The Academy Awards or, if you prefer, the Oscars, is a night filled with tears and laughter, with awards given out to those who are deserving — but what if not every deserving actor is being nominated? What if a large segment of the population is being ignored? Once again the concern that the Oscars are purposefully ignoring performances by actors who happen to be minorities has been brought to the public eye. A new strategy has risen though, a boycott! Leading the charge are Jada Pinkett Smith (actress and wife of Will Smith) and Spike Lee (filmmaker) who have both made assertions that both the Academy itself and their nominations are just not diverse enough!
To understand the nuance behind this particular issue, one has to learn about the people and history that make up the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (or just the Academy). The Academy was formed in 1927, the same year of the first Academy Awards. It was first created by Louis B. Mayer owner of Metro Goldwyn Mayer (a production company). Throughout its many years, its membership demographics have remained consistent — old white guys.
In 2012, a survey was performed by the Los Angeles Times about the race and gender breakdown of Academy members. “Oscar voters have a median age of sixty-two,” the study showed. “People younger than fifty constitute just 14% of the membership.” It also said, “Caucasians currently make up 90% or more of every academy branch except actors, whose roster is 88% white. The Academy’s Executive Branch is 98% white, as is its Writers Branch.” It went on to say, “Blacks are about 2% of the Academy, and Latinos are less than 2%.”
This is concerning, but this study was done in 2012, surely the Academy has balanced itself out by now right? If so, then why is there a boycott? Also, this isn’t the first time this issue has come up. Eddie Murphy gave a speech about it when he presented the award for best picture in 1988. Jesse Jackson called for a boycott as well in 1996, and as recently as 2011, people were calling for sweeping reforms in the face of an utter lack of diversity. Now, if the boycott is meant to be a solution, what will it actually accomplish? I asked Ian Anderson, who got a Bachelor of Arts in Film. He said, “Ideally it’ll raise awareness about the serious issue of racism in Hollywood, both in casting and their nominations. It’s a matter of passive racism, just not considering minorities because the thought just doesn’t register.”
The Academy Awards may be flawed and lacking in diversity, but they’re the byproduct of a flawed institution lacking in diversity. So are the awards themselves to blame? Yes, passive racism is certainly a huge problem in the film industry, but targeting an awards ceremony is like putting a band aid on an amputated limb. It’s only stopping one problem, and not very well at that.