The woman behind #OscarsSoWhite

The reverberations are still being felt almost two years after April Reign created that hashtag, when Oscar nominations were announced. What will the new awards season bring?

Cynthia Francillon
April Reign left a successful legal career to write and talk about issues that energize her – especially race and culture.

Jan. 15, 2015, found April Reign glued to the TV while she dressed for the day in her Washington, D.C., area home. She was eager to find out who would be nominated for that year’s Oscars, the Academy Awards.

As the names of actors and actresses, directors and costume designers, film editors and cinematographers were announced, she was suddenly struck by something about the list: None of them were people of color.

She was just beginning to use Twitter as a way to express her thoughts (today she has about 53,000 followers), so she tapped out her very first tweet on the subject: “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.”

The tweet was meant to be “very sarcastic and cheeky,” says Ms. Reign, an African-American and former lawyer – to convey how out of touch Hollywood was with black Americans. To her surprise, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite quickly began to be used throughout the United States and around the world.

What had started as something said in jest became something much more: the focal point for a serious discussion on “diversity and inclusion in the Oscars, and in Hollywood in general,” she says.

Fast-forward to the 2016 Oscars. Once again the nominees in major acting categories were lily-white. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag flared anew.

Some African-Americans, such as actress Jada Pinkett Smith and director Spike Lee, boycotted the ceremony. “The biggest star to take the stage during the [2016] Academy Awards arguably was the #OscarsSoWhite controversy...,” noted an article in The Hollywood Reporter. Oscar host Chris Rock, an African-American actor and comedian, decided to participate anyway and then pulled no punches in his remarks.

Prodded by #OscarsSoWhite, Hollywood has begun to make changes. J.J. Abrams (who has directed installments of the wildly successful “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” movie franchises) announced that his production company, Bad Robot, would give women and people of color more opportunities to write, direct, and act. “The Oscars controversy was a wake-up call,” Mr. Abrams, one of the highest-profile directors and producers in the industry, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Prior to the 2016 ceremony, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which presents the Oscars, announced in a statement that its 51-member board had voted unanimously to approve significant changes that would diversify the academy’s membership. The board committed to doubling the number of minorities and women in the academy’s membership by 2020 to better reflect society as a whole.

Reign has been gratified by the surprising influence of #OscarsSoWhite. She hears anecdotes “all the time” from people in the entertainment industry who say that since the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, “it’s been a little bit easier” for them.

Reign herself has made a dramatic shift in her life, away from her legal career into one that involves writing and talking about issues that energize her.

She grew up as a “military brat” and went to high schools in three states: Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia, where she graduated. She chose to attend the University of Texas at Austin, she says, “because it had a very good business program and a very good law school.” After graduating from the law school she began practicing, specializing in campaign finance and later working in a general practice.

‘I want to do something different’

“I was in a very comfortable place,” she recalls. “The money was good, and the job wasn’t difficult. But I wasn’t feeling creative, and there wasn’t any passion in my work. I wasn’t enjoying getting up and going to work. And I said, ‘I want to do something different.’ ”

She told her husband she wanted to quit her practice of law. She saw herself traveling more and making considerably less money. “It didn’t sound like a good idea at all!” she says with a laugh. “And, God bless him, he just said, ‘Go and do what you need to do.’ ”

Then #OscarsSoWhite happened and took on “a life of its own,” she says.

Reign, a self-described “Broadway junkie,” soon connected with Andrew Shade, founder of the website, on Twitter. His multimedia platform highlights the achievements of African-Americans in the theater industry, and he was looking for writers. She began to submit articles for the publication and eventually became its managing editor.

Since then, she’s also become editor at large of NU Tribe, an online magazine aimed at black women.

Today she’s a sought-after speaker and a consultant to universities and private organizations on issues of diversity. In October she gave a presentation at the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine. PopTech is a 20-year-old group that holds annual gatherings in this picturesque seacoast town and sponsors “fellows” programs that train promising innovators and scientists.

Reign’s ability to use her voice on social media “to spark dialogue and explore issues of race, politics, and culture” made her a valuable addition to the PopTech gathering, says Leetha Filderman, the organization’s president, in an email. Ms. Filderman says she expects to continue to collaborate with Reign “as we strive to build greater diversity into our program offerings.”

Vanessa De Luca, editor in chief of Essence magazine, who spoke together with Reign at PopTech, is also a big fan.

“I admire her ability to get to the heart of an issue succinctly and passionately in 140 Twitter characters,” Ms. De Luca says in an email. “She is not afraid to say the hard, uncomfortable thing, or to make observations that might cause an army of trolls to flood her inbox. That takes courage and fortitude.”

Will she watch?

Reign says she didn’t watch the 2015 or 2016 Oscar ceremonies. She’s not “boycotting,” she says, but “my thought process is if you are not representing me, if you are not telling stories that ... speak to the beauty and diversity and nuance and complexity of all people in this country, then I’m not going to reward you” by watching.

In the past two years, she notes, viewership of the Oscar broadcast has declined. “In part I think that’s because people are so frustrated, and because of #OscarsSoWhite ... they just turned ... to watch something else.”

She will be watching the Oscar nominations Jan. 24 “to see if it’s going to be #OscarsSoWhite 3.0,” she says. “We’ll have to wait and see if I’ll be watching the ceremony itself.”

Looking ahead, Reign has toyed with the idea of starting some kind of clearinghouse or database that would help those looking to increase diversity in Hollywood, “so people can no longer say ... ‘I want to be more inclusive or diverse, but I don’t know where to look.’ ” Instead, she could say, “Come talk to me, and I can help you find those people.”

Reign says emphatically that she isn’t talking about setting up a quota system in which a percentage of jobs would go to minorities. But to win jobs, talented minorities need to get a foot in the door first.

“There’s no shortage of Latina actresses. There’s no shortage of black actors,” she says. “It’s just making sure that everyone has an opportunity [to compete] and then just picking the best-qualified person once you’ve leveled the playing field.”

The lead role in the popular TV series “How to Get Away With Murder” wasn’t written for a black actress, she says. “But Viola Davis came in and killed the audition,” and the writers reworked the story around the strong character she developed.

A wide variety of roles are equally suitable for actors from a wide range of backgrounds. “If it’s a good story,” she says, “people will go to see it – even if the leads look different than you expect them to.”

How to take action

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Cultural Canvas Thailand generates awareness of and volunteer help with the social problems facing Chiang Mai, Thailand. Take action: Empower communities through art with Art Relief International.

Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration is dedicated to protecting the world’s most vulnerable refugees. Take action: Donate to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender refugee support in Turkey.

Mercy Corps reaches millions affected by conflict in Syria and elsewhere, saving lives while also looking toward the future. Take action: Give funds to aid displaced Syrians.

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