Oscar diversity isn’t the problem, Hollywood is

As the spring semester commences and full course loads kick into gear, those with their gaze fixed on La-La Land will have also marked Sunday, March 4, on their calendars: Oscar Sunday. Oscar history is being made this year in a number of circumstances: Greta Gerwig’s Best Director nomination for “Lady Bird” and Jordan Peele’s for “Get Out” make Gerwig the fifth woman in history to earn a nomination for directing a feature film and Peele the fifth person of color to be nominated in the same category. Peele is also the first person of color to be nominated in the Writing, Directing and Best Picture categories in the same year. It is also only the second time in the history of the Academy that both a woman and a person of color have been nominated for Best Director in the same year. Rachel Morrison, who has been nominated for her work on the set of “Mudbound,” is the first woman ever to be nominated for Cinematography.

Some might argue that this, the most diverse cast of nominees in the Academy’s history, is the fruit of the labor put into the #OscarsSoWhite movement. After the 2016 Ceremony marked the second year in a row to feature all-white nominees in the leading and supporting acting categories, the hashtag emerged as a platform upon which industry powerhouses and fans alike could express outrage and disappointment in the Academy’s apparent lack of appreciation for the work of filmmakers of color. The organization responded to the outcry by “widening its net;” vowing to double its women and minority voters by 2020 and to change membership criteria for Academy members who are no longer active in the industry. This policy change would keep some older Academy members who have, say, worked briefly in Hollywood and then left the business from having the same voting power as members who have been active in the industry for decades and are more aware of the systems, issues and attitudes currently facing the community.

It is my belief, however, that the Academy has not simply been “snubbing” exceptional contributions (although that may have happened in the case of specific films which deserved to be recognized and were not, for one reason or another), but that the opportunity to make and release exceptional movies hasn’t been given to everyone.

At Elle’s 2016 Women in Television dinner, Viola Davis had this to say about the limitations of #OscarsSoWhite’s goals: “The problem is not with the Oscars, the problem is with the Hollywood movie-making system … How many Black films are being produced every year? How are they being distributed? The films that are being made, are the big-time producers thinking outside of the box in terms of how to cast the role? Can you cast a Black woman in that role? Can you cast a Black man in that role? … You can change the Academy, but if there are no black films being produced, what is there to vote for? … The Oscars are not really the issue. It’s a symptom of a much greater disease.” I could not agree more.

It is the status quo for the films that everyone has seen or that rake in the accolades come award season, the ones most firmly rooted in the pop culture canon, to be written, directed and produced by and to feature white, straight, cisgender and fully abled men.

For example, it is a fairly well-established rule of thumb in Hollywood that to have more than a couple of Black actors starring in one film would suddenly make it a “Black movie,” thus making it less profitable and less marketable to industry tastemakers and therefore less likely to be green-lighted. This narrows the already miniscule space that Black actors, writers and directors can comfortably occupy in an impossibly white industry. Productions that tell the stories of marginalized people and that seek to hire marginalized people to tell those stories are almost reflexively shelved.

It is my belief that upending the lack of institutional support for diverse filmmakers and performers is even more critical to achieving sustainable change than changing the demographics of the Academy’s voting body. As long as movies by people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community and differently abled people aren’t being greenlit, funded or seen at the same rate as movies by and for the white, cishet men currently ruling show business, we will not achieve equal representation in the media responsible for inspiring and entertaining us.

Alexa Johanningmeier ’21 (johann2@stolaf.edu) is from Florissant, Mo. Her major is undeclared. 

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