Racism is a sensitive topic, a lingering cavity that hurts to touch but needs to be removed. So what better time to speak up and address concerns about the absence of people of color in the Oscar acting nominations than on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday?
Actress Jada Pinkett Smith and director Spike Lee seemed to have been thinking along the same lines, since they chose this day to announce that they will not be attending the upcoming 2016 Academy Awards — followed by many more celebrities such as Snoop Dogg and Furious 7 star Tyrese Gibson. While this might seem like a silly event when looked upon as an isolated decision, the actual problem runs deeper into the pipes of societal history.
The real issue lies beyond the Oscars. Some people might deem the boycotting of the award show from these multi-millionaire celebrities as petty, or even the incident from Kanye West back at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards as insolent. However, when all these events are strung together, one can easily see that distressed people of color in the entertainment industry have always been there. This distress occurs not only when the award nominations come out, but also on every single day of the year.
And can you blame them? In this particular case, it is now the second consecutive year that the Academy Awards have held all-white nominations for their prestigious acting categories. But so what? Leo never got his Oscar.
The fact of the matter is that it’s not about the award and nomination itself, but rather it’s about two more important truths that reveal an uglier side to the usual glam and shine of Hollywood: the lack of representation and the lack of roles for people of color. Looking at the history of nominees dating down to 1932, minorities have an increasingly lower chance of being nominated for prestigious awards despite having given phenomenal performances.
Michael B. Jordan, the star of Creed, is shown no recognition for his stunning work while Sylvester Stallone, supporting actor, is the one who gets his name put down for a nominee. Among the list of more overlooked actors were Will Smith for his work in the NFL film Concussion, and Idris Elba for Beasts of Nations. For those people who want to turn around and point to the Denzel Washington’s and Will Smith’s award victories more than a decade ago as a sign of representation, it would be safe to assume that those are the same people who look at Barack Obama as a sign that racism doesn’t exist. In truth, one or two individuals do not make up for a system which bring downs an entire race.
People of color find it hard to find roles that aren’t supporting, comedic relief, and one dimensional. Former Parks and Recreation star Aziz Ansari admitted after writing his own TV show Master of None that no one else would have written him a role of that nature. For what reason? Because most writers aren’t typically looking for people of color for a leading man or woman roles. Even head historic roles specifically meant for minorities have been occupied by white actors, bringing about movie tactics such as black face or just a simple disregard for accuracy. Recent instances include Ben Affleck portraying CIA agent Tony Mendez in 2012’s Argo or Johnny Depp as a Native American in 2013’s The Lone Ranger. Is there any room for worthy actors of color to play a role in white-washed cinema?
The future of Academy Award nominations and the entirety of feature films in general is left unknown. However, there is always some backlash for standing up against injustice. When next year nominations come out, hopefully more diversified, some people will assume that it is based off some sort of quota that needs to be met. The same way people’s misconceptions about Affirmative Action have been used to wash over the accomplishments of minorities. The complexity of racism goes on in circles; however, one thing people can try to do is to be empathetic as we progress toward a better, more inclusive society for all.