The Oscars: So White and So Elitist

By John Frame, Class of 2017

By John Frame, Class of 2017

Last week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science released its nominations for its annual Academy Awards (known as the “Oscars”), which honor outstanding achievement in filmmaking. Following two years where the Academy “failed” to nominate a single minority actor (remember “#OscarsSoWhite”?), the Academy made amends this year including seven minority nominees across all four acting categories, as well as recognizing four films (of nine) about non-whites in the Best Film category.

But what does it say that minority filmmaking is still not consistently provided the same recognition as films made by and about the majority? And what about favoring the obscure over the blockbuster?

To answer this question, one need only look at the membership of the Academy, which, according to a 2016 report from the Los Angeles Times, is 91% white and 76% male. Blacks, Asians, and Latinos make up just 7% of the total membership body. With a mean age of 63, the membership is a whopping 85% over the age of 50.

With those statistics, it’s no wonder that the Academy skews more traditional in its selection of nominees and winners each year. Many of the films that receive recognition rarely earn the big bucks while in theaters, and very few blockbusters earn recognition, let alone a win.

The last blockbuster film to win the Academy’s top prize was 2003’s Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King ($377M), the final installment of the groundbreaking trilogy. Many believe that film’s win was a honor for the entire franchise and the technical achievements of director Peter Jackson and his mastermind team. But that’s neither here nor there.

The statistics on minority nominees and winners in the major categories are so low that Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an African-American, had to walk a fine line in support of diversifying the Academy’s membership and, most recently, when she instituted initiatives that aim to double the number of minorities and women by 2020. Only one black female has ever won the Oscar for Best Actress (Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball, 2001); four black men have won the Best Actor Oscar; and a total of 10 black actors and actresses have won in the supporting categories over 88 years.    

...minority filmmaking is still not consistently provided the same recognition as films made by and about the majority...

So the Oscar voters are white and old and out of touch. Perhaps even racist. But who cares, right?

Well, not exactly. At a time when our nation is more visibly divided than it has been in recent memory, the importance of honoring the diversity of American culture is really the issue at play here. Americans, on the whole, appear to view our government, media, and public figures as elitists. This continues to fuel a rebellion of what makes America unique and, dare I say, great. The Academy, like many other public institutions, has a duty to represent all facets of American culture. After all, the Academy is at the heart of our most authentic and oldest of pastimes: movie-watching.

This year, the Academy has a chance to honor some of the greatest performances in some of the greatest films ever made by minorities: from Viola Davis’ and Denzel Washington’s masterclass acting in the adaptation of August Wilson’s award-winning play, Fences, to the filmmakers of--and performers in--films like Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Lion. The hope is that we will see a turning point this year, where the Academy members start looking towards a future of honoring the whole of the film industry and not just a few of its obscure parts.               

John is a lover of films and hopes that the Academy does the right thing this year and awards its top prize to Moonlight, over the fluffy La La Land.