Contact CU Independent Assistant Opinion Editor Emily McPeak at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Sunday night, the 2016 Academy Awards aired to an American audience who waited with bated breath to see if their favorite movies, and actors, of the year would be recognized for their work. This annual event was, however a little different, and not just because Leonardo DiCaprio won. Ironically, the 88th Academy Awards were significant precisely because they were so similar to years past. For the second year in a row, all 20 acting nominees were white — what marked this year as different is that people are finally talking about it.
The night opened with a monologue by host Chris Rock, a black actor and comedian who made light of the situation while questioning the underlying discriminatory structures behind it. Despite the inherent humor of his monologue, Rock did not hide the fact that Hollywood has a race problem. While it may not be racist in an overt sense, Hollywood exhibits a sort of race-based status quo we all have become accustomed to; white people dominate the public sphere, and non-whites serve as metaphorical bench warmers.
If winning an Oscar is to be considered the ultimate symbol of Hollywood’s elite, the Academy Awards do more than show evidence of a lack of diversity in the film industry. Throughout the history of the award show, only 6.4 percent of all Oscar winners have not been white. Some may point to this and argue that many of the 88 years of Academy Awards took place in a less equal time, and that things have changed, but they haven’t. In the past five years, only nine non-white actors and actresses have been nominated for an Oscar.
Furthermore, when people of color are nominated, it is only for specific types of roles. Of the 10 colored actresses ever to have been nominated for best actress, all were for playing roles of women who were homeless or impoverished. Of the 20 men to have ever been nominated for best actor, majority were for playing roles of men who were either arrested, incarcerated, or involved in violent and criminal behavior.
Therefore, based on the Academy Awards alone, people of color are only valued for their acting skills when they play certain types of roles, all of which are somehow in alignment with overarching stereotypes that persist in American culture. This is troubling enough on its own, but is made worse by what John Oliver calls the “whitewashing” of Hollywood. Oliver points out that even when movies are produced that should have cast members who are not white, these roles are often given to white actors and actresses. A perfect example of this is the lead character of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time — who is supposed to be Persian — is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, an American actor of English and Swedish decent.
Hollywood’s race problem, then, is not about a lack of recognition for the work of non-white actors — it is about a lack of opportunity for these actors in the first place. While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization behind the Oscars, has announced plans to diversify their award show, many claim these plans do not go far enough. However, as Rock explained, the right way to challenge Hollywood’s race problem is not to boycott the Oscars. It is to talk about why this problem still exists, and to push for more equality of opportunity on Hollywood Boulevard.
This year’s Oscars were unique because of how much attention the lack of diversity received. They started a conversation that should not only continue on the red carpet, but extend beyond it until Hollywood, and America in general, no longer suffers from a race problem many have been struggling for so long to escape.