Award Shows Highlight Racial Bias in Entertainment

By John Frame, Class of 2017

John Frame '17

John Frame '17

When the nominees for the 88th Academy Awards (dubbed “The Oscars”) were announced in late January, Twitter broke (when does it not?). Outrage poured out about the lack of diversity in the top categories. Many artists of color, including Jada Pinkett Smith, wife of Best Actor hopeful Will Smith (Concussion), called on the black Hollywood elite to boycott the ceremony and demand that artists of color be given fair representation.      

While some might write-off such reactions as hyperbolic and meritless, the debate brings to light that even more than fair representation, artists of color deserve opportunities that resist the institutionalized racism in entertainment.

In the 88 years of the Academy Awards, only 30 African-Americans have ever won an Oscar in any category. Even more disconcerting is that all six of the black females to win the Supporting Actress Oscar played to stereotypes negatively associated with black females: the loud mouth (Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost; Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls); the welfare mother (Monique, Precious); the maid (Octavia Spencer, The Help; Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind); and the slave (Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave).

In 2015, when Viola Davis (How to Get Away with Murder) became the first African-American female to win a Primetime Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series, the focus was less on her deserved win and more on her speech which channeled Sojourner Truth while chiding the white elite: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity… You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” Ms. Davis joins Kerry Washington (Scandal) and Taraji P. Henson (Empire) as one of three prominent black leading ladies on television.

So where, exactly, are the roles? Of the 29 films that grossed more than $100 million in 2015 (the usual signifier of a successful film), none feature prominent black female characters and only two feature prominent black males: the cast of Straight Outta Compton (#19 on the list) and Michael B. Jordan in Creed (#29 on the list). How is this possible in 2015 with racial demographics of our world changing so rapidly and more people of color breaking into entertainment every day?

2016 Academy Award nominees for acting and directing, courtesy of the LA Times

2016 Academy Award nominees for acting and directing, courtesy of the LA Times

Simple: Hollywood is still dominated by white males who finance projects and hire actors. Yet Tim Grey, writing for Variety, remains optimistic that change is in motion, noting, “At the Governors Awards in November, [The Academy] president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is African-American, announced the formation of A2020, a five-year plan in which the Academy and the studios will work on programs to ensure that top executives expand their thinking when hiring, mentoring and encouraging new talent.”

After Chris Rock lambasted the majority white nominees as host of this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, The Hollywood Reporter reported just last week that studios are waking up to the idea that film should reflect the diversity of the world in which we live: "There's definitely a big conversation taking place right now in our business," says Management 360 partner Darin Friedman. "From both the filmmaker side and the buyer side, there's a push for more diverse stories. It's happening in a genuine way: an understanding that the cast or the directors who get hired should reflect the way the world looks." The Hollywood Reporter further notes, “A Feb. 25 UCLA study revealed that films and TV shows that reflect the diversity of America on average draw higher ratings and the highest median global box-office receipts.”  

Still, it’s difficult to imagine that there will be dramatic change anytime soon, because shifting the status quo is no easy task. While I’m not a fan of Director Tyler Perry, perhaps he should be applauded for prominently providing for black artists the opportunities of which Ms. Davis spoke at the Emmys.  


John, when not contemplating racial bias and heteronormativity in arts, enjoys binge-watching House of Cards.