Academy Awards: How bad is Hollywood's diversity problem?

Outside Hollywood’s big Oscars gathering Sunday, there’ll be a protest of what critics say is a lack of diversity among Academy Awards nominees and those who choose them.

Robert Galbraith/REUTERS
Oscar statues at the entrance to the Dolby Theater as preparations continue ahead of the 87th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California.

As movie stars and the Hollywood press gather for the Oscars hoopla and ceremony Sunday, there’ll be some extra drama – a protest over the lack of diversity among the nominees and those who pick them.

The numbers show why: Of those nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for films released in 2014, all of those for best director are white men and all the acting nominees – best actor, best supporting actor, best actress, and best supporting actress – are white. (“Birdman” director Alejandro González Iñárritu is Latino, born in Mexico City.)

Beyond that is the makeup of those who choose the nominees – the members of the Academy, who total about 6,000 film professionals. As this nifty graphic in the Telegraph shows, the Academy is 94 percent white and 77 percent male with an average age of 62.

Darnell Hunt, head of the UCLA center for African American studies, and author of "The Hollywood Diversity Report,” comes up with similar figures. He calculates that 93 percent of the Academy's members are white and about 70 percent are men, with an average age of 63.

"In many ways the Academy is falling further and further behind because America is more diverse," he told AFP. "In about two or three decades, we are going to be majority minority [with minorities making up most of US population] and you are going to have an Academy with 90 something percent white? That makes no sense."

While snapshots of other professions may show similar problems, the film industry plays a unique role in both reflecting and influencing culture and society – not just American but globally.

“It's a place where at every level, from the top on down, diversity is lagging behind society,” write Brennan Williams, Christopher Rosen, and Irina Dvalidze in the Huffington Post. “For 87 years, the Oscars have been a celebration of filmmaking. And the message it puts across, however unintentionally, is hard to miss: Certain voices matter more than others.”

That’s an opinion held by many Americans.

A new Reuters/Ipsos poll reports that one-third of Americans believe Hollywood does not pay proper attention to minorities and women. Thirty-four percent of the nearly 2,000 people polled online said they believed Hollywood has a general problem with minorities, and 32 percent said the film industry's capital shies away from making Oscar-caliber movies that appeal to minorities.

Activist and political commentator Al Sharpton's National Action Network, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable said they would demonstrate on Sunday before the televised ceremony. The groups are calling for a boycott of the Oscar awards ceremony.

"The goal of the protest is to send a message to the Academy, send a message to Hollywood, send a message to the film industry," Earl Ofari Hutchinson, head of the LA Urban Policy Roundtable group, told Agence France-Presse . "And the message is very simple: you don't reflect America, your industry doesn't reflect America. Women, Hispanics, African-Americans, people of color are invisible in Hollywood."

It hasn’t always been this way.

In 2002, Sidney Poitier –  the first African American to win a best actor Oscar in 1964, for Lilies of the Field – received an honorary Oscar for his body of work. That same night, Halle Berry became the first African American to win best actress for “Monster’s Ball,” and Denzel Washington, following in Poitier’s footsteps, won best actor for “Training Day.”

“All the hard work done by black trailblazers such as Hattie McDaniel, the first African American ever to win an Academy Award—for best supporting actress in 1940, for Gone With the Wind—seemed to have come to fruition,” writes Julie Walker in The Root, an online magazine focusing on African-American culture.

For the first time in its history, the Academy has an African-American president: Cheryl Boone Isaacs.

“In the last two years, we’ve made greater strides than we ever have in the past toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization,” she told The Associated Press. “I look forward to [seeing] a greater cultural diversity among all our nominees in all of our categories.”

For the films of 2014, however, that didn’t happen.

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