The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been under fire ever since the Academy Award nominations were announced on Jan. 14. For the second straight year, all 20 acting nominees were white. The criticism was fast and furious, with cineastes and pundits reviving last year’s #OscarsSoWhite hashtag as they lambasted Hollywood’s most famous awards show for its lack of diversity, as well as the industry as a whole.
Things took an even more interesting turn after Jada Pinkett Smith voiced her opinion that black actors should reject the Academy as much as it has rejected black actors over the last two years.
“Is it time that people of color recognize how much power, influence, that we have amassed, that we no longer need to ask to be invited anywhere?” she said in a video message shared on MLK Day. “Begging for acknowledgement, or even asking, diminishes dignity and diminishes power. And we are a dignified people, and we are powerful.”
“So let’s let the Academy do them, with all grace and love. And let’s do us, differently.”
Pinkett Smith’s words, along with pointed criticism from filmmaker Spike Lee (“Forty white actors in two years and no flava at all. We can’t act?! WTF!!” Lee wrote on Instagram), sparked a movement to boycott the awards show. Though neither Pinkett Smith nor Lee explicitly called for a boycott, the trickle of criticism turned into a flood of antipathy, as everyone from George Clooney to Tyrese Gibson took the Academy to task for ignoring non-white actors for two consecutive years.
“If you think back 10 years ago, the Academy was doing a better job,” Clooney said to Variety. “Think about how many more African Americans were nominated. I think around 2004, certainly there were black nominees—like Don Cheadle, Morgan Freeman. And all of a sudden, you feel like we’re moving in the wrong direction. There were nominations left off the table. There were four films this year: Creed could have gotten nominations; Concussion could have gotten Will Smith; Idris Elba could have been nominated for Beasts of No Nation; and Straight Outta Compton could have been nominated.”
Tyrese—as well as rapper/actor 50 Cent—went as far as calling for comedian Chris Rock to step down as Oscars’ host.
“There is no joke that he can crack. There is no way for him to seize the moment and come into this thing and say, ‘I’m going to say this and say that I’m going to address the issue but then I’m still going to keep my gig as the host,’” Tyrese told People. “The statement that you make is that you step down.”
Rock stepping down would carry a powerfully symbolic message, but doesn’t seem likely. It isn’t all that fair, either: Unlike attendees, Rock is contractually obligated to appear at the show. Many of Rock’s fellow comedians have supported him going forward with hosting the show.
“If I were Chris Rock, I wouldn’t be considering boycotting the Oscars,” shared Ricky Gervais. “I’d be thinking ‘This shit is live. I can do some serious damage.’”
Gervais’s unsolicited advice sounds full of devilish possibilities, but we shouldn’t assume that a black comic will be given as much freedom to dig his heels into the Academy’s neck. Rock attacking the Oscars on their own stage would be undeniably ballsy; but could he get away with this kind of Gervaisian awards show anarchy without sparking a serious backlash? Who knows. But we shouldn’t put the onus on Rock.
The idea of boycotting the Oscars is an attractive show of solidarity; but it is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg as it pertains to racial biases in Hollywood. Non-white actors and filmmakers continually face further marginalization and fewer opportunities; and if anything, the Oscar backlash is proof that fans and contributors are remaining vigilant in their scrutiny of Hollywood. Two years after Steve McQueen and Lupita Nyong’o, no one should want to see Hollywood’s racial clock turned back.
But the idea of a boycott has also drawn tremendous criticism.
“I make movies for a living. Let me tell you what the problem is: it’s not that the people doing the nominating are too white,” The View co-host—and Oscar winner—Whoopi Goldberg said in response to Pinkett Smith’s video. “The problem is the people who can be helping to make movies that have Blacks and Latinos and women and all that—that money doesn’t come to you because the idea is that there is no place for Black movies.”“Chris Rock is the host of the Academy Awards and so to boycott him seems just as bad as what everybody is saying,” she said. “We have this conversation every year and it pisses me off.”In 1994, Goldberg was the first black star to host the Oscars without a co-host (Sammy Davis, Jr. and Richard Pryor had hosted previously with other stars.)“Boycotting doesn’t work and it’s also a slap in the face to Chris Rock,” added Goldberg.Black platforms have made huge inroads in terms of getting more black content onscreen, and black awards shows do a great job of celebrating that content. But if white Hollywood hears anything amidst the voices calling out industry biases, they should hear that non-white actors, directors, and projects have to be a priority for a community that seems fairly out of touch with the current cultural climate. Television has launched several successful shows with black leads, and many of those shows have netted awards for them. If TV can find vehicles for Taraji P. Henson, Morris Chestnut, Viola Davis, Aziz Ansari, Kerry Washington, Ken Jeong, Regina King, and Jennifer Lopez, then why are the most high-profile film projects still so lily-white?
Whether one supports the idea of a boycott, there is no doubt that change has to happen in Hollywood. As Pinkett Smith suggested, black people and other non-white people will continue to “do us” and leave the Academy to “do them.” That doesn’t have to be called a “boycott” to be recognized as a show of solidarity and strength. Black audiences, in particular, have recognized that black movies don’t have to appeal to or appease white tastes to make money. Sooner or later, Hollywood will be made to understand how desperately it needs the stories and the creativity of brown folks. And, in an era when Black Lives Matter is the most important political issue of our time, this is about more than just movies. Mark Ruffalo tweeted his support for the boycott on the grounds that the Academy’s biases are indicative of deeper social ills.“I do support the Oscar Ban movement’s position that the nominations do not reflect the diversity of our community,” Ruffalo tweeted. “The Oscar Ban movement reflects a larger discussion about racism in the criminal justice system.”Will Smith echoed Ruffalo’s concerns in an interview with Good Morning America. “When I see this list and series of nominations that come out—and everybody is fantastic and that’s the complexity of this issue, everyone is beautiful and deserving and it’s fantastic—but it feels like it’s going the wrong direction,” Smith said.“The nominations reflect the Academy. The Academy reflects the industry [Hollywood] and then the industry reflects America. There is a regressive slide towards separatism, towards racial and religious disharmony and that’s not the Hollywood that I want to leave behind. That’s not the industry, that’s not the America I want to leave behind,” he added.Smith also acknowledged that him not getting a nomination for Concussion “probably” was part of what inspired his wife, Jada, to voice her criticism. But it wasn’t the sole motivator.“There’s probably a part of that in there but, for Jada, had I been nominated and no other people of color were, she would have made the video anyway,” Smith said. “We’d still be here having this conversation. This is so deeply not about me. This is about children that are going to sit down and they’re going to watch this show and they’re not going to see themselves represented.”And it’s about an industry that seems all too eager to take those children’s money at the box office. Hollywood doesn’t have to do anything it doesn’t want to do, nor does the Academy. Actors are tired of being ignored and they’re making that clear. But what will happen when the people decide that they’re tired of being ignored, too?