American actors, but not as quickly as they did for white actors. Hattie McDaniel became the first black actor in history to win an Oscar in 1939 for her supporting role as Mammy in Gone With The Wind. The Mammy character was not just a single character but an archetype that many black women would go on to play. Other typical characters included the Uncle Tom, the Tragic Mulatto, the Coon, and the Spiritual Negro characters. This typecasting was eventually broken by Sidney Poitier who was nominated for Best Actor in 1958 for The Defiant Ones and eventually won the award in 1963 for Lilies of the Field. Racial typecasting soon returned to Hollywood throughout the late 60s and 70s meaning many black actors and actresses were relegated to Blaxploitation films such as Shaft which were written, directed and produced independent of Hollywood by black people. It was only when African-American stars such as Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Will Smith broke out that Hollywood and the Academy began to take notice.
“This is ultimately more than just a protest. It is a call for real change by real people and with a large percentage of social media users behind them it seems like change is possible.”
Denzel Washington is the most nominated black actor in the Academy’s 89 year history with six nominations and two wins to his name. Proportionately however white men and women have garnered more nominations throughout history than there have been nominations for black actors or actresses. Meryl Streep has fifteen Best Actress nominations – more than the amount of black women nominated for the award in the history of the Oscars. Jack Nicholson has the most nominations of any male actor with 12, double that of Washington’s, and three wins to his name. The number of nominations for black actors, directors and technical personnel has increased in the 21st century but not nearly enough for it to be fittingly representative of the black population in Hollywood. Many attempts by African-American activists have been made over the years to make Hollywood and the Oscars more inclusive of black people.People Magazine published a piece in 1996 titled ‘Hollywood Blackout’ accusing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of a lack of representation. A campaign by activist Jesse Jackson followed that endeavoured to recognise Hollywood’s lack of representation. Dismissed by the Oscars committee, the public and popular shows like Saturday Night Live, the moment faded into history and little mention was made of it again. Almost 20 years later the issue was raised again on social media platforms, especially Twitter where the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite gained traction in 2015 and now in 2016 leading to a call for a boycott of the Oscars ceremony.The #OscarsSoWhite tag largely escaped the notice of the Academy and many media outlets in 2015, being relegated as it was to Twitter, Facebook and various micro-blogging sites. In 2016 people started to take notice. Prominent figures within the black community in Hollywood such as director Spike Lee, actress Jada Pinkett Smith and her husband Will Smith called for a boycott of the 2016 Oscars ceremony. This is ultimately more than just a protest. It is a call for real change by real people, and with a large percentage of social media users behind them it seems like change is possible. Out of the 25 people nominated for three of the Academy’s biggest awards - Actor, Actress and Director - only one is non-white. Alejandro G. Inarritu is the Oscar winning Mexican director of Birdman and is nominated in 2016 for The Revenant. The other 24, while not all American, are all white.The path to diversity is a long and winding one full of road blocks. The banding together of the black Hollywood community is perhaps the best way to demand representation across the board. Representation should not just be focused on having more black nominees but nominees of all races and ethnicities. For instance only one Asian woman, Merle Oberon in the 1935 film The Dark Angel, has been nominated for Best Actress and two Asian men for Best Actor; Yul Brynner and Ben Kingsley, both of whom won for The King and I in 1956 and Gandhi in 1982 respectively. Even fewer Hispanic men and women have been nominated let alone won any major awards.Ultimately the wider Hollywood community should band together in a push for better representation. Even with Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs promising a review of the Academy’s current system, it is the wider community’s responsibility to ensure fair and proportional representation of all people at the Oscars and throughout Hollywood.