Ninety-three percent of Academy members are white, and the majority of them are men.
Blacks and Latinos don’t even make up a third of the workers in the business.
The black lobby, led by Oprah Winfrey, is ready to go to battle.
The controversy erupted minutes after the announcement of the Oscar nominations. Hashtags like #hollywoodissowhite pointed accusingly at a white panel: not a single African American in the acting or directing categories. And this when “Selma” – based on the life of Martin Luther King, directed by an African-American, Ava DuVernay, and with a lead actor of Nigerian descent, David Oyelowo – figured among the year’s films.
The debate is on. Is Hollywood racist? Is there discrimination against black professionals in the film industry? The composition of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes on the nominees, is the first clue: In 2012, only 2 percent of the members were African American, and less than 2 percent were Latino, despite the fact that they are thought to make up 30 percent of the U.S. population, according to The Los Angeles Times.
In addition, about 77 percent of the Academy members are men, with an average age of 62, which could explain why none of the nominated directors or scriptwriters are women – only four have won for best director in the history of the Oscars.
In an exercise in image-building, in 2013, the Academy named its first black president, who is a woman to boot, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who promised to put a lot of effort into increasing diversity. This is not an easy task. The Academy is composed of more than 6,000 members, who have a lifetime right to vote. Consequently, it is very complicated to change the balance of power even by adding hundreds of people. New members over recent years have been 20 percent black, Boone Isaacs asserted, something that has only reduced the proportion of whites by one percentage point since 2012, to 93 percent.
Outsiders Against The Market
According to a study by UCLA, “2014 Hollywood Diversity Report: Making Sense of the Disconnect,” which analyzed 172 film productions and 1,000 television programs, the inequality is obvious, both in front of and behind the cameras. Actors and directors work less than a third of the time – which would correspond to their proportion of the global population – a ratio that decreases to one-fifth in the case of scriptwriters and film-makers, and to one-ninth for those in television. The big talent agencies are not helping to stop discrimination. According to the study, the three most important agencies among them have two-thirds of the scriptwriters, directors and lead actors in the 172 films. And of these, less than 10 percent are racial minorities. This is paradoxical, given the UCLA report’s contention that more diversity increases the number of filmgoers and therefore benefits the studios.
The all-white slate of Oscar nominees – which was also seen in 2011 and before in 1998 – has such powerful people as Oprah Winfrey, producer of “Selma” and other films like “The Butler,” from her company Harpo Productions, ready to go to battle. The leader of the African-American lobby has lamented the discrimination, although there have been those who were less diplomatic. “Anyone who thinks this year was gonna be like last year is retarded,” Spike Lee said. “There were a lot of black folks up there with ’12 Years a Slave,’ Steve [McQueen], Lupita [Nyong’o], Pharrell. It’s in cycles of every 10 years. Once every 10 years or so I get calls from journalists about how people are finally accepting black films. Before last year, it was the year [in 2002] with Halle Berry, Denzel [Washington], and Sidney Poitier.”
Also, George Lucas, perennially ignored by the Academy, has stated his disagreement with the absence of nominations for DuVernay and Oyelowo, and has accused the Oscars of responding to “political campaigning.” “They don’t have anything to do with art. That’s why I’m not in the Academy,” he said in an interview on CBS’s This Morning.*
In 1939, Hattie McDaniel was the first black woman nominated for best supporting actress (she won). Since then, the Academy has nominated 66 blacks in lead or supporting roles. Dorothy Dandridge was the first as best actress in 1954 and Sidney Poitier as best actor in 1956. The first black director nominated was John Singleton in 1992 (“Boyz n the Hood”). He was followed by Lee Daniels in 2010 (“Precious”) and Steve McQueen in 2014, the release of “12 Years A Slave,” the first film directed by an African-American to win an Oscar. This provides ammunition to those who claim that blacks are only nominated when they portray servants or slaves.
The controversy has gone so far that Jessica Chastain argued against the Hollywood exclusion, invoking Martin Luther King himself in the award ceremony for the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, at which she received a special award.
Hollywood’s ethnic conflicts are longstanding. In the 1973 ceremony, Marlon Brando renounced his Oscar for “The Godfather,” and brought up in his place Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American civil rights activist, who used the opportunity to protest the portrayal of Native Americans in film, among other American Indian struggles.
Latinos and Asians have also faced discrimination in the industry. According to the UCLA study, Latinos won more Oscars in the decade of the 1950s and early 1960s than in the past 50 years (four in total). And from the leaked Sony emails, we knew about the jokes between Amy Pascal, co-chairperson of the studio, and producer Scott Rudin, in which they suggested that President Obama only likes black films, like “Django Unchained” or “12 Years A Slave,” or that black actors like Denzel Washington shouldn’t participate in big international releases because the world is racist, and the studio wouldn’t get the same benefits as with a white actor. Months later, Amy Pascal was replaced.
The controversy reached interested parties, like the black activist Al Sharpton, who met with the directors of Sony. In order to rectify the situation, they agreed to set up a “working group” to analyze racism in the industry. After learning of the Oscar nominations, Sharpton returned to the attack, threatening actions on the day of the ceremony, Feb. 22.
But on the question of lobbying, the Jews call the tune in Hollywood. The main production companies and studios are in their hands – powerful hands, like those of the Weinstein brothers, who pull the strings on nominations and prizes, as they wish. Penélope Cruz – supported by them – and Javier Bardem experienced it first-hand last summer, when they had to set things straight publicly after signing a manifesto condemning the bombardment of Gaza. Jon Voight, father of Angelina Jolie, accused them in a letter: “I’m more than angry, it breaks my heart that people like Cruz and Bardem are inciting anti-Semitism all over the world without thinking about the damage they cause.”* The actors hurried to set things straight.
Even from Spain, industry professionals avoid interfering in these matters. “It’s a very powerful industry, and it’s preferable not to interfere,” say some of those whose products move on the U.S. market.
*Editor’s Note: These quotes, accurately translated, could not be verified.