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Oscars 2015: So Hollywood Is Still Racist (and Sexist), Now What?

01/27/2015 05:34 pm ET | Updated Mar 29, 2015
  • A. B. Wilkinson Assistant Professor of History, University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV)
OSCARS

Recently, the Academy Awards nominated the movie Selma for best motion picture, yet many wondered how the academy did not select any of the cast or the director for a 2015 Oscar. People are further questioning how all 20 acting nominees were of European descent or "white." Oscars for the four categories of best actor and actress, along with best supporting actor and actress, have traditionally neglected certain ethnic groups.

This problem is bigger than the Oscars, as numerous people have pointed out that this type of unequal representation in Hollywood is still both problematic and systematic. Even today, people of color are most often cast in supporting roles or as stereotypical characters in movies and on television.

While there are some exceptions, as certain African American men have made headway over the years, women of color are routinely left out of top roles (servants, slaves and mistresses excluding). Even fewer actors and actresses of Latin, Asian, Native American and other non-European backgrounds see adequate representation in U.S. film and media today.

Most of us agree that the U.S. is ethnically diverse and has been for a long time. If we celebrate the various cultures that contribute to our U.S. fabric, then why aren't more of us standing up for those who may not look like us?

If people are serious about changing the racial images presented to us in popular media then maybe it's time to not only speak out, but to move out and boycott non-ethnically diverse films, TV and awards shows. We also need to continue to support movies and television that realistically portrays society beyond stereotypes.

The Men Behind the Curtain

Oscar nominees and winners are selected by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), who the L.A. Times reported to be 94 percent "white," 2 percent African American and less than 2 percent Latino in 2012. Also, 77 percent of AMPAS members were male and their average age was 62.

Statistics like these bring into question the legitimacy of the Academy Awards altogether. Given the numbers, it's perhaps unsurprising that Ava DuVernay was not able to gain enough votes for best director of Selma, or that none of the 15 directors, cinematographers or screenwriters nominated for an Oscar this year were female. Only four women have ever been nominated for best director, with one win.

In 2013, AMPAS elected Cheryl Boone Isaacs as the first African American president of the academy (and third woman). Over the past few years, Boone Isaacs says the academy has taken great efforts to become "a more diverse and inclusive organization."

Still, when Latinos and African Americans make up 30 percent of the total U.S. population (17 percent and 13 percent respectively) and the majority in a few states, it's clear the academy will have a difficult time equalizing its membership anytime soon. Why?

First, there are now over 6,000 members in the academy and people keep their vote for life. Even adding several hundred new members over the past few years has only slightly moved the averages.

Second, opening up AMPAS membership has brought in new members who are only about 30 percent female and less than 20 percent people of color. Granted, these are improvements, yet these numbers don't even reflect the current population.

Mathematically, new members will only negligibly alter the overall representation. A year ago, the L.A. Times reported that "the overall academy is still 93 percent white" -- an improvement of only 1 percent with the new recruits.

Colonizing Minds

No disrespect to the excellent actors and actresses of European descent nominated for their performances in 2014. Many of them have devoted a life's work to perfecting their craft. Since they were adolescents many took acting classes, studied theater, and looked up to role models holding the Oscar statuette.

Who do young Latina and Asian American actresses have to look up to, having only a handful of nominations over 86 years of the Academy Awards, and never a best actress Oscar presented to them?

The one time a Native American woman graced the stage to accept an Oscar it was Sacheen Littlefeather in 1973. Only it wasn't her award.

That year Marlon Brando rejected his Oscar for best actor in The Godfather and instead used the platform to protest inaccurate depictions of American Indians in film and other Indigenous struggles. Littlefeather took his place at the Academy Awards to deliver this message as president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. After introducing herself, and the reason she was there, Littlefeather was almost booed off the stage before others in the audience applauded her efforts.

Though Littlefeather acknowledged she didn't have time to read Brando's full statement, it was released to the press afterwards. Brando referenced the historical atrocities the U.S. perpetrated against Native American peoples and criticized the film industry for its continuing negative portrayals of American Indians.

Brando's statement read:

It's hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television... and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.

More than 40 years later, how are the nation's children still being injured? Do children of color today have enough positive images of themselves in movies and on television?

"There aren't any Asian movie stars."

Too many times in popular U.S. media, Latinos and Asian Americans are still trapped in stereotypical roles as servants and/or immigrants with over-accentuated accents. Recently, a couple blockbuster films have featured Arabs and Asians, though their characters are being assassinated (at least Seth Rogan called out American Sniper).

The masses rallied behind Sony Pictures to release The Interview in support of free speech. However, it's interesting that people barely turned their heads when the same Internet hack revealed an Oscar-winning screenwriter griping to Sony execs about being asked to write a movie for a lead role of Asian heritage.

"The protagonist is Asian-American... and there aren't any Asian movie stars," complained the screenwriter about the movie. The irony is that there will continue to be few stars of Asian heritage if the so-called best screenwriters aren't willing to write movies for them.

Without top roles there are no opportunities for nominations. This is another way institutional racism works. Will we stand for it or against it?

"Is Hollywood Mexican Enough?"

Latinos won more Oscars in the 1950s and early 1960s than they have over the past 50 years (four total). All have been in supporting roles except one for best actor in 1950.

Ironically, it's been said that in the 1920s the original Oscar statuette was modeled after the physique of Emilio "El Indio" Fernandez, who was Mexican and Kickapoo American Indian. Though there is no physical proof to support this often repeated story, Fernandez's career as both an actor and director spanned five decades and his award-winning films (outside the Oscars) reveal a longstanding Latino presence in Hollywood.

Recently, Chris Rock wrote about the continuing struggles African Americans face behind the scenes in Hollywood, but he also asked: "Is Hollywood Mexican enough?" Pointing out the lack of Latinos in film and on TV, he quipped that "in L.A, you've got to try not to hire Mexicans."

African Americans, Latinos and other actors and actresses of color have a hard time moving outside one-dimensional sidekick and "knucklehead" roles in mainstream movies and television. Like many performers, they must take lesser roles before moving up to larger ones, but how many "shuck and jive" characters do they have to take before they potentially break through the "Hollywood Shuffle"?

Rock explained this dilemma for budding African American performers and plainly stated: "It's a white man's industry." UCLA's 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report looks at the numbers of those in power and supports this sentiment.

Re-casting Racism

Even when Hollywood scripts call for people of color, somehow certain characters still end up getting "whitewashed." Acting roles don't always need to be filled by someone of the same ethnic heritage as the character, but it's questionable how not one woman of color could be found to play Tiger Lily in the new 2015 Pan. And the 2014 Exodus looked like it could have been cast right along with the 1956 Exodus movie (The Ten Commandments) during legal segregation.

Some have argued that movie studios simply want to make money and that "whiteness" sells in theaters, but studies actually show the opposite: diversely cast movies do better at the box office.

Latino, African American and other people of color now make up 51 percent or more of frequent moviegoers in the U.S., which means that Hollywood could be casting them as heroes and heroines in somewhat equivalent numbers and still do well domestically.

It's also clear that international ticket sales now influence film marketing, so realistically Asian and Asian American actors and actresses should be getting roles at much higher rates (and outside of martial arts flicks).

Educating Viewers and Time to Boycott?

Even though films serve the purpose of entertainment, they also serve to educate. If we had more accurate images of U.S. society reflected on the big screen perhaps some people wouldn't be so shocked when characters of color are cast in important roles -- or hold top positions in society.

Having a broader ethnic base of actors and actresses as leading characters will help youth of all backgrounds view diversity and inclusion as the norm, not an anomaly. In this way, diversifying popular media benefits us all.

Certainly, the lack of variety in Hollywood is not the biggest problem in the world today, yet it is a serious issue and one that we can do something about. In the true U.S. tradition of protest we can boycott movies and shows that are discriminatory as a tactic to force change.

Passing along "#boycott" followed by a film's name, a TV show or an awards ceremony -- and acting on it -- can be powerful in numbers. As Common and John Legend's recent Golden Globes acceptance speech for best song in Selma reminds us: "Now is our time to change the world -- Selma is now."