On January 14th, 2016, the Oscars sparked criticism throughout the nation following the release of an all-white major nominees list for the second year in a row. In response, two prominent African Americans in the film industry — Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee — announced the following Monday that they would not be attending the ceremony at the end of February, invoking Rev. Martin Luther King’s legacy on his birthday .
Spike Lee, an outspoken filmmaker of popular racially-charged films such as Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing, wrote in an Instagram caption, “How is it possible for the 2nd consecutive year all 20 contenders under the actor category are white? And let’s not even get into the other branches. 40 white actors in 2 years and no flava at all. We can’t act?! WTF!!”
Lee stated that the real battle over racism in Hollywood was not in the Academy, but rather in “the executive office of the Hollywood studios and TV and cable networks.” “People, the truth is, we ain’t in those rooms and until minorities are, the Oscar nominees will remain lilly white,” he concluded.
In a separate Facebook video post, Jada Pinkett Smith, star of Magic Mike XXL, Gotham, and other blockbuster movies, announced that not only would she not be attending the Oscars, she was not even planning to watch them on TV.
“Begging for acknowledgement, or even asking, diminishes dignity and diminishes power [of people of color]. And we are a dignified people, and we are powerful,” she stated. “So let’s let the Academy do them, with all grace and love. And let’s do us, differently.”
Pinkett Smith’s husband, Will Smith, will be supporting his wife, speaking out about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy in an interview on Good Morning America. “At this point, the Academy is 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male,” Smith told GMA’s co-host Robin Roberts. “It’s just difficult to get a diverse cultural sampling from that group.”
Former Academy president Hawk Koch also weighed in on the debate. “I don’t believe this is just an academy problem; rather, it’s an industry-wide problem and up until now we have not done a very good job,” Koch wrote in an open letter, making a statement similar to that of Lee’s post. “And while I also don’t believe this problem can be solved quickly, I know that it can and should be solved.”
Lee’s and Pinkett Smith’s posts were followed with a resurgence of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite; in a short time, the hashtag was trending number one on both Instagram and Twitter. The tag, created in 2015 by writer/lawyer April Reign, unfortunately remains relevant in addressing lack of diversity in the Academy’s nominations. Performances including Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation, Michael B. Jordan in Creed, and Will Smith in Concussion were all considered to be likely nominations, yet not a single one made the list.
Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs said that she was “disappointed” by the nominations. Despite her controversial statement that the nominations were not intended to “take away the greatness of the nominated films,” she later acknowledged that the film industry’s efforts to boosting diversity were moving along too slowly. “We have got to speed it up.”
As Rev. Al Sharpton stated, “Hollywood is like the Rocky Mountains, the higher up you get, the whiter it gets, and this year’s Academy Awards will be yet another Rocky Mountain Oscar.”
Perhaps after hearing the nationwide outcries for larger-scale diversity in Hollywood for the second year in a row, the Academy will begin to make an effort and commit to being inclusive of all movies — finally beginning to bring representation into the media that influences millions of lives every day.