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).
After that 1996 People story was printed, Jackson announced his plans to stage a protest at the Oscars the following Sunday, plans that he eventually scaled back when it became clear that even those who agreed with him weren’t necessarily up for picketing on the red carpet outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Instead, Jackson asked Oscar attendees to wear rainbow ribbons as a sign of solidarity on the issue, encouraged home viewers to tune out and organized protests outside of 25 ABC affiliates around the country.
Those protests didn’t make a particularly big impression. According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article published after the ceremony, about 15 people showed up on Oscar night to picket outside the Channel 2 Studios on Atlanta’s West Peachtree Street, then disbanded about an hour into the broadcast. But Jackson’s effort picked up a lot of pre-Academy Awards steam in the media, where the response from Academy leaders and members was often, not surprisingly, defensive. In some cases, it also was jaw-droppingly dismissive.
Bruce Davis, then the executive director of the Academy, told the L.A. Times in response to Jackson’s concerns about institutional bias: “The academy is probably the most liberal organization in the country this side of the NAACP. To say that the academy is discriminating against minorities is absurdity of the highest level.”
Davis admitted that Denzel Washington had given two fine performances the previous year that weren’t nominated — presumably in Devil In a Blue Dress and Crimson Tide — but noted that the actor had won before and been previously nominated three times. “At what point will they be comfortable?” he asked, no doubt making some readers uncomfortable with the way he used the word “they.” In an AP story that ran days later, Davis again attempted to demonstrate the Academy’s open-mindedness, stating that, “As minorities get more chances, we’ll be waiting” to honor them.
Several articles published at the time made a point of noting that the Academy “does not control hiring in Hollywood,” as if the members of the Academy are not actual people who make actual decisions about what happens in the motion-picture industry, or that who they nominate may be reflective of biases both conscious and unconscious.
But perhaps the most blistering response to Jackson’s effort came from Peter Bart — then editor-in-chief of Variety — who wrote a memo to Jackson in the industry trade publication that mentioned several reasons why this was the wrong time to accuse the Academy of racism. “If 1995 proved not to be a good year for black Oscar nominees, it wasn’t a good year for black movies, or for any movies, for that matter,” Bart wrote in the column, published in the March 25-31 issue. “But certainly the positioning of Quincy Jones and Whoopi, not to mention Sidney Poitier as a presenter, should give some clue that the Academy is hardly a bastion of racist sentiment.”
He also said: “If you ever watch TV, Reverend, you would notice not only that African-Americans are depicted in a wide range of roles but also that two new shows, ABC’s ‘Buddies’ and Fox Broadcasting’s ‘The Show,’ specifically deal with racism and racial humor.” (Note: Both of those shows, including the former, which starred Dave Chappelle, went off the air almost as soon as they got on it. Also: That’s only two shows!)
Reality one: Protests and picketing are passe, Reverend. There is growing resentment in this country against anything that smells of affirmative action — witness the initiative on this fall’s California ballot that gleaned the required signatures in record time. Reality two: Johnnie Cochran and his client, O.J., have sharply reduced the number of good souls around who will go out on a limb to extend a helping hand. To argue to the contrary is sophistry.
It’s silly to pretend that everyone in 2016 speaks and writes in consistently more tempered, enlightened tones. When asked about the #OscarsSoWhite furor, nominee Charlotte Rampling recently said the uproar is “racist toward white people,” a statement for which she later apologized. The response to recent rule changes enacted by the Academy has also gotten heated.
In response to the concerns about diversity, the Academy recently announced plans to double its female and non-white members by the year 2020. As part of that effort, the organization altered its guidelines regarding who may vote going forward; soon, unless a member can prove he’s been active in the business during a 10-year period, he may lose his voting rights and be switched to emeritus status, a move that enables the Academy to purge itself of older members who, at least in theory, are less in tune with the zeitgeist. The changes have prompted many industry veterans to publicly express their dismay, sometimes using language that sounds close-minded and more than a little out of touch. Take actor Tab Hunter, who told The Hollywood Reporter that the new rules are “a thinly-veiled ploy to kick out older white contributors — the backbone of the industry — to make way for younger, ‘politically-correct’ voters.” Or Academy member and director-producer Milton Justice, who said of the Academy’s newly proposed rules, “What bothers me most is how insulting this is to black people.” Others have raised concerns that the new rules foster ageism, a point that has some merit. But there’s a prevailing sense that, more than anything, at least some of the long-timers are simply resistant to change.
What’s different now versus 1996 is that, for the most part, a majority of people, both in the industry and observing it, recognize that something must be done to broaden the backgrounds and perspectives of Hollywood’s gatekeepers. There may be a lack of consensus about what exactly should be done, but it feels like fewer people are denying that racial, gender and ethnic biases exist to the extent that they did in 1996. Back then, one of the key leaders of the Academy called outrage over these types of issues “absurdity of the highest level.” Last week, Isaacs responded to similar outrage by saying in a released statement that, “The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up.” Will the moves made by Isaacs and the Academy’s Board of Governors be a catalyst for the kind of industry change that’s could really make a difference both at Oscar time and throughout the movie-going year? It’s not clear yet, but a willingness to try to move some needles seems like a positive turn on to the right street.
Obviously Jesse Jackson’s attempt to ignite a dialogue about racial and ethnic bias back in 1996 didn’t have lasting impact. Part of the reason may have been that Jackson was the one leading the charge. A Hollywood outsider and a political figure often accused of grandstanding, he’s also the same man who famously used the pejorative Jewish term “Hymietown” in 1984 to describe New York City; even though he later apologized, some Jews, including ones who work in the entertainment industry, never forgave him. Of course, none of that means that what Jackson was saying about systemic racism in Hollywood was untrue; obviously there was something to it since we’re all still talking about it. But because he was speaking the loudest, that made it all the easier for some people to unfairly minimize the what he was saying as another case of “Jesse being Jesse.”
On Oscar night 1996 — a night that would see Mel Gibson win big for Braveheart — Whoopi Goldberg didn’t ignore the tempest Jackson had stirred up during her opening monologue. After saying she refused to wear any of the ribbons associated with significant causes, including the rainbow-colored one Jackson had urged people to wear, she added, “I had something I wanted to say to Jesse right here. But he’s not watching, so why bother?” The line got a huge laugh and a massive round of applause from the audience. Then she moved on, effectively, for the moment, putting the tempest right back in its teapot.
The climate is different now. Blacks known for being vocal on such matters, like Spike Lee and, yes, Goldberg, too, are speaking out, but so are white industry stalwarts like Reese Witherspoon and George Clooney, who recently told Variety, “I think that African Americans have a real fair point that the industry isn’t representing them well enough. I think that’s absolutely true.” So are regular people on social media, where the reaction to perceived prejudice is swift and increasingly difficult for Hollywood decision-makers to ignore; #OscarsSoWhite didn’t come from People magazine, after all, it was created by a black writer and editor named April Reign, who has a flair for channeling her frustration into a memorable hashtag. As Cara Buckley wrote in the New York Times, recent current events may have played a role as well: “Perhaps the reason #OscarsSoWhite found such traction this year — after years of critics and audiences lamenting the paucity of good roles for black, Asian and Latino actors — was that the whole world, at last, was really watching, in no small part because of the might of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the spotlighting of police killings of African-Americans.”
Obviously that traction only matters if it leads to actual action after the Oscars are over, and the chatter about all this dies down. But it feels like this could be a tipping point.
On Oscar night 2016, like Goldberg before him, host Chris Rock probably won’t ignore the tempest. Though he’s confirmed nothing about the content of his opening monologue, it seems pretty likely that he’ll talk about Hollywood and race at much greater length than Goldberg did back in 1996. He won’t delve into this more deeply that because he’s so much braver than Goldberg, or because he feels more strongly about racial injustice than Goldberg. He’ll do it because it’s not 1996 anymore. It’s 2016, and it’s time.