A new year. A more inclusive set of Oscar nominations. A historic moment where the #Oscarssowhite controversy fades out, as the mainstream media shift public attention to the increased diversity. Did decades of inequality and injustice within the entertainment industry suddenly reverse, or are we under the fantastical fallacy that a racial equilibrium has been reached?
The first Academy Awards ceremony was celebrated on May 19, 1929. A glamorous extravaganza: red carpet, ball gowns, bow ties, clinking champagne glasses and shiny gold trophies. Hollywood’s grand illusion of perfection, creating and justifying a reality, where talented people of colour would perpetually be excluded and ostracized from the Oscars.
Eleven years pass before Hattie McDaniel becomes the first black person to win an Oscar in 1940, for her supporting role in the classic Gone with the Wind. She accepts the trophy in a ‘no-blacks’ hotel and is isolated from her co-stars on a remote table. Another 24 years, for the first person of colour, Sidney Poitier, to have won Best Actor. It takes until 2002, for two black actors: Halle Berry and Denzel Washington to receive an award in a leading role within the same year.
After 89 years of Oscar history, the disproportionately low representation of ethnic minorities shamefully persevered into the 21st century, exposing Hollywood’s disturbing whitewashing trend.
It makes one wonder, why is it that throughout the 20th century, 95% of Oscar nominations were received by white film actors? How did we accept the complete absence of actors of colour being nominated for acting awards in the last two years?
We can certainly see the sharp progress in 2017, with the nominations of six black actors, and one Indian actor- A record in Oscar history. Black actors, in particular are now being appreciated for their professional work in the film industry. Denzel Washington and Ruth Nega are applauded for their leading roles in Fences and Loving, while Mahershala Ali and Naomi Harris (Moonlight), Viola Davis (Fences) and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) got supporting nods.
Special mentions go to Moonlight for winning Best Picture, Viola Davis for receiving the supporting actress award, and Mahershala Ali for becoming the first Muslim to be awarded with an acting Oscar.
Diverse pictures have been celebrated, where the personal stories of ethnic minorities are being told. There was Moonlight’s poetic narrative about an African American man, growing up in a poor Miami neighbourhood, struggling with his sexuality; Fences portraying a slice of life for African Americans in Pittsburgh in the 1950s; Hidden Figures shedding light onto the African American women, who remarkably helped the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and finally the story of Lion narrating the true, emotional story of an Indian boy, who gets lost and separated from his family.
The voices of ethnic minorities are being heard. So what problem remains?
African Americans, Latinos and Indians are largely excluded from getting roles that don’t highlight their historical roots.
Throughout the years, Best Picture nominees centralising black actors were notably linked to race-specific themes. For example, the films 12 Years a Slave (2013) and The Help (2011) depict the history of slavery and racism affecting the black community.
In an interview with The New York Times, the director of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins expressed the pressure exerted upon black writers and directors to represent collective racial issues that black audiences would relate to. In turn, black actors are casted for roles that reflect black experiences, and are less likely to be appointed and succeed in romantic comedies and science fiction films - genres that their white counterparts dominate in.
In the award-winning romantic drama, La La Land , why can’t the role of Mia, an aspiring actress who falls in love with a passionate jazz musician be a black woman? Ironically, the one main African American character, happens to be a Jazz musician. Jazz is a music movement, which originated among African Americans in New Orleans.
Across modern film series with iconic characters such as Captain America: Civil War (2016), Batman vs Superman (2016) and Spectre (2016), the face of the central hero is almost always white.
Some advances have been made across television series from the likes of Luke Cage, focussing on a black male superhero, with unbreakable skin and incredible strength. However, an eminent gap remains in the film world, where the focus of public debate is still on whether or not we can accept a man of colour to be the world’s superhero.
Another deep-rooted issue is that this year’s oscar nominees and winners don’t fully represent today’s diverse modern audience. As black stories are being captured, hashtags like #oscarsnotquitesowhite flood social media, overlooking that race is not a simple black and white issue.
6 black actors, and an Indian actor have been nominated, but members of the Latino and Asian community are being ignored.
Latinos make up almost 1 out of 5 Americans, and are deemed the largest ethnic minority group in American society.
In 2014, they became the prime moviegoers, compared to other ethnic groups, making up 32% of the frequent cinema visitors and 12.5% of the population. Considering, their large presence in America and great interest in cinema, it is remarkable how Hollywood failed to include Hispanic directors, and actors, in this year’s Oscar nominations, despite their involvement in many films.
Although Asians comprise 5.6% of the American population, 88 years of Oscar ceremonies have gone by, with only 13 Asian actors being nominated in total. In this year's Oscars, apart from Indian actor, Dev Patel, no other actors of Asian descent were nominated.
Looks like the Oscars are not as diverse of an affair as it has been hyped to be.
We cannot be quick to applaud the progression of the Academy Awards, providing that members of the Asian and Latino community were not represented this year.
We shouldn’t dismiss that since 1929, African Americans were discriminated against, and had a lot of missed opportunities in their film careers.
Let’s look beyond the intriguing performances, rich colours, dazzling images and drama of the cinematic screen, and understand the subtleties of racism that still persists.
How many more years is needed before there will finally be artists and actors across the Asian and Latino community, who are portrayed proportionately?
When will ethnic minority actors break through the glass ceiling, and perform in a vast range of roles, like their white counterparts?
The views of the author do not reflect the views of Newshound Media
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