Oscars 2016: How to change the face of Hollywood

One of the nominees in the middle of the Academy Awards controversy shows how Hollywood can better value diversity.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
The 'Straight Outta Compton' cast arrives at the 22nd Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles Jan. 30. The white screenwriters were the only people attached to the acclaimed movie nominated for the Academy Awards on Sunday. Some African-Americans called for a boycott after all the acting nominations went to white people for the second year in a row.

For screenwriter Leigh Savidge, Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony should be the brightest moment of a lifetime in filmmaking. Instead, he is faced with being perhaps the most conspicuous member of an all-white boys club.

Mr. Savidge and three co-writers have been nominated for an Academy Award for their role in “Straight Outta Compton,” which depicts the rise gangsta rap in the 1980s. But they are the only artists from the film who have been nominated. And they are white.

For the second year in a row, the slate of acting nominees at the Oscars includes no artist of color. The resulting outrage has fueled the #OscarSoWhite boycott campaign and is particularly poignant for Mr. Savidge. Not only does his film have a nearly all-black cast, but he has also dedicated his professional life since 1986 to telling the black experience through his independent film studio, Xenon Pictures.

“I do wish some of the performers had been recognized,” he says in an interview with the Monitor.

His story stands in stark contrast to Hollywood at large, which is gripped by an “inclusion crisis,” according to a study released this week by the University of Southern California. So Hollywood’s triumphant night has instead become interwoven with awkwardness and agitation.

Spike Lee, winner of a lifetime achievement award, is boycotting the event, as are red carpet mainstays Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. Host Chris Rock has had to resist pressure to bow out. And august award presenters such as Oscar winner Morgan Freeman are being accused of bowing to what critics call Academy tokenism.

In the middle is Savidge, whose professional career is in many ways a potential antidote for the concerns at the center of the protests. What his film shows, he suggests, is the resonance of deeply human stories of all races. 

“I was in my doctor’s office and a nurse came up and told me that the film brought her husband and son together,” he says, noting that this was in a suburban setting. “She added that the story was the only thing they could agree on.”

Measured by dollars and cents or even ratings, Sunday’s actions – which range from boycotts of the telecast to protests in at least 10 cities – might be ineffective, many media experts say. The Academy Awards are one of broadcast television’s biggest live events, drawing audiences from around the globe.

But the dialogue over the larger issues can have an impact, the experts add.

“Pop culture sometimes helps shift us toward social justice,” says Patty Williamson, associate professor in broadcast and cinematic arts at Central Michigan University. “Using the Oscars to shine a spotlight on the lack of diversity among the nominees will hopefully broaden that investigation into the overall representation and will help everyone start asking more questions about why there aren’t more women and more minorities in the business itself.”

A new study drives home the point. It uses more than a year of data collection and analysis by scholars and students at the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The report assesses inclusion on screen and behind the camera in fictional films, TV shows, and digital series distributed by 10 major media companies.

After a decade of annual reports, the lab has come to a stark conclusion: “Despite elevated awareness around this issue, the numbers have not budged,” state co-authors, Stacy Smith, Marc Choueiti, and Katherine Pieper.

Organized action is long overdue, say boycott activists. “It’s past time,” says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Roundtable and author of a dozen books about the black experience in America. “This is not just for the Academy but for the entire film industry,” he says. At all levels of industry, on camera and off, he says, “the message is that Hollywood has for too long paid lip service to diversity.”

At the end of the day, says Najee Ali, head of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Action Network, which is behind the demonstrations, “it’s not about who wins a silly statuette; it’s about projects and inclusion.”

Producers have drafted a number of top names, such as Mr. Rock, a comedian, and Mr. Freeman to appear. But, says Mr. Ali, this is the worst kind of tokenism. “It is humiliating and demeaning to say that black performers are good enough to present awards and make jokes at the party, but not to actually be recognized for their contribution.”

The boycott has brought attention to the success of a seven-year passion project by African-American actor/producer/director Nate Parker. His film, “The Birth of a Nation,” about the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, racked up the largest sale ever at the Sundance Film Festival – a reported $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight – just as the Oscar boycott began to build.

Mr. Parker had hard words for Hollywood following the sale. He told vulture.com, “We as artists have to understand that there is pervasive racism in Hollywood and in America, and we can either pick the weed, or we can roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty and get into the root.”

He suggests the problem is foundational, laid at the dawn of the film industry by the first film to bear the title, “Birth of a Nation.” 

D.W. Griffith’s film about the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan was the first feature film that played in the White House. The problem with the film and its success in Hollywood, says Mr. Parker, is that it says one thing, “Embrace white supremacy, and you will survive. That was his message. And America embraced it.”

Others intend to make their own statements Sunday night. New York public relations specialist Richard Laermer says he intends to screen a slew of films about the black experience instead of watching the Oscars. “I am going to watch ‘Selma,’ ‘Creed,’ and ‘Compton’ all night Sunday.”

“I hope the ratings reflect some anger. White people can be so oblivious to the world sometimes, you know?” he writes in an e-mail.

McAuther Jeffrey-Francis, a business consultant in Los Angeles and an African-American, says he will tune out the ABC broadcast and scour his on demand programs for the best films about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “It’s time for people to embrace diversity in their lives.”

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