Berg: #OscarsSoWhite is an important statement pointed in the wrong direction

The nominations for the 88th Annual Academy Awards were unveiled on the morning of Jan. 15. The annual celebration of cinema is coined “Hollywood’s Biggest Night,” as a time to reflect on a year of movie-going and award the latest achievements of the medium. But for the second year in a row, an uncomfortable cloud hung over the ceremony.

As John Krasinski and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs read off the nominees for the major categories, an unfortunate trend reared its head. Not a single major nominee of the ceremony was a person of color. Social media was quick to react, revitalizing the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite to criticize the lack of diversity on display.

In the following week, the controversy reached a fever pitch. Jada Pinkett and Will Smith publicly boycotted the ceremony, as well as director Spike Lee. Instead of analyzing the merit of the best films of 2015, the conversation is one of representation on screen. In reaction to the controversy, rumors floated that the Academy may shift its nomination rules to increase the range of recognized performances.

Vanity Fair reports that the Best Actor and Best Actress categories will expand to 10 nominees apiece, mirroring a similar change that occurred within the Best Picture category in 2010. The change would honor not just the top five performances as nominated by the voting board, but also honor those who received more than a specific percentage of votes by the board. It’s suggested that such a shift would’ve seen nominations for performances like Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation, Michael B. Jordan in Creed and Jason Mitchell in Straight Outta Compton.

It’s a change that seems increasingly inevitable for an Academy under fire. Unfortunately, it’s a patch for the visible symptom and not the underlying disease. #OscarsSoWhite is intending to expose the Academy as a biased judge of Hollywood. But the real tragedy is that the Academy might be working precisely as intended.

The #OscarsSoWhite campaign hits at an uncomfortable truth within Hollywood. Minority representation is disproportionately low, with major studios hesitant to produce films that speak to non-white communities. The logic is rooted in anglocentrism, suggesting that while a film starring white characters will speak to everyone – a film that stars minorities can only speak to a ‘niche’ audience of that particular culture.

In a recent UCLA study, minorities were underrepresented as film leads in a ratio greater than 2:1. Then there are situations like the upcoming Gods of Egypt, wherein characters of Egyptian descent are portrayed by white Hollywood actors. Studios are cautious to cast minorities at the front of major pictures, and that’s what results in lineups like this year’s list of nominations.

Of all the films of 2015, only two seemed to feature African-American talent— and have a space in the Oscar conversation. Had Creed’s Ryan Coogler gotten a Best Director nomination, or Straight Outta Compton received enough votes to appear on the Best Picture list, would that solve the underlying anger that #OscarsSoWhite capitalizes upon? Rather than address the real problem, Hollywood seems content to patch up the most visible evidence of prejudice.

Personally, I’m in favor of the Academy expanding more categories to a 10 nominee structure. As we saw in 2010, it gave attention to fantastic movies that didn’t meet the typical Oscar mold: films like Up, District 9 and Her. Beyond the ones mentioned above, 2015 had phenomenal performances that ducked under the five-nominee limit of their category. But it’s irresponsible to insist that this is enough. It’s deeply important that this conversation is arising within Hollywood, and it could be the time to change the status quo.

The casting logic of the movie business is stuck in a rut, and one that doesn’t even stand to make economic sense. Two of 2015’s biggest films, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Furious 7, boast leads of color. The biggest star by box office gross this year is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a Samoan who is hardly the classic Hollywood archetype of a leading man. Yet despite this, opportunities for actors of color are uncharacteristically low. Moments like this can be wake-up calls to an industry, but not if they are settled by symbolic gestures.

Follow Chris Berg on Twitter @ChrisBerg25

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Chris Berg

Chris Berg