Black Actors on Race and the Oscars

The Oscar Snubs Have Been Too Much for Black Hollywood

Michael B. Jordan at the Academy Awards
Fans of Michael B. Jordan felt the actor should have received an Oscar nod for "Creed.". Disney-ABC Television Group's Flickr photostream.

The Academy Awards is one of the biggest nights of the year in Hollywood, but something is often lacking: diversity. The nominees are often dominated by white actors and directors and this did not go unnoticed in minority communities.

In 2016, many African Americans chose to boycott the ceremony and, because of that, the Academy has made vowed to make changes. What spurred this movement and what did black actors have to say about it? More importantly, have there been any modifications to the voting process since then?

The Oscars Boycott

Actress Jada Pinkett Smith called for a boycott of the 2016 Oscars on January 16 because each of the 20 nominations in the acting categories went to white actors. It marked the second year in a row that no people of color received Oscar acting nods, and the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite trended on Twitter.

Supporters of actors like Idris Elba and Michael B. Jordan felt particularly slighted that these men weren’t honored for their performances in “Beasts of No Nation” and “Creed,” respectively. Film fans also argued that directors of both films—men of color—deserved nods. The former film’s director, Cary Fukunaga, is half-Japanese, while the latter film’s director, Ryan Coogler, is African American.

As she called for an Oscars boycott, Pinkett Smith said, “At the Oscars…people of color are always welcomed to give out awards…even entertain. But we are rarely recognized for our artistic accomplishments. Should people of color refrain from participating altogether?”

She wasn’t the only African American actor to feel this way. Other entertainers, including her husband, Will Smith, joined her in the boycott. Some also pointed out that the film industry generally needs a diversity overhaul. Here’s what black Hollywood had to say about the Oscars’ race problem.

The Oscars Aren’t the Problem

Viola Davis has never been one to hold back when discussing social issues such as race, class, and gender. She spoke about the lack of opportunities for actors of color when she made history in 2015 by becoming the first African American to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama.

Asked about the lack of diversity among the 2016 Oscar nominees, Davis said the issue went beyond the Academy Awards.

“The problem is not with the Oscars, the problem is with the Hollywood movie-making system,” Davis said. “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?”

Boycott Films That Don’t Represent You

Much like Davis, Whoopi Goldberg blamed the all-white 2016 Oscar nominees in acting on the film industry rather than the Academy.

“The issue is not the Academy,” remarked Goldberg on ABC’s “The View,” which she co-hosts. “Even if you fill the Academy with black and Latino and Asian members, if there’s no one on the screen to vote for, you’re not going to get the outcome that you want.”

Goldberg, who won an Oscar in 1991, said that for actors of color to land more prominent roles in films, directors and producers must be diversity-minded. They must recognize that films with no cast members of color miss the mark.

“You wanna boycott something?” she asked viewers. “Don’t go see the movies that don’t have your representation. That’s the boycott you want.”

Not About Me

Will Smith acknowledged that the fact he didn’t earn a nomination for his role in “Concussion” might have contributed to his wife’s decision to boycott the Oscars. But the twice-nominated actor insisted that this was far from the only reason Pinkett Smith chose to boycott.

“Had I been nominated and no other people of color were, she would have made the video anyway,” Smith told ABC News. “We’d still be here having this conversation. This is so deeply not about me. This is about children that are going to sit down and they’re going to watch this show and they’re not going to see themselves represented.”

Smith said that it feels like the Oscars are heading in “the wrong direction,” as the Academy is overwhelmingly white and male and, thus, doesn’t reflect the country.

“We make movies, it’s not that serious, except that it plants seeds for dreams,” Smith said. “There’s a disharmony that is brewing in our country and in our industry that I want no part to that. …​​ Listen, we need a seat in the room; we don’t have a seat in the room, and that’s what is most important.”

It's also interesting to note that Smith has received two Oscar nominations in his career. One was for "Ali" (2001) and the other for "The Pursuit of Happyness" (2006). Will Smith has never won an Oscar.

Academy Not the Real Battle

Filmmaker and actor Spike Lee announced on Instagram that he would sit out the Oscars, despite winning an honorary Oscar in 2015. “How is it possible for the second consecutive year all 20 contenders under the actor category are white? And let’s not even get into the other branches. Forty white actors and no flava [sic] at all. We can’t act?! WTF!!”

Lee then cited the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it’s right.”

But like Davis and Goldberg, Lee said that the Oscars weren’t the source of the real battle. That battle is “in the executive office of the Hollywood studios and TV and cable networks,” he said. “This is where the gatekeepers decide what gets made and what gets jettisoned to ‘turnaround’ or scrap heap. People, the truth is we ain’t in those rooms and until minorities are, the Oscar nominees will remain lily white.”

A Simple Comparison

Chris Rock, the host of the 2016 Oscars, gave a succinct but telling response about the diversity controversy. After the nominations were released, Rock took to Twitter to say, “The #Oscars. The White BET Awards.”

The After Effects

Following the backlash in 2016, the Academy did make changes and the 2017 Oscar nominees did include people of color. They have taken steps to add diversity to their Board of Governors and vowed to include more women and minorities among its voting members 2020.

"Moonlight," with it's African American cast took home the honor of best picture in 2017 and actor Mahershala Ali won best supporting actor. He was also the first Muslim actor to ever win an Oscar. Viola Davis took best supporting actress for her role in "Fences" and Troy Maxson was nominated in the lead role for the same movie.

For the 2018 Oscars, the biggest news was that Jordan Peele received a best director nomination for "Get Out." He is only the fifth African-American in Academy history to receive this honor.

Overall, it seems that the Academy heard the passionate voices and has made steps toward progress. Whether or not we will see another #OscarsSoWhite trend, only time will tell. There is also a conversation about expanding the diversity beyond African Americans and hopes that more Latinos, Muslims, and actors of other minorities can be well-represented as well.

As the stars have noted, Hollywood needs to change as well. The 2018 release of "Black Panther" and its predominantly African American cast, was quite the buzz. Many people have said that it's more than a movie, it's a movement.