The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has waged a battle to change the face of the Oscars, substantially increasing and diversifying its membership in the nine years since a ‘Los Angeles Times’ investigation found the academy’s membership to be overwhelmingly white, male and elderly. Surrendered to racial reckoning, the Academy last summer transformed its ranks by demanding that, for a film to be nominated, it must have minorities in front of and behind the cameras.
It all started, like so many things today, with a ‘hashtag’. In 2015, activist attorney April Reign targeted the white nominations for that year’s Academy Awards with a #OscarsSoWhite, which went viral. History repeated itself in 2016, which for the second consecutive year distributed the 20 acting candidates among white performers. The networks demanded to cancel the #OscarsSoWhite, criticizing the Academy Awards for their lack of inclusion. The racial problem of the Oscars suddenly appeared on the front page of newspapers with a large international circulation and was debated on television, while mainstays of the black filmmaking community, including Spike Lee y Jada Pinkett Smith, they boycotted the awards. The Academy fell into crisis, held an emergency meeting, and announced an ambitious goal of doubling the number of women and people of color among its membership by 2020.
Racism at the Oscars
Racism at the Oscars is nothing new, of course. When Hattie McDaniel became the first black actress to win an Oscar in 1939, they sat her at a separate table, at the back of the awards show, and was denied entry to the after-party because it was “white only.” Exclusion extends beyond the black community: Miyoshi Umeki remains the only Asian person to win an Oscar for best supporting actress for ‘Sayonara’ (1957); only five Latina women have been nominated for best actress; and Rami Malek is the only person of Arab descent to win a best actor Oscar for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (2018).
Based on the new changes, this year’s award nominations are very surprising, with Steven Yeun and Riz Ahmed as the first Asian American and the first Muslim to be nominated for best actor, for ‘Minari’ and ‘Sound of Metal. ‘, respectively.
How much has the Hollywood Academy changed since #OscarSoWhite? In 2020, they announced that they had exceeded the goals set in 2016, having doubled the number of female members from 1,446 to 3,179, and tripled their members of color from 554 to 1,787.
The recognition of these awards wants to reflect respect, justice and equality, not only because it has a significant material effect on the industry but because it allows artists to share their vision and bring their voice to the world. While an Oscar for Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee or Leonardo DiCaprio is the icing on the cake of an illustrious career, for many other winners it is much more meaningful. In an interview published this year, Sir Steve McQueen compared his Oscar victory to his knighthood, saying both were part of his artillery to secure funding for his ‘Small Ax’ anthology series.
For winning actors, it can serve as a stepping stone. Olivia Colman, Christoph Waltz or JK Simmons saw their victories transform their careers. Oscar nominations and statuettes have proven to be momentous for actors of color like Viola Davis and Regina King as well.
This year, in the direction category, the change is impressive. The list includes two women, Emerald Fennell and Chloé Zhao, the first Asian woman to be nominated as a filmmaker with a narrative that criticizes American society. In the best actor category, there are more men of color than white. And in the best actress category, there are two black women. Among the 10 nominees for supporting roles, four are people of color.
The plethora of films that contain narratives about African Americans written by black people is a historic landmark. That kind of wealth of opportunity is starting to normalize in Hollywood, and seeing your work recognized and rewarded helps society learn what’s going on in other communities. To say that Hollywood has been transformed is very risky, but it is true that the rain of awards no longer falls on the same actors and Latin actors still need to be recognized, but, there is no doubt, that progress is being made towards a much more open future .