We must do more to combat the Oscar’s ‘whitewash’

Idris Elba starred in ‘Beasts of No Nation’, released October 16th 2015, a Netflix original which achieved a 91% review on popular site Rotten Tomatoes, a 7.8/10 on IMDB and a response from Rolling Stone stating: ‘Hard to watch, impossible to forget’. Despite this, Elba is another of many POC (People of Colour) actors to have walked away this year receiving no Oscar nominations.

With not one single POC actor or actress represented in the nominations this is the second year in a row that we are facing an Oscar’s ‘whiteout’. Following the outrage at the nominations we heard from some seasoned actors, hoping for some words of wisdom. Instead we have read in the news rather problematic responses from some much loved celebrities. Michael Caine was quoted saying that black actors simply had to “be patient”, and Charlotte Rampling went a step further, expressing a concern that the hashtag ‘OscarsSoWhite’ was “racist to whites”.

Jada Pinkett Smith and civil rights leader Al Sharpton have advocated an Oscars boycott which many stars of varying ethnicities have backed, including Oscar winning director Spike Lee. This caused quite a stir and the 51-member Academy Awards Board of Governors made a pledge in response to double its female and minority membership by the year 2020. But what are the facts of this issue, and where do the true problems lie?

The Academy’s voting members, which come to roughly 7,000 are 94% white, largely male and of an older age range. In statistics published by the Economist (analysing years 2007-2013) we can see that only 10% of Oscar nominations have gone to Black actors/actresses; 3% of nominations have gone to Hispanic actors and actresses; and a troubling 1% to those with Asian backgrounds. With 2% going to those of any other heritage.

But there are issues which seem to run deeper than the lack of minority nominations. Since 2000 only 9% of Black actors have landed lead roles in movies which are considered for Oscar nominations. This selection of white actors and actresses over others of alternate race seems to occur not just in the nominations, but in the industry itself. The president of the Director’s Guild of America, Paris Barclay released a statement stating that the offer by the Board of Governors would, ‘do little to create more choices and get more films and television made that reflect the diversity we all deserve.’ And that, ‘structural changes’ were needed in Hollywood to reform hiring practices.

It seems that although the gesture made by the Board of Governors, may right some wrongs, but it will do so too late and make changes in the wrong places. These cases of racism in the industry do not just happen in the awards shows, but have been reported by the SAG to start as early as drama school and extend to the casting offices.

The changes that need to be made include an upheaval of the casting process and equal opportunities for those of minority backgrounds to land top film roles. But what can we ourselves, removed from direct contact with the film industry, do to help?

Firstly, we can endorse film festivals which represent minority parties such as: ‘The European Minority Film Festival’ and the ‘Woman and Minorities in Media Festival’. And even simpler, we can go to the cinema and buy tickets for movies with high POC casting and support those who are underrepresented. If we support minority actors and actresses in the cinemas, this will pile up as statistics for popular viewing, and encourage directors to hire more POC actors and actresses. This way we can help shape the way actors and actresses are casted and honoured in the film industry.

Image: DFID

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