Diversity is a Problem, The Oscars Aren’t

Almost immediately after this year’s Oscar nominations were announced the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite started trending on twitter. This was followed by Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith announcing they would boycott the ceremony in protest over the lack of diversity among those nominated. Diversity (or lack thereof) has been a long standing issue in Hollywood, Hollywood needs more diversity in all fields, this is not a debate but to place blame on the academy for selecting the nominees they did is ludicrous.

There is no tangible data out there that definitively defines one film or one performance as being objectively better than the other. Unlike sports, there isn’t even statistics that could help someone argue that one thing is better than the other (and even with such resources, debates still rage on). Sure, there are some movies that are widely regarded as excellent or terrible leading to a general consensus that say, for example that Citizen Kane is a better movie than Pixels but even then there will be people or even a large number who will swear by a critically panned movie (ie: most cult classics).

As it pertains to the Oscars, this line of subjective opinion becomes even more thin. Nearly every film nominated this year has been regarded positively by critics as evident by them all holding fresh ratings on Rotten Tomatoes (most sitting on the 80-90%+ on the site). If we take this to mean that every single nominee is considered to be at the very least good, then the divide between one movie /performance to the next is matter of opinion. Everyone who even has a passing interest in film is going to have an opinion. For example, you could make an argument for why Ryan Coogler (of Creed) deserves a Best Director nod over (insert nominee here) but someone else could just as easily make an argument on why that nominee should stay or why another snub (say Alex Garland of Ex Machina) should get the nod over the director you picked. The point then is that there is no true definitive reason why one nominee is more/less worthy than any other.

The other argument floating around is that the academy is largely made up of one demographic and this sways the voting in favour of certain types of films. Being composed of 94% white (77% being men) it certainly doesn’t reflect well and points to a much needed facelift to more accurately reflect societal demographics (with the hope that a wider set of opinions would limit bias). This is without a doubt an problem, one that hopefully will fade as more and more ethnicities enter the entertainment industry.

Of course an fair distribution of academy voters across demographics means nothing IF voters aren’t as objective of possible in their voting. For example, if the black voters placed all their votes in a movie simply because it features a black actor/ black director but is considered a critical failure then that would mark improper judgement. The role of a voter is to be as objective as possible eliminating race/gender/sexuality or any other discriminate factor from their decision. I’m not saying that if you evened out the pool of voters among demographics that the above example would happen but it’s not without precedence.

Take Yao Ming and the All Star Game, For those unfamiliar with sports, Yao Ming was the first asian star (all due respect to Wang Zhizhi) basketball player to ever play in the NBA. In his career spanning 8 seasons, Yao made the all star team 8 times. While some of these were warranted, some years he made the all star team despite being injured for much of the season or being outplayed by his peers. This came as a result of all star voting which allows anyone to vote for who they think is worthy of an all star selection. Being from China, Yao garnered heavy support from asian fans across the globe (myself included) despite lacking the merit to be there.

I fear that the pressure of political correctness and bias will lead to a similar Yao situation and I hope that the academy regardless of how it is composed is able to view films as objectively as possible placing emphasis on merit above the need to fill certain spots with diverse roles.

It is not up to the academy to create movies, this is the job of Hollywood and it is Hollywood that has failed to produce movies featuring diversity. The academy’s job is to choose from the best from the films available and while some may have issues with certain performances/films being snubbed, this again comes down to subjective opinion especially when all those nominated are all good (at least when viewed through the lens of popular opinion), it is not like they nominated the Entourage movie ( a critical flop) for Best Picture over Beasts of No Nation, they chose one great movie over a slew of other great candidates (Sicario, Ex Machina, Carol to name a few).

In order to attain greater diversity in film, it starts by including more diversity in the process, from the studio heads to the production teams, to the cast on set, Hollywood should strive to include more diverse roles. Excluding historical pieces (ie a film on the civil rights movement) and bio-pics (where the actor must be the same race as the person he is portraying) Race and even gender/sexuality have little to do with the overall story of most films. It is just as easy to see Denzel Washington play George Clooney’s role in Ocean’s 11 as it is to see Brad Pitt play Will Smith’s role in I Am Legend. By in large race or any other discriminatory factors don’t play a large role in these films and with a few minor tweaks, most characters could be black/white/asian, male or female or gay/straight/trans without it affecting the overall story.

After the film industry shifts it then turns to the media and PR teams to market these films as widely as possible. In order to receive recognition especially at something like the Oscars, the media tour and promotion is almost as important as the film itself in creating the necessary buzz it needs for a nomination. Many times films fail to get recognition because critics don’t get screeners or no one knows the film even exists not because of racism. To get diverse roles recognition you must sell audiences / voters on the film. Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq and Beasts of No Nation are probably victims of this as they were both released limitedly and on streaming services (Amazon and Netflix) instead of traditional studio films.

The problem of diversity lies within Hollywood, not the Oscars.  I am in no way saying the Oscars are perfect (I too have my own gripes about snubs) but given the choices the academy was presented, I have no major issues with the choices they made. Yes, they may be all white selections but does that make them bad selections? No, I don’t think so. All the films nominated were positively regarded in large by most people. Those who were snubbed were not exclusive to any particular race / genre either.

Hollywood needs to do a better job at promoting diversity but not at the stake of nominating or casting a token actor/director in the name of diversity. Merit should outweigh all factors at all levels of society (including the film industry) regardless of any discriminatory feature.  To argue that #OscarsSoWhite is deflecting the real problem onto an award show undeserving of such criticisms. If anything the hashtag should be #HollywoodSoWhite but IF in an utopian world the best in that particular year happen to be“white” and everyone is given opportunities to make great films, is this still an issue? I think not

Nate Lam
Nate Lamhttp://beforethecyborgs.com
Editor-in-chief of Before The Cyborgs. Part time filmmaker and occasional short story author. One day he hopes to be as cool as Bill Murray. Follow his latest work on Before The Cyborgs or follow him on twitter (@NateTheCyborg) to get the latest updates.



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