By now, many have seen the trending hashtag but few know April Reign.
She’s the woman who created the catchphrase turned mantra of protest over a year ago before the 2015 Academy Awards when no performers of color received acting nominations.
Sadly a year has passed and nothing has changed.
More Oscars will be handed out on Sunday, Feb 28th and many will be protesting the absence of any actors of color from the nominations.
But what’s the big deal about the Oscars?
Who cares if deserving famous people are slighted to make room for other famous people?
What’s the significance of some stupid little statue?
Should minority ethnic groups and women even want to be apart of an institution that CLEARLY doesn’t value them?
These are questions I wrestle with.
Even now as I type this, I’m still trying balance my acknowledgment of movie bias with desire to care.
As an actor myself,I get it.
I understand the power of peer acknowledgement.
The notion that you’re treated as though what you do matters.
That who you are is valued.
But I also resonate strongly with the idea put forth by Jada Pinket Smith and others. That I should want to be in creative spaces with those who actually want me. I shouldn’t have to beg for acceptance and that doing so (where the Oscars are concerned) could be a sign that I have yet to accept myself.
The systematically disenfranchised don’t and shouldn’t need Oscar’s gold plated validation to feel worthy. To feel honorable or honored.
But there is a duality of emotions generated by
the Academy Awards and the Grammy’s and the Tonys for that matter.
As much as the Oscars don’t matter, they do.
The award doesn’t matter as a measurement of greatness.
After all, Denzel has been snubbed several times. Leo has never won at all.
But it matters because it serves as a mirror of American progress..or a lack there of.
The arts, even under the corporate mechanisms of the entertainment industry
are supposed to be a bastion of progressive ideals and diverse representation.
Which is why when it comes to what is supposed to be the industry’s gold standard, it’s very telling as to who is invited, who is nominated and who is acknowledged.
Let’s be clear.
If the goal of the Academy Awards
is to recognize the most courageous, daring and innspired artistic imaginations regardless of race or gender, then the Oscars awards are an abject failure.
At the same time, the award show and the protest that it has inspired serves as in important symbol that is indicative of issues of racial, ethnic and gender discrimination that exist everywhere in our society .
The lack of diversity in Hollywood and at the Academy Awards is a problem created by systematic exclusion and limited access which I’ll touch upon later.
#OscarsSoWhite and the lack of representation that so many are up in arms about are not only the fault of the powers that be, but also the neglect of those who wait until award season say something about inequality.
It’s the sin of those who choose to say nothing at all.
Many people are deservedly angry. Many of you are just plain late.
Choosing to abstain from Hollywood’s televised orgy of self-pleasure is not without symbolic merit.
But we as a nation have failed to come to terms systemic injustices that have much more fatal consequences than your favorite rich, famous person not being invited to collect swag bags and gold statues.
We claim to inhabit the greatest county in the world but continue to make excuses as to the obscene income equality that ravages the poor and middle class.
Many are silent when it comes to work place discrimination that effects blue collar industries and those without a celebrity platform.
Heck.. a large part of the country can’t even get on board with the idea that Black teens shouldn’t be gunned down when they’ve posed no physical threat.
But now we’re shocked and aghast because of a few awards?
I’m not saying that issues of social justice and Hollywood bias can’t be simultaneously targeted.I’m only asking that you forgive me if I’m not surprised or heartbroken by a lack of Black nominees.
We still can’t say Sandra Bland’s name, don’t be shocked that they want call Idris’
I understand the desire to boycott but we have to be more consistent. We can’t force the desired result of inclusion without addressing the root cause
and where Hollywood is concerned, the root cause that allows racism,sexism to thrive is access.
The Room Where It Happens
“We dream of a brand-new start
But we dream in the dark for the most part”
-Lyric’s from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Hamilton’
via the character Aaron Burr –
Of all the major entertainment industries -recorded music, Broadway television and film- the movie industry is without a doubt the most difficult barrier to break through. New writers and directors to have a tougher time being heard and actors seemingly have better odds to hit the Mega Millions Powerball while fighting a chupacabra than to appear in a feature film.
We must first must understand some basic truths about the way Hollywood works if we are to understand how Hollywood bias prevents a plurality of ideas from being invited into the room.
Hollywood is not a meritocracy.
Talent does not have to equal success and success is not necessarily an indicator of talent.
Most of us are taught that in life, if you study hard, work hard, show up on time, do right and develop a set of valuable skills, that those merits will take you exactly where you want to go. The principles should absolutely be taught to young people (and perhaps reintroduced to a few adults) but in the business of entertainment, “it ain’t necessarily so”.
Are there many incredibly decent, hardworking, talented and genius artists in the industry today? Without a doubt. This is not to take anything away from those people.
Writers, directors, sound engineers, camera operators, show runners, musicians, animators and actors. When you go to a movie theater or open your laptop to Netflix and chill, you don’t have to look far to see the proof of extraordinary talents and hard work.
But many times, the way access is granted by the industry gatekeepers largely has to do with the company you keep. Who you know. Who they golf with, eat with, grew up with, smoke cigars with, party with, kiddie carpool to private school with many times effects the opportunities that you are given. In Henry Louis Gates’ thoughtful and honest documentary “Beyond The Color Line” , an African American film producer puts it this way
“The studio system; the agents, the managers, the studio executives, it’s hard for black folk to break into that business….”you have to hang out with these agents and drink and go whitewater rafting and do all of this kind of sincere assimilationist activity, to where you really feel comfortable in that mix.”
This is not to imply that Black people or women or Latinos don’t know how to whitewater raft but it adds another layer of understanding as to why coveted positions of access can be so elusive.
All of this plays an integral role in understanding why it’s more difficult for brilliant scripts and ideas from minority demographics to come across the desks of high power studio executives and producers. And we haven’t even begun to address the power corporate influence, sponsorships and the almighty dollar.
When you look at the issue of systematic bias in our country in general, and consider the fact that certain biases can be knowingly or unknowingly insulated in the cocoons of friendships and networks, it’s doesn’t become hard to see why there is such a scarcity of differentiating viewpoints in boardrooms and production offices in Hollywood.
Some studios have chosen to address these issues with “tokenism”
as detailed by tv writer and activist Beejoli Shah.
What’s more important than Black movie stars, Asian writers and female directors being awarded a hollow gold “token” of appreciation in the form of a statue or a job as a diversity hire is the opportunity for their ideas to be honored and their stories to be authentically told.
Film actress and Tony award winner Tonya Pinkins recently expressed the desire to bring authenticity and integrity to her work as a black actress when she withdrew from a highly anticipated run in the play “Mother Courage”.
In her poignant and personal testimonial explaining her exit, she wrote
“Twice this year my perspective as a Black woman was dismissed in favor of portraying the Black woman, through the filter of the White gaze.
….This spring, in Rasheeda Speaking , I was the only Black American woman in the room. Does this matter when portraying a Black perspective? Absolutely!”
My hat goes off to people like Tonya Pinkins, Jada Pinkett Smith, Spike Lee, Viola Davis, Ava DuVernay and Shonda Rhimes who use their gifts to make diverse art and their platforms to call for social change on a consistent basis.
The question becomes what the rest of us going to about it?
What are my community of fellow artists going to do about it?
While we wait for the next big studio hire we have to continue to shine a light on these issues beyond awards season.
There are working artists of all colors who are so afraid of political inconvenience that they literally do and say nothing when they see discrimination and exclusionary practices taking place.
Entertainers and activists like Spike and Jada have been consistent in their critiques of Hollywood discrimination and for that consistency, they should be applauded. But for those who go into social hibernation only to come out once a year with disgusted chants of protest, we can do better.