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The Truth About the Oscars: How and Why Women and People of Color Are Overlooked

This year's Oscars crop is overwhelmingly male and white, just like the Academy members who selected them.

Inevitably, every few years, the Oscars’ lack of diversity becomes a key media talking point. And just as inevitably, in the midst of that discussion—generally on Fox News, in the comments section of a website, or in a frank conversation with an anonymous Oscar voter—someone says something like, “I thought the Oscars were about recognizing the best film/actor/writer, not about race/gender!”

It is a half-baked, overly simplistic idea that fails to consider the most basic forces at work in our entertainment industry, which is itself both a microcosm and reflection of our larger society. Can this year’s whitewashed Oscars simply be chalked up to racism? Of course not. But is there a complex system of inequality and underrepresentation of people of color that yields lily-white Oscar outcomes like the one we’re currently seeing? Absolutely.

Here’s what we know: Films featuring nonwhite leads struggle to find funding. And that’s in the rare cases when a nonwhite lead is cast. A recent study found that, in comparison to their actual numbers among the U.S. population, minorities were underrepresented by a ratio of three to one in leading roles in film. Women were underrepresented by two to one. This, despite the fact that studies find more diverse casts yield higher revenue returns. What’s more, people of color make up the majority of frequent movie goers (51 percent), despite being a minority of America’s populace. The math is simple here, but somehow, Hollywood keeps getting it wrong.

With all this in mind, here’s a look at some of the factors that repeatedly lead to Oscars that neglect to include a number of worthy actors, writers and features.

Academy voters are not a diverse group. There are nearly 6,000 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. While it would be a little melodramatic to suggest they operate under a shroud of secrecy, it is true that the Academy doesn’t make members’ names available to the public. In 2012 and 2013, the Los Angeles Times did some sleuthing and found out what many suspected: the Oscar voting body is (un)surprisingly homogenous. A staggering 93 percent of voters are white, 76 percent are male, and the median age is 63. Just 14 percent of voters are under age 50.

Those figures reflect numbers after recent diversity efforts. The aforementioned lack of diversity reflects the Academy’s composition after a 2012-2013 push to make the Academy more representative (the numbers before were just slightly more male and a bit whiter). During those two years, the Academy welcomed a total of 432 new voting members. The incoming members were more than 80 percent white, with a median age of about 50. These numbers help explain why the change in diversity stats was almost imperceptible.

The Academy looks nothing like America. African Americans make up 2 percent of the Academy. Even less than 2 percent of Academy members are Latino and Hispanic. I couldn’t find numbers for Asians and Native Americans, but it’s safe to assume they’re even lower. Conversely, African Americans make up 13.2 percent of the country. Just over 17 percent of Americans are Latino and Hispanic. Asian-Americans are 5.6 percent of America. And Native Americans comprise just under 3 percent of the United States.

It’s a banner Oscar year for white people, particularly white men. Every actor nominated for an Oscar this year is white. Every director and screenwriter nominated is a man. (And just three of those men—Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bo of “Birdman”—are people of color). There are no narratives centering on women in the running for Best Picture, although several of the most critically hailed films of the year did (including “Gone Girl,” by novelist and screenwriter Gillian Flynn, who wasn’t nominated).

#OscarsSoWhite. That was the hashtag people used to mock the Oscars’ lack of diversity after the announcement of the nominees. Some of the tweets are both brilliant and funny:

Even a California politician is bemoaning the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscars. On February 17, California Congressman Tony Cárdenas sent a letter to Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs (the Academy’s first African American and third female head) and a number of studio execs and other Hollywood figures. In it, Cárdenas, who is Latino, expressed “shock at the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscars nominees” and requested a meeting  “to begin a dialogue on how to build a more diverse entertainment industry to better represent the diversity of our nation and the world.”

This will be the whitest Oscars in nearly two decades, dating back to 1996: That year, when the films of 1995 were being honored, was the most recent Oscars event when every actor nominee was white, without a single African American, Asian, Latino or Middle Eastern person in contention. If it helps to jog your memory, 1995 was the year of “Braveheart,” “Apollo 13” and “The Bridges of Madison County.” Also “Babe,” which means there was a movie about a pig in contention, but no movies about any people of color. (Other years in the last three decades when not a single actor of color was nominated: 1989, 1992 and 1998.)

This will be the most male Oscars since 1999. That was the last year all of the directors and screenwriters nominated were men.

No woman of color has ever been nominated for Best Director. “Selma” director Ava DuVernay would have been the first black woman and the first woman of color overall to be nominated in the category. She, as you've likely heard by now, didn’t make this year’s list.

Only four (white) women have been nominated for Best Director, and only one has ever won. Kathryn Bigelow, director of “Hurt Locker,” famously beat out ex-husband James Cameron, director of “Avatar,” for the award in 2010. The other nominees were Jane Campion (“The Piano”), Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”) and Lina Wertmüller (“Seven Beauties”).

Nine female directors, including DuVernay, have had their films nominated for Best Picture while not receiving a nomination for Best Director. The list includes Randa Haines (“Children of a Lesser God,” 1986); Penny Marshall (“Awakenings,” 1991); Barbra Streisand (“Prince of Tides,” 1991); Valerie Faris (co-director with Jonathan Dayton, “Little Miss Sunshine,” 2006); Lone Scherfig (“An Education,” 2009); Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids are All Right,” 2010); Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone,” 2010); and Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty,” 2013). It’s worth noting that there are plenty of male directors who have been similarly snubbed in this way, but the omission of women seems particularly notable when taken with other factors on this list.

Two female co-directors of Best Picture noms had their male cohorts recognized, while they were not. Granted, per Oscar rules, only one director may be nominated in the Best Director category. But there are exceptions, cases when a film’s directors can be jointly nominated. (This has happened four times previously, twice with the Coen brothers.) In 2008, “Slumdog Millionaire”’s co-director in India, Loveleen Tandan, wasn’t nominated, while director Danny Boyle was. The film went on to win Best Picture and take home the statue. (For the record, Tandan reportedly said she didn’t want to be nominated.) In 2004, “City of God” co-director Kátia Lund was also not nominated, but director Fernando Meirelles was. Lund expressed annoyance in an interview with the New York Times, and the nomination apparently caused a rift between the two. Of course, the role of co-director differs from that of the director, but only those on-set would know how the division of labor works.  

In 87 years, here’s how the number of non-white winners break down: There have been 15 African-American actor winners (Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington (twice), Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Halle Berry, Louis Gossett Jr., Cuba Gooding Jr., Morgan Freeman, Hattie McDaniel, Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’Nique, Octavia Spencer and Lupita Nyong’o), four Latino actor winners (José Ferrer, Anthony Quinn, Benicio del Toro and Rita Moreno), and three Asian or South Asian actor winners (Haing S. Ngor, Ben Kingsley and Miyoshi Umeki).

There have never been any Native American nominees, and thus no winners. The only Native American to accept an award was Sacheen Littlefeather, whom Marlon Brando sent in his place to reject his Best Actor win for “The Godfather” in 1973. She was only able to deliver part of the lengthy speech Brando wrote, which included this statement: “[T]he motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile and evil. It's hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.” You can read the speech in its entirety here.

One Academy member anonymously spoke with the Hollywood Reporter about her vote and her thoughts on this year’s nominees.

"If [“Selma”] had been directed by a 60-year-old white male, I don't think that people would have been carrying on about it to the level that they were. And as far as the accusations about the Academy being racist? Yes, most members are white males, but they are not the cast of “Deliverance”—they had to get into the Academy to begin with, so they're not cretinous, snaggletoothed hillbillies. When a movie about black people is good, members vote for it. But if the movie isn't that good, am I supposed to vote for it just because it has black people in it? I've got to tell you, having the cast show up in t-shirts saying "I Can't Breathe" [at their New York premiere]—I thought that stuff was offensive. Did they want to be known for making the best movie of the year or for stirring up shit?

“American Sniper” is the winner of the year, whether or not it gets a single statuette, because for all of us in the movie industry—I don't care what your politics are—it is literally the answer to a prayer for a mid-range budget movie directed by an 84-year-old guy [Clint Eastwood] to do this kind of business.”

It seems absurd, with all these facts considered, not to recognize that the Oscars are as impacted by our culturally ingrained biases and prejudices as every other institution. Is it important that in 1939, Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American actress to garner an Academy Award, won for playing a maid in “Gone With the Wind,” and more than seven decades later, in 2014, Lupita Nyong’o won for playing a slave? (And that, as “Selma” actor David Oyelowo noted, nearly every African-American Oscar winner has played a role that was subservient or negative in some way?) Does it matter that there are almost no films made in Hollywood about Asian women doing something as mundane as falling in love? Or Latino men taking a journey to self discovery? Or Middle Eastern people not being terrorists? The answer is yes. We all deserve to have our stories told. (And as filmmaker Yoruba Richen notes in a piece about the documentary nominees’ lack of diversity, we also deserve to be able to tell our own stories.)

So as the red carpet rolls out and the best and worst dressed lists spring up across the Internet, consider what’s being awarded and what’s being ignored. Think of how many films didn’t even get green-lighted because a studio head decided a Latino lead wouldn’t be “universal” enough, or a black woman couldn’t carry a major flick. And remember that, as much as we may tell ourselves that the Oscars are the self-congratulatory runoff of an industry fueled by ego and vapidity, those images affect us, and they inform how we see ourselves—and each other. If we’re being honest, they are an indicator of who we are and how far we’ve come, and by the same token, how far we’ve failed to travel.

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.

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