The 88th Oscars air this weekend, and with it comes an all white nomination list for the best film and every acting award. Again. This is the second year in a row the Academy has chosen not to nominate a person of colour for an acting award. This year, the wildly successful ‘black’ films Creed and Straight Outta Compton, along with stellar performances by Idris Elba, Will Smith and Samuel L. Jackson, were all passed over by the Academy. All of this feels like an eerie echo from last year, when the Academy excluded David Oyelowo from best actor, whom many thought gave the best performance of the year in Selma.
As a result of the Academy’s nominee list, a handful of celebrities (Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Spike Lee) have announced they will be boycotting the 2016 Oscars. Additionally, the online community has reinstated the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and a conversation about race and Hollywood has been broadening its borders at a rapid rate.
Within this online discussion, individuals are trying to illustrate the systemic racism of the Oscars and Hollywood as a whole. On the other hand, many are running to the defence of the Academy, pointing out that the all white list of nominees reflects not the bias of the Board of Directors, but rather a reflection of the uniform nature of the big films produced this year.
But what about the rest of us, those not involved in the movie industry. Why should we care at all? With climate change, a refugee crisis and countless mass shootings, is it really that important that we concern ourselves with an award ceremony for the rich and famous? What does it matter if almost all of the nominees for the Oscars are white?
What’s the big deal?
The big deal is that Hollywood has more power than we care to acknowledge. Hollywood produces multi-million dollar projects that are disseminated around the world. It carefully curates stories for the world to see. These stories illustrate our fears, goals, hopes, and preferences.
And the Academy recognizes these films. The legendary institution praises the stories, based on how they fit into our societal norms and values. It tells us that this movie deserves an award because it tells a good story, or this actress deserves an award because she portrays a relatable role.
The Academy Awards event is more than just an evening to showcase expensive gowns and celebrate exceptional talent. It is an organization that helps to annually reinforce the Eurocentric value system of North America.
Not only do we have an internationally televised event, influencing millions of people about which people and plots to value, but we also have an event guiding producers and directors what kinds of movie and celebrities will make them money.
So I ask again, what’s the big deal?
The big deal: It’s 2016. It’s time. It has been time for far too many years. We cannot continue to restrict ourselves to the same kind of plots and protagonists. We cannot keep praising these cookie cutter productions every single year.
As the Nigerian author Chimanada Ngozi Adichie explained many years ago, there is a danger of a single story. If you only produce films with white male leads, then people will think that is all moviegoers are going to want to see. If you only produce movie with black people as drug dealers, or Hispanic people as migrant workers, then that is what public perception will become.
We cannot place all the blame of a Eurocentric Hollywood on the Academy, but it does deserve its share and it certainly has a significant role to play in reversing this problem. It is a Hollywood institution that carries a lot of clout. The Oscars reward excellence in Hollywood, and the time has come for it to recognize all the wonderful ways in which excellence can be portrayed.
While there’s no inherent problem with showcasing stories with an all white male cast (through that hardly seems realistic), the problem is choosing not to showcase other stories that bring to light the realities of the world. We do a disservice to our society when we fail to highlight gender norms, break down racial stereotypes, acknowledge trans phobia or celebrate the accomplishments of the underprivileged. There are a million stories that have not been told because the Academy perpetually tells Hollywood there is a singular formula for success and a deviation is a miscalculation.
For years, the Academy exclaimed that viewers wouldn’t root for a female protagonist…until the world fell in love with Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games. The Academy said that women aren’t funny…until Bridesmaids has people falling off their seats. The Academy declared fantasy movies would flop…until Lord of the Rings broke box office records.
For its 88th year, the Oscars will perpetuate a prejudiced, biased value system that is broadcast around the world.
That’s the big deal.