When the Academy Award nominations were announced on the day before Valentine’s Day in 1996, the acting categories were missing something: a person of color. With the exception of Italian actor Massimo Troisi, nominated posthumously for his performance in Il Postino, every contender was a white person from either the U.S. or UK; the only black person recognized in any category that year was Dianne Houston, director of the live-action short Tuesday Morning Ride.
A few weeks later, People magazine responded by publishing a cover story that plastered the words “Hollywood Blackout” across the front of the magazine and declared that the industry’s “exclusion of African-Americans is a national disgrace.” The Rev. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition followed up by attempting to orchestrate protests and asking people not to watch that year’s ceremony, even though it was hosted by a black comedian (Whoopi Goldberg) and produced by a black person (Quincy Jones). In interviews, Spike Lee and other black filmmakers referred to the whitewash as evidence of Hollywood’s institutional racism, while some industry insiders and Academy members insisted that the best films and performances were chosen in a completely colorblind manner. It just so happened that in 1995, the work of black actors and artists didn’t quite make the cut, they said.
The similarities between what occurred then, in the run-up to the 68th annual Academy Awards, and what’s happening now, in the run-up to the 88th, are striking and more than a little eerie. Two decades have passed since Jackson attempted to make some noise about Hollywood’s inability to broaden its white horizons, but it seems little has changed.
Look at what’s been happening so far in the weeks before the 2016 Oscars. There’s an uproar over the absence of people of color in the acting categories and among nominees in general, one that many — including Spike Lee — have said is emblematic of a lack of inclusiveness in the industry. Instead of that “Hollywood Blackout” People magazine cover, there’s the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, which has been mentioned repeatedly in the cavalcade of media coverage of the Academy’s Caucasian fixation. Some prominent stars, including Lee, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith, have publicly announced plans to avoid the Academy Awards, while Al Sharpton — another prominent black leader who happens to be a reverend — urged viewers not to tune in as a sign of protest. Meanwhile, some in the industry continue to argue that even though certain black actors and films about black lives were not nominated, that’s not indicative of racial bias. And in a few weeks, as it did in 1996, the Oscar show will go on, with a black comedian (Chris Rock) acting as emcee and an black man (Reginald Hudlin) co-producing the broadcast.
Twenty years have gone by, but here we are, having the same conversation, using practically the same damn words. This feeling of déjà vu confirms what we already know: Hollywood has made little progress regarding gender, racial and ethnic inclusiveness because a lot of the same old issues are still, two decades later, issues. But after sifting through news coverage of the 1996 Oscars, it’s also clear that the passage of time have allowed for some evolution in the response to those issues. To be clear: That doesn’t solve the fact that there are still not enough blacks, Latinos, women, Asians and other groups getting opportunities to call the shots in show business. But it does give reason to hope that what Selma director Ava DuVernay refers to as Hollywood’s “belonging problem” has a better chance of getting solved now than it did back then.
For those who don’t remember what happened back then: The aforementioned People magazine story, the result of “an exhaustive, four-month investigation,” hit newsstands a little over a week before the March 25 Oscar ceremony was to be held. That investigation made the case that, despite a “widespread belief” that black creatives had “successfully broken through Hollywood’s barriers,” the reality was quite different. Even though blacks then accounted for 12 percent of the U.S. population and 25 percent of moviegoers, the story noted that only 3.9 percent of Academy members and 2.3 percent of the Directors Guild of America’s members were black. To put those numbers in contemporary context: According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau figures, blacks now comprise 13.2 percent of the U.S. population, while MPAA data collected in 2014 says blacks are responsible for around 12 percent of movie-ticket sales. An L.A. Times study from 2012 found that now only 2 percent of the Academy membership, which gets larger each year as new members are invited, is black; and the DGA reports that, as of October 2015, 4.2 percent of its members are black, a significant increase from 20 years ago, but still a small percentage. For the record, Latinos are now the largest minority in America, accounting for 17.4 percent of the population and 23 percent of movie-ticket sales. But based on those L.A. Times figures, there are even fewer of them in the Academy (less than 2 percent) and the DGA (3.2 percent).