Beasts of No Nation, Creed, Concussion, and Straight Outta Compton are just a few of the remarkable films that captivated audiences last year. Each film, which featured African Americans in lead roles, was met with wide critical acclaim for their powerful performances on topics of civil war, identity, professional sports, racism, police brutality and the entertainment industry. Nonetheless, the voting committee for this year’s Oscars has made the decision not to nominate any of these films for awards, sparking an intense debate about racism in the film industry.
Among the most vocal critics is actress Jada Pinkett-Smith who released a widely watched YouTube video explaining her decision to boycott the ceremony. Meanwhile, activists have launched a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. In today’s “post-racial” America it is easy for many to scoff at such responses. Fox News commentator Stacy Dash and actress Janet Hubert (Aunt Viv) provide noteworthy examples. Yet a close examination of the racial demographics of the film industry reveals a system permeated with racial inequality.
The Washington Post highlights this culture of exclusion in a 2014 report, stating “Hollywood’s most powerful industry leaders have been slow to respond to a demand for movies that reflect cultural and racial shifts that have long been underway.” Voting power in the Academy was so dramatically skewed in favor of white males that Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs has now pledged “to double number of diverse members by 2020.” In order to accomplish this they will be “launching an ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity.”
Scholarship on the topic is equally damning. Research by UCLA professor Dr. Darnell Hunt paints “a pretty abysmal picture,” of the racial dynamics in Hollywood. Among the disturbing statistics documented in his must-read report is the fact that “Film studio heads were 94 percent white and 100 percent male,” and “Television network and studio heads were 96 percent white and 71 percent male.”
Beyond shedding much-needed light on plausible reasons why African American artists often go unrecognized, these extreme disparities open a window into broader conversations about race in America and the possibilities of Black ownership as a weapon to combat institutional discrimination. Indeed, the film industry is just one of many sectors of the American economy where we stand to benefit if we were to, in Jada Pinkett’s words, “pull back our resources and put them back into our communities, into our programs, [and make] programs for ourselves,” which “acknowledge us in ways that we see fit.”
Brilliant actors and actresses have been overlooked this year, but what about the brilliant tech entrepreneurs, defense lawyers, clothing designers, and restaurateurs who go overlooked every year? Perhaps this is the legacy of the Oscar boycott: that the contributions of African Americans in the cultural realm cannot be adequately appreciated unless there exists a strong foundation of African American ownership. Ultimately, it just might be that in the ceremony of social progress, true transformation will not arrive until we begin to nominate ourselves.