I Believe In the Self-Determination of Black People, Not the Oscars
By Dominique Hazzard
I don’t really care about the Oscars. I’m not a movie buff, I think awards shows are boring, and I don’t give a huge amount of weight to the artistic judgements of a bunch of hand selected old white men with ballots. Being too invested in receiving affirmation from whiteness and white institutions will always leave you disappointed, let down by something that was never made for you. Yet still I have to admit that I care about who is nominated for Oscars, as these nods have real consequences and contain important information about the valuation of black talent.
This year all of the Academy Award acting nominations went to white people. All of the nominations for directing, screenwriting, and cinematography went to men. And all of the movies that received nominations are about men. This is an especially bleak year, but lack of diversity in nominations is part of a larger and ongoing trend that even the blackity black 2014 awards show can’t make up for.
In the history of the Oscars, 99% of Best Actress and 91% of Best Actors have been white. All but 1% of Best Directors have been men. The awards that have gone to black actors in the past few years have been limited to those playing slaves, mammies, and jezebels. There have been zero Latino, Asian American, or Native winners of acting Oscars in the last decade. A cisgender person has won an Oscar for portraying a transgender person, yet no trans person has even won an Academy Award.
The snub that has received the most attention is Oscar’s snub of the film Selma. Selma was nominated for Best Picture, but apparently that nomination did not result from Oscar worthy acting, direction, or production, since neither director Ava DuVernay not star David Oyewolo received nods themselves. The controversy over the alleged historical inaccuracy of DuVernay’s film aside, women directors are just less likely to be recognized for their work. There have been ten women-directed films nominated for Best Picture in the history of the Oscars, yet only 3 of those women got nods for Best Director.
Yesterday when Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first black president of the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was asked whether her organization has “a diversity problem” she insisted that it does not. “Not at all. Not at all.” Of course it does: and it’s a structural one. The Academy is a good ol boys club designed to maintain the organization’s at the status quo demographics– 93% white 76% in 2012- and preserve the power that old white men have over the film industry.
There is a vicious cycle that impacts the professional success of actors, directors, and producers of color: The Academy is overwhelmingly white. The Academy selects the Academy Awards nominees and winners. Winning or not winning Academy Awards impact the success of an actor’s career. In order to gain membership into the Academy one must be nominated by the Academy for one of its awards, or otherwise impress one of its predominantly old white male members with one’s successful career. This is what a self-perpetuating system of white supremacy looks like.
With this effective gerrymandering of the Oscars there is no mystery as to why the Academy’s demographics remain so skewed, and why it consistently saves its accolades for white people and people of color in performances that appeal to the white gaze.
These awards shape how much actors of color are compensated for their work compared to white peers, how many jobs are available to them in the future and what movies get made at all, what stories are being told, and for whose consumption. And so, they matter.
Still, I believe in the self-determination of black people. I can’t put all of my energy and dreams into hoping that white institutions will change and recognize the incredible talent that we have to offer. But black people can vote with our business and help movies that we support have solid opening weekends, as Selma recently did. We can fund the creation of the films people want to see, as folks did with Dear White People. And through trending topics like #POCoscarnods we can affirm our own films on our own platforms, in our own way.
Dominique laughs in the face of the white heteropatriarchy while skipping merrily through the District, creating interfaith tools to address poverty, and eating bacon. Follow her on Twitter.
Photo: Paramount Pictures/IMDB