What The Oscars Diversity Discussion Is Getting Wrong And How We Can Fix It

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The Oscars have been lily white for years, and this year, more than any other, it seems like the general public has finally taken notice. Which is great. We can tell people that the Oscars don’t matter, and that they were only ever intended as a ruse for studio heads to consolidate power. (“I found that the best way to handle [moviemakers] was to hang medals all over them … If I got them cups and awards they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created,” said Louis B. Mayer.) But movies are still a business. One Forbes study found, for instance, that Best Actor winners experience an 81% salary bump after winning an Oscar. So, while they’re probably irrelevant in terms of art and legacy, Oscars do still have some demonstrable value. Thus, people who get snubbed have a right to be pissed, and the public is justified in calling the Academy out on it.

It’s good that it’s happening, but the way it’s happening, it feels like a lot of us are missing the point. We’ve given the controversy an official name, #OscarsSoWhite, and have asked basically anyone involved in the movie business their opinion on “the diversity problem.” Which certainly makes for some great shark pit journalism, where we all tear apart 70-year-old Charlotte Rampling for saying that being upset about non-white snubs is “racist to white people,” or 82-year-old Michael Caine for telling black actors to “be patient.”

Sure, it’s easy to rip on old white people for using the wrong words when flustered, sometimes it’s even a little fun, but it’s also not especially constructive, and at times feels a little cruel. These are people who’ve spent their lives memorizing lines, not solving America’s social problems. Not that what they said isn’t still dumb, it just seems a little silly to ask for their perspective on a problem that was caused by an overabundance of old white people’s perspectives in the first place. What’s the media’s job here, guys? Trying to solve problems or trying to set traps? And we wonder how Donald Trump got popular.

#OscarsSoWhite, if I can be somewhat reductive about the name, is a symptom of the problem, but it’s not really the problem. Do I personally think a lot of talented people of color got snubbed this year? Absolutely, from Idris Elba and Samuel L. Jackson to Ryan Coogler. But me offering yet another white person’s perspective on this is to miss the point. (Sadly, I saw more than a few articles written by white dudes, with the theme of “#actually, so-and-so wasn’t really snubbed because I did not like that movie,” the writing of which must require a heady cocktail of tone deafness and pure chutzpah). The point is, the problem isn’t so much that the Oscars lacks non-white nominees, it’s that it lacks non-white perspectives in choosing those nominees. #OscarsSoWhite is a symptom, #TheAcademySoWhite is the problem.

Science backs me up on this, by the way. The Economist recently did a statistical analysis on the racial breakdown of both Oscar winners and the Academy, and it seems to suggest that while this year’s lack of non-white nominees and perceived snubs of black actors and directors may have brought awareness to the problem, historically, a lack of black nominees hasn’t been the issue. At least, not exactly.

As our analysis of film casts and awards shows, the number of black actors winning Oscars in this century has been pretty much in line with the size of America’s overall black population.

Great! Racism solved! We can all go home now, right? Well, no. For one thing, that doesn’t mention the yawning gulf between the number of Latino moviegoers (25%) and their almost total Oscars shutout (same with Asian actors). For another, even if this year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy is a statistical anomaly, there’s still a big problem. There are lots of numbers in the Economist piece, but this one seems like the most important:

Fingers are pointing at the Academy’s 6,000-odd voting members, 94% of whom are white.

Yep, 94% white. Meanwhile, white people make up about 62% of the total US population. All of which are numbers that prove what everyone already knew: The Academy is very, very white. Does the fact that the Academy is lily white mean that they’re incapable of recognizing non-white talent? Not necessarily, but let’s face it, that lack of a non-white perspective makes a difference. Much of the entertainment world is still somewhat segregated, or at the very least suffering some kind of hangover from various kinds of deliberate, accidental, and/or cultural segregation, and even where it isn’t, we still have cultural blind spots.

How famous does a Latino, black, or Asian artist have to be with their core demo before white people know who they are? Kevin Hart was selling out Madison Square Garden before I knew who he was, and I’m a comedian. And I’m not a 73-year-old theater director who lives in Bel Air. Simply not being aware of certain artists doesn’t make me, or my hypothetical theater director terrible racists or bad people, we naturally just don’t see what we didn’t know we were supposed to see.

If shifting our focus from #OscarsSoWhite to #AcademySoWhite seems somewhat obvious, it should, but if we don’t pinpoint the problem, we’re going to get sh*tty solutions. It’s important that we recognize that what we’re after isn’t some kind of noblesse oblige idea of inclusiveness, where the same white establishment pins a rose to the chest of their favorite non-white actor to keep from having to see picketers at their cocktail mixer. I want people of color’s perspectives on who the best actor is, not white people deciding who the best non-white actor is. To put it another way, whether or not you think Straight Outta Compton got snubbed or not, I’d rather have a 78-year-old white dude honestly not understanding Straight Outta Compton surrounded by some people who do understand it, than a 78-year-old white dude pretending he loved it so people don’t get mad. Ramplings gonna Rampling, so to speak.

By the way, if you think all of this is self-evident, I wish that were true. But if it were, we wouldn’t have quotes like this, from a recent article on the matter in the New York Post:

George Clooney implied in an interview this week that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was racially prejudiced because this year’s crop of major nominees included no blacks. (All 20 of those nominated for acting awards, for instance, were white). […]

“If you think back 10 years ago, the Academy was doing a better job,” Clooney said. “Think about how many more African-Americans were nominated.”

Clooney cited “Creed,” “Concussion,” “Straight Outta Compton” and “Beasts of No Nation” as films that “could have been nominated” but weren’t, implying that racial bias is the reason they weren’t.

Yes, all those films (two of which flopped) could have been nominated. But is it reasonable to infer that the Oscar voters snubbed them in a fit of racial pique?

George Clooney is just as wrong for thinking the same white academy was “doing a better job” for nominating more black actors as the Post’s R. Kyle Smith is for claiming that Clooney “implied” or “inferred” that overt racism (or “racist pique,” whatever that’s supposed to mean) was to blame. It’s a problem of simple perspective.

Moreover, the Academy represents people in positions of power, people in positions to decide what projects get made, who gets into drama schools, etc. People of color get nominated less partly because they get fewer roles. But even if this year’s nominees for acting Oscars were 85% people of color, it’d still be a problem if the braintrust deciding what kinds of roles those were and which ones were important was still 94% white. To put it another way, people would be far less concerned with the color of the honorees if it felt like they got more of a say in the process.

I realize that getting into the Academy is theoretically merit-based (you still wonder how some of them snuck in there), but without getting into an entire treatise about segregation, Jim Crow, the Chitlin Circuit, etc. etc, can we all just agree that the Academy being 94% white didn’t happen entirely by accident? That doesn’t make the 94% who are there guilty of deliberate exclusion, it just acknowledges that there are probably some non-white folks out there who didn’t have as easy a shot at getting in. The faster the Academy becomes more representative, the faster we can all go back to arguing about which movies and actors were good and bad, and not what color they are.

The Academy (whose president is a black woman, before anyone tries to “actually” me), has gone on record about making “sweeping changes” to increase its diversity. The proposed plan would “add three seats to its 51-member governing board,” with the goal of “doubling the number of female and minority members by 2020.”

Ironically, the New York Times reports that this plan may not even go through for reasons of procedure:

While it appears rather unlikely that the board will reverse course, it remains exposed to the possibility that a restructuring could fail to garner the two-thirds majority requirement for bylaws changes.

Did you catch that? We may not be able to make this 94% white jury less white unless two thirds of the 94% white people agree to it. Oy. Do you see why these organizations are so slow to change? Even if we were living in a post-racial world, changing institutions like the Academy is like turning a battleship. This plan, nonetheless, was once again accompanied by more out-of-touch white people bitching:

Kieth Merrill, who won an Oscar in 1974 for his documentary “The Great American Cowboy” and was nominated for best documentary short in 1997.

Mr. Merrill, 75, said he found the changes and the logic behind them outlandish.

“I’m sure I’ll sound racist, I’m sure I’ll sound prejudiced, and I’m not. I think it’s completely ridiculous to bring in ethnicity to the evaluation of creative performances and filmmaking and acting,” Mr. Merrill said, noting several times that he had an adopted black daughter and four black grandchildren.

“We’re supposed to be evaluating talent in categories, and one of the categories is ‘what is their ethnicity?’ ” he said. “To make it one of the categories is ridiculous.”

And herein lies the subtle difference between #OscarsSoWhite and #TheAcademySoWhite. This guy, who doesn’t think of himself as a racist (as he noted several times), thinks he’s being asked to be less racist. When all he’s being asked is… nothing at all, really. His perspective is already noted. It’s people whose aren’t that need a say. Would it be “unfair” that some non-whites get into the Academy under different rules than the current members? Only if you ignore the fact that the white people already in it had some natural advantages in the first place. Also, it’s not like you invented the polio vaccine, shut the f*ck up.

Look, we’re all ill-equipped to understand each other’s perspectives. The reality is, we’re all born with just this one body that’s filled with gross stuff and turds, that we keep sh*tting out until we die. We can never truly understand what it’s like to be anybody else, not really. And obviously, I recognize the irony in adding another white dude’s perspective to this issue. But if I could speak directly to some of my fellow white people in the Academy on this, I think it helps to understand that no one’s asking you to feel guilty. No one’s asking you to admit that you did something wrong or telling you not to like the things that you like, or to try to appreciate art that came from a different set of influences than your own (not that any of that would be a bad thing). We’re only asking you to admit that you have a blind spot. The sooner you understand that, the sooner you’ll find a way to correct it. Having a wider variety of perspectives doesn’t mean you have to change your own, in fact it probably means less scrutiny on yours. Opening up isn’t going to cheapen your organization. In fact, it’s going to make your choices a lot more interesting, and a lot less predictable.

I mean, seriously, Eddie Redmayne again? Something has to change.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.