Actors like Mike Ruffalo and George Clooney have also condemned the lack of diversity; in an interview, Clooney said, “I think that African-Americans have a real fair point that the industry isn't representing them well enough. I think that's absolutely true...By the way, we're talking about African Americans. For Hispanics, it's even worse. We need to get better at this,” while Ruffalo, the first Caucasian nominee to speak up, is also considering not attending.
But what, really, is the big deal? Why do people care about the Oscars when Flint’s water is poisoning the 60% black city, when people are getting attacked for wearing hijab, when Syrian refugees have no place to call home? That’s a little harder, a little more complex, to answer.
Here’s the thing: no one is denying that representation in the media is in no way a more serious matter than people losing their safety, their homes, their lives, to racism. But does only ever seeing white people on screen play into racist ideology? Does only ever seeing people of color being pigeonholed into stereotypical roles play into the same racist ideology that enables racism to fester in America today? Absolutely.
The last black actor to be nominated in the Best Actor category, Chiwetel Ejiofor, played a slave. In 2011, Viola Davis was nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of a maid in 2011. (She is tied with Whoopi Goldberg as the most nominated black actress with 2 nominations. By contrast, Meryl Streep is the most nominated white actress, with 18.) Gabourey Sidibe was nominated in 2009 for playing a sexually and physically abused woman. Lupita Nyong’o won for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for playing a slave in 2013. Are we seeing a pattern here? Not only does the Academy, a largely white male organization, seem to hate giving Oscars to people of color, but when it actually nominates a black person, it’s usually for a stereotypical role.
- America was built on racism, with the blood of Native Americans and the sweat of Africans; America has a legacy of racism that continues today.
- The top 500 grossing films from 2007-2012 underrepresented (and misrepresented) people of color.
- There is a “racial empathy gap.” Racism is so deeply ingrained in western cultures that white people do not empathize with people of color or feel their pain the same way they would with other white people.
Audiences have demonstrated that we love seeing people of color on TV and in films (Star Wars, Quantico, Orange is the New Black, and more), but there is still so far to go in making the entertainment industry one that welcomes people of color as real, complex human beings. So maybe I’m making a big stink about the Oscars for no reason at all, but maybe, just maybe, simply creating space for POC in the industry for positive representation would battle some of the racism that is so rampant in our nation. Isn’t that worth it?