For the second year in a row, no black actors or actresses have been nominated in the Academy Awards’ “Big Four” acting categories. Unless you’ve been living under a rock since the nominations were announced, you are probably well aware of the #OscarsSoWhite backlash – a social media-driven call-to-action addressing the lack of diversity – be it actual or perceived – in Hollywood.
With the big awards show coming up, I decided to delve a little deeper into the matter. As it turns out, there are a lot more complexities in play than it may appear – and as always, the truth is neither black or white.
Black actors are not underrepesented at the Academy Awards
Despite black actors being shut out of the Oscars in 2014 and 2015, African-American thespians have actually performed quite well at the Academy Awards in the 21st century. Since 2000, black actors have represented about 13 percent of the Screen Actors Guild members – a number that is almost directly proportional to the number of African-Americans in the overall United States population. Over the last 16 years, black actors have received approximately one-tenth of all Oscar acting nominations, which isn’t bad considering black actors represent just 8 percent of top Hollywood acting roles. But the real curve ball is this; although black actors are only receiving 10 percent of Oscar nominations, they are actually winning 15 percent of all acting awards. Not only is that a sum higher than the percentage of black SAG actors working in Hollywood, it’s a sum higher than the total percentage of black Americans compared to the general national populace.
Many Hollywood heavy hitters have spoken out against the #OscarsSoWhite phenomenon … including several black actors and directors
Numerous people – including Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith and, uh, Michael Moore – have all said they are boycotting this year’s Oscars due to a lack of diversity in the acting nominations. However, several Hollywood heavies have also come out against the #OscarsSoWhite movement, including Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling (who decried it as “anti-white racism”), Oscar winner Michael Caine and Schindler’s List producer Gerald Molen, who said #OscarsSoWhite supporters were – and I quote – “spoiled brats” who are crying “racism.” But it’s not just a bunch of salty old white and Jewish folks who are shaking their heads; among the people of color who have said they weren’t on the #OscarsSoWhite bandwagon include Boyz ‘N the Hood director John Singleton and the first black person to ever win a best director Oscar, Roger Ross Williams. Meanwhile, actresses Stacey Dash (of Clueless fame) and Janet Hubert – the original Aunt Viv on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air – have been very vocal with their displeasure surrounding the boycott. And the biggest irony of all? Spike Lee – the most adamant #OscarsSoWhite proponent in Hollywood – actually received an honorary Oscar from the very same organization he’s criticizing as racist, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, last fall.
There are many minorities in positions of power in Hollywood
The Rev. Al Sharpton famously tweeted that Hollywood was much like the Rocky Mountains, “because the higher u climb the whiter.” Alas, the good reverend’s social media critique isn’t exactly true. For one thing, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the organization that actually doles out the Oscars – is Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an African-American woman. Furthermore, the most powerful man in the most powerful actors union in the U.S. is David White, who – like, doubly ironically – is actually a black dude. They may not be African-American, per se, but the mother continent is nonetheless well-represented in Hollywood’s power structure: the co-chair of Universal Pictures, Donna Langley, is a half Egyptian woman and Gary Barber, the chairman and CEO of MGM is actually South African. The head of Sony Pictures is Kevin Tsujihara, a California native of Japanese descent. And what do Universal’s Ronald Meyer, 20th Century Fox’s Stacey Snider, Columbia Pictures’ Andrew Gumpert, MGM’s Jonathan Glickman and Paramount’s Brad Grey all have in common? In addition to being major movie studio big wigs, they are all Jewish, which, technically, means none of them are really Caucasian.
Disproportionate representation goes both ways
While white people make up a majority of the SAG population – and represent 63 percent of the total national population – they are actually vastly underrepresented in several entertainment sectors, while minorities – compared to their overall national proportion – are vastly overrepresented. Case in point? Although black males make up less than 7 percent of the total U.S. population, they represent a whopping 68 percent of National Football League players. Their share is even greater in pro basketball, where black players represent 75 percent of National Basketball Association rosters. In the recording industry, black musicians have taken home 10 out of 15 “artist of the year” Billboard Music awards since 2000, and since the inception of the “Rap Album of the Year Award” in 1996, all but four of the artists who have had their works nominated for the Grammy in question have been non-Caucasian. And on the small screen, a UCLA report says black actors and actresses are actually well overrepresented on television programs compared to their general population numbers, especially in situational comedies. Indeed, you don’t have to look too hard to find statistical inequalities wherever you go, whether it’s the massive overrepresentation of Caucasian women in publishing to Asian Americans representing 17 percent of all U.S. doctors despite barely representing 5 percent of the general population to Jewish individuals accounting for a staggering 41 percent of all Nobel prizes in economics, although they represent just 0.2 percent of the global population. Simply put? When it comes to disproportionate representation, everybody can lay claim to being underrepresented in some aspects and sometimes extremely overrepresented in others, no matter one’s race, ethnicity or gender.
The real diversity problem is totally offscreen
At the end of the day, perhaps the most obvious reason why African-Americans aren’t getting as much screen time as Caucasian actors and actresses has nothing to do with SAG membership or studio executive under-or-overrepresentation. Movies don’t write themselves, after all, and when it comes to the constituency of the Writers Guild of America, it’s blindingly white. According to a 2014 WGA document – ominously titled “Turning Missed Opportunities Into Realized Ones” – it was revealed that the organization’s ranks were 91 percent Caucasian, and of that, 75 percent is male and/or between the ages of 30 and 60. As of 2012, just 338 writers in the screenwriters organization were black – and at the time, 128 were registered as unemployed. With that in mind, it seems like the first step to ensuring more films from a black perspective get made is to actually have black people typing up the scripts. That said, as the WGA numbers demonstrate, even the so-called “black” movies being produced by Hollywood are more times than not written by white hands. And this is something that very well could present itself in the most hilariously ironic fashion at the Oscars this year. Think a best original screenplay win for Straight Outta Compton would represent a sort of vindication for the lack of black acting nominees?
Well, imagine the masses’ surprise when the film’s four credited screenwriters – Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus – walk up to the podium.
All of whom, it should perhaps be noted, are white.