#OscarSoWhite and diversity at the movies

There hasn’t been a quiet day on the Oscars front since nominations were announced on January 14 and for the second year in a row, all 20 nominations for acting awards went to white actors. When this happened last year, Twitter ran all afoul with the hashtag #OscarSoWhite to protest the lack of diversity in the nominations.

This year — just like last year — there are prominent people on both sides of this issue. Spike Lee, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett are all boycotting the Oscar ceremonies this year, while best actress nominee Charlotte Rampling and past best actor winner Michael Caine have described the protest movement as an overreaction or racist itself towards white people.

Enough has been said about this over the past two weeks that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to reform their rules around membership to try and shift the demographics that vote for the Oscars each year. Right now 94 per cent of voters are white, 76 per cent are men and the average age of an Oscar voter is 63-years old.

While this doesn’t change the industrial problem in the film industry, this is an excellent step in the right direction because it is targeting the problem behind the lack of diversity at the Oscars. Looking comparatively at the past three years as a case study, the only films featuring predominantly black casts to be recognized at the Oscars have been 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips and Selma. All true story dramas with generally apolitical or uncontroversial messages. They were also the only “awards contenders” released in their years to feature predominantly black casts.

2015 is different, while in past years there were always one or two token films from people of colour that got some Oscar recognition, this year there were at the very least six films that were seen as contenders before nomination day. Creed and Straight Outta Compton both saw a lot of love from critics and precursor awards in multiple categories. Beasts of No Nation, Chi-Raq and Tangerine were unconventional, but popular and were being pushed heavily by their respective studios, and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight featured Samuel L. Jackson in a rare lead performance. There were also unrecognized performances from Latino actors Oscar Isaac and Benicio Del Toro in Ex Machina and Sicario. The only nominations any of these films received were for white actors or screenwriters.

This happened while films like Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and John Crowley’s Brooklyn – which were overlooked in most precursor awards — saw high-profile recognition on nomination day. Both films are traditional “Oscar-bait” that appeal to an older, whiter crowd. In other words, they appeal to the typical 63-year old white male Oscar voter and thus saw disproportionate recognition.

The Academy is taking the right steps by addressing the unrepresentative voting base behind much of this problem, but for us average movie goers, what can we do?

For one, start paying attention to awards other than the Oscars – and I don’t mean the Golden Globes. Between the critics’ awards in Los Angeles, Boston and New York, and the industry awards like the Actors, Directors and Screenwriters guilds, smaller and more diverse films see recognition. Both are more likely to reward comedy and genre films than the Oscars, and it’s only due to these groups that a film like Mad Max Fury Road could get the momentum for big Oscar nominations.

With those awards, pay attention to more than just the “best film” categories. Look for the performances in smaller films that you haven’t heard of. The next Fast and Furious or Marvel film doesn’t need your ticket money, but those actors in independent films probably do since they probably get paid a share of the gross.

And just in general, watch more diverse and independent films. The more we do, the more we’ll see them coming to our theatres and the more work those writers, directors and actors will get. It’s a vicious or virtuous cycle that we can make better or worse by how we choose which movies to watch.

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