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April Reign speaks about the power of advocacy on social media at the University of Oregon on Jan. 21, 2020. (Kimberly Harris/Emerald)

In 2015, April Reign was drudging through her work days as an attorney. Then, on a morning in January, she unwittingly veered her career in a new direction. As she got dressed for work and watched the Oscar nominations on TV, Reign was struck by how every single one of the 20 lead- and supporting-actors nominated were white. An avid social media user, she picked up her phone and tweeted “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.” Reign’s off-handed comment struck a chord with the online community. By lunchtime, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was trending worldwide with tweets like “#OscarsSoWhite they wear Birkenstocks in the winter time,” and “#OscarsSoWhite they have a perfect credit score,” multiplying across the internet. 

“It wasn’t until a few days later when the conversation changed into something that was much more meaningful about the lack of diversity and inclusion with respect to the Oscars,” Reign said. “Now, the conversation is about the entire entertainment industry.” 

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Reign spoke at the University of Oregon’s Erb Memorial Union. Her presentation was part of the BE Series, a program that brings inspirational speakers to campus. She talked about her journey from typing a sarcastic tweet to leading the #OscarsSoWhite movement in a fight to acknowledge and represent marginalized groups in the media. She now travels globally, speaking and writing about diversity and inclusion. 

A year after tweeting #OscarsSoWhite, Reign watched another set of 20 Caucasian actors receive Oscar nominations and the movement was reignited. “One time is a fluke but two or more times is an actual pattern,” she said. With the return of social media protests — and influential actors like Will Smith boycotting the Oscars —  the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to make some changes. They limited each member’s voting rights to a 10 year term that can be renewed through participation in current films, and committed to doubling the percentage of people of color (then 8%) and women (25%) in the Academy by 2020. They succeeded on the first account — although 16% people of color is still not proportionate to US society — but only increased the ratio of female members to 32%. This year, the Academy is 85% white and 68% male. 

The 2020 nominations reflect this ratio. Cynthia Erivo, who played Harriet Tubman in “Harriet,” was the only person of color among the 20 nominated actors. Only men were selected for the Best Director category, despite numerous acclaimed films directed by women this year, such as Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” and Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.” 

Reign’s vision is to open up the film scene to people of all backgrounds. “I’m all about meritocracy,” she said. “Cast your net wide, find the best possible talent out there… and then let the best person win.” She believes that Academy members should be required to watch the films they vote on, ensuring that the Oscars are more than a popularity contest, and urges studio heads to search outside their traditional networks to find new and diverse talent.

According to the 2019 Hollywood Diversity Report, in 2016-2017 people of color were underrepresented by a 2 to 1 ratio (20%) among film leads and 3 to 1 among directors (13%). Women were also underrepresented 2 to 1 (33%) as film leads and 4 to 1 (13%) as directors. The same report found that movies with majority-minority casts “posted the highest median return on investment” while “films with the most racially and ethnically homogenous casts were the poorest performers.” These results aren’t surprising: diverse films sell because they capture a wider range of experiences, drawing in more audience members. 

Diversity behind the camera matters because our identities shape the art we create. “We all go through our lives with our own internal biases and that’s not racism or discrimination… that’s just how we show up in the world,” Reign said. When an overwhelming majority of the stories playing on our screens come from people of similar backgrounds, it skews our perception of the world.  We get only a small slice of the pie rather than looking through a myriad of cultural lenses. 

Reign believes that being an ally isn’t enough: instead, we should become active advocates for the disadvantaged groups of which we don’t identify, bringing everyone along on the journey towards justice. “Freedom alone isn’t liberation; it’s isolation,” she told the audience. Still, she encourages people to focus their energy, whether that be on climate justice, disability rights or racial discrimination. “Everyone must do their part,” Reign said. “And so you must determine, what is your part?”