Steward: Lily-white Oscars point to systemic problem

When comedian Chris Rock, who happens to be black, opens up the Academy Awards as its host this year, there’s bound to be a few zingers on the big white elephant in the room.

Last year many called foul when the 20 actor nominations were all white faces, a first since 1997. The outcry even birthed #OscarsSoWhite and led to a boycott of the ceremony, which some say accounted for the show seeing its lowest ratings of the past six years. We thought the academy had learned its lesson.

But apparently Oscar voters still haven’t got the memo that we’re currently amidst a second wave of The Civil Rights Movement, as this year’s Oscar nods are just as white as ever, with the acting categories again devoid any persons of color.

This year the ceremony’s boycott is getting support from several heavy hitters. Spike Lee announced on Instagram over the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend that he and his wife are declining their red-carpet invitation, despite his finally being awarded an Academy Honorary Award in November, which was surprisingly his first time taking home the golden statue.

Jada Pinkett Smith, probably still stewing from her husband, Will Smith’s Oscar snub for his powerful turn in “Concussion,” took to social media as well and posted a video on Facebook stating she wouldn’t be watching or attending the Oscars and wished Rock all the best.

Criticisms of Lee and Pinkett Smith are flooding the internet, with some vilifying their stance, calling for more attention be paid to racial police brutality and not privileged celebrities. While other are going as far as comparing Smith to Eldridge Cleaver and aligning her battle cry of “let’s do us differently” with the black separatist movement.

Let’s take a step back. Yes, the Oscars is a night dedicated mostly to giving rich actors and studio executives the opportunity to publically pat themselves on the back, but it is also one of this country’s highest and most sought after honors. What does it mean when people of color are shunned from this level of recognition?

The argument that there were not enough films with people of color to choose from, as was a popular retort last year when “Selma” was snubbed in the acting and director categories, holds no weight this year. “Creed,” “Beasts of No Nation,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Chi-Raq,” and the aforementioned “Concussion,” all featured critically lauded performances by people of color, but were heavily snubbed. This begs the question, are Academy voters actively ignoring films featuring non-white lead actors?

To answer this, let’s do the math. Luckily, due to last year’s turmoil, Lee & Low Books published a user guide of sorts to Oscar stats over the years. In the ceremony’s 87-year history only 5 percent of the acting winners have been black. Hale Berry is still the only female of color to win Best Actress in a Leading Role. Males currently hold the majority of voting seats at 76 percent and the average age of voters is 63. Hollywood often considers itself one of the most liberal corners of Western society, but it looks like this sentiment stops at the Oscar’s Red Carpet.

Two-time Academy Award nominee Viola Davis beautifully shouted from the Emmy Awards stage last year, “You cannot win an [award] for roles that are simply not there.” If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past year, it is that systemic oppression can’t be fought on the surface, whether it’s in the streets or on the big screen. We must revamp the system if we truly want to see change.


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