It’s that amazing time of year when the crème de la crème of the movie industry comes out of hibernation and makw you want to spend every cold winter night in front of the big screen. I have always loved the Oscars and growing up I used to sneak downstairs after everyone had gone to bed and watch them until 5am… and then wake up for school completely exhausted!
The 74th Academy Awards in 2002 will always stand out as one of the best for me, as it was the night of Halle Berry’s infamously emotional acceptance speech for her incredible performance in Monster’s Ball, where she became the first black woman to win Best Actress. That night, Denzel Washington won Best Actor in his stellar performance in Training Day, and Sidney Poitier won the prestigious Honorary Academy Award (who, ironically, was also the first black man to win the award for Best Actor in 1963!) It was a landmark night for the representation of black actors and for every person who believes in equality. So how did come we come from such a heroic night in 2002, to a situation in 2016 where the Oscars is now being branded as ‘racist’?
2016 marked the second year in a row that the four lead categories - Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Film - featured no black actors or filmmakers. In 2015, the critically acclaimed film Selma about Dr Martin Luther King, was one of my absolute favourites and I was so surprised that neither the film nor lead actor David Oyelowo were nominated for an Oscar. Despite winning Best Original Song for Glory, I feel that Selma should have been more widely acknowledged by the Academy.
Fast forward to 2016. An actor’s talent should never be judged on the colour of their skin, and an artist should not win an award solely because the Academy needs to appear racially diverse and politically correct. However, the issue of race had to be raised when Sylvester Stallone was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Creed and the film’s lead actor and director (both hugley talented, black, individuals) were not, begging the question; why was only the white guy nominated?
As a White British woman, I have no idea what it feels like to not have someone of my heritage represented on screen, but as a woman who was brought up in a racially diverse area in Liverpool with friends from many cultures, I can understand the feelings of frustration and exclusion. In a time where Barack Obama is the President of the United States and Oprah Winfrey is one of the most successful women in the world, it really saddens me to think that we’ve backtracked to the mentality of a pre-Civil Rights society.
The fact that so many big names in the entertainment industry (of all ethnicities) have voiced their frustrations about the lack of diversity in Hollywood cinema, proves that this archaic notion is not the majority opinion.
It is always important to remember that the members of the Academy who select the Oscar nominees represent a small minority of the population; according to public record, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has 6000-6500 members, who have to be established figures within the entertainment industry and are selected on an invitation-only basis. In a year that also saw the huge ‘Female Pay Gap’ debate, maybe it is time to reassess the Academy and replace it with a demographic that is both realistic and relevant to modern day society?
By this I mean an eclectic mixture of ages and ethnicities, with equal numbers of men and women, recognising and choosing films that show a wealth of quality and diversity in all areas of their production. The inequality in Hollywood is so much bigger than the ‘Black versus White’ debate. Why are women paid so much less than men? Why is there a distinct lack of Asian representation in the movies? Why is it so much harder for actors to get a job post-40? The list is endless, but racial discrimination at this level needs to addressed, before it permanently damages one of the most influential industries in the world.
The Oscars clearly needs a makeover and the ourage over the shortlist this year proves that diversity amongst the nominees is just as important as actors and filmmakers of different backgrounds taking home the grand prize. At the end the of the day, there can only be one winner and a lot of people have got to lose, but how are ethnic minorities even supposed to have a chance at winning if they are not recognised and nominated (or for that matter, considered for good quality roles in the first place)?
After watching the 88th Academy Awards, I was relieved to see host and comedian Chris Rock address the race row and also manage to inject some humour into proceedings. Whilst making some controversial statements about black history (arguably more acceptable because he is a black man himself) Chris Rock made reference to the fickleness of Hollywood, namely Will Smith’s 20 million dollar pay cheque for Wild Wild West. His presence was a reminder that although there are issues with racial equality, 60 years ago it would have been unheard of for a black comedian to host the show.
In the same night, Best Actor winner Leonardo DiCaprio decided to use his acceptance speech as a chance to highlight the climate change crisis and Lady Gaga used her emotional performance to raise awareness for the survivors of sexual assault. Female director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy also won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short for A Girl in a River, and as a direct result of seeing this film, the Pakistani Prime Minister has vowed to change the law on ‘honour killing’ in Pakistan.
In the immortal words of actor Alan Rickman, ‘A film, a piece of theatre, a piece of music or book can make a difference. It can change the world’. Using the cinema as a social platform to implement change has proven widely successful over the years, and all artists should continue to use their fame to promote both change and positive causes.
I feel that anyone who considers themselves part of an ethnic minority and feels they are not being represented in film has the right protest, however, its also important not to let the negativity of #OscarsSoWhite outweigh the positive fact that so many social issues have been brought to the fore at the cinema over the last 12 months; from transgender issues in The Danish Girl to child abuse and the hypocrisy of the catholic church in Spotlight and Room, all three of which have encouraged a more integrated and understanding world.
The success of an actor or a film is so much more than how many awards it has received. The subject of racial equality is of course, of utmost importance and we should continue to strive for change, but let’s not allow one gold statue to represent the ultimate recognition of what it means to be a successful artist.
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