In 2015, April Reign started a movement from her living room when she tweeted, “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.” The tweet went viral, jumpstarting an international conversation about race in the entertainment industry, and #OscarsSoWhite has continued to trend every year since Reign first pointed out that all 20 actors who had received Oscar nominations were white.
In response, Academy president Cheryl Boone Issacs — the third female and first person of color to lead the organization — announced a five-year plan focused on improving representation and diversity in industry practices and hiring. But, while non-white membership in the Academy has doubled in the time since, the pool of eligible Oscar voters remains 84 percent white and 68 percent male. And, five years later, there are still only two non-white nominees across all four acting categories: black British actress Cynthia Erivo and Spanish actor Antonio Banderas.
There’s certainly no shortage of qualified actors: 31 of the 100 top-grossing films from 2019 cast a non-white person in a starring or co-starring role, many of whom were floated by the media as potential nominees prior to the official announcement.
This may seem like jealous beancounting designed to stir up racial tensions. After all, shouldn’t Oscars be awarded on the basis of merit, not race?
While it is true that quota-based systems rarely work well and often harm the very people they are intended to help, analyzing demographic trends — such as the seemingly large gap in Academy Awards nominations by race — can help unearth deeper structural problems.
People should be rewarded for the hard work they do, not what demographic checkboxes they can tick off, but what some shortsighted advocates of meritocracy overlook is that, for centuries, government and cultural norms have kept a firm thumb on the scales.
Modern Hollywood arose under Jim Crow, and the pernicious stain of racial segregation did not leave the budding film industry untarnished.
Hollywood itself was originally a segregated housing development, built during the Great Migration as a haven for post-Civil War white elites fleeing the newly freed slaves who were increasingly making Los Angeles home. Those attitudes carried over to the movies made there.
Until the 1930s, non-white roles were generally played by white actors in blackface so that white actors would not have to work with black actors. When roles did start to open up for black actors and actresses, they were largely limited to subservient and demeaning stereotypes.
In 1940, the year that Hattie McDaniel received the first Oscar awarded to a black actor — an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” — the awards gala was held at a whites-only venue. Though an exception was made for McDaniel, she had to sit at a different table from her white co-stars.
It wasn’t until 1964 that a second Oscar was awarded to a black actor (Sidney Poitier for his role as Homer Smith in “Lilies of the Field”).
Even today, many producers and studio executives continue to view movies with black casts as economically risky with limited marketability. This mindset means movies with majority-minority casts often receive smaller budgets than a similar movie with a more white cast might have, according to “The Hollywood Jim Crow: The Racial Politics of the Movie Industry” author Maryann Erigha, who analyzed the production budgets and racial makeup of 1,300 films as well as more than 170,000 emails that surfaced in a 2014 WikiLeaks hack of thousands of Sony Pictures Entertainment employees.
But, according to the 2019 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, “films with casts that were from 31 percent to 40 percent minority enjoyed the highest median global box office receipts, while those with majority-minority casts posted the highest median return on investment.”
In other words, making more diverse films is simply good business.
As Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix said on the subject, “I don’t think anybody wants a handout or preferential treatment. … I think people want to be appreciated and respected for their work.”
For a significant portion of U.S. history, the government prevented women, people of color, and other minorities from competing fairly against white men. While the world has rapidly been changing for the better, many of the negative effects of that era continue to have an impact today.
#OscarsSoWhite is not an attack on meritocracy but rather an attempt to call attention to some of the structural barriers that are themselves an attack on meritocracy.
April Reign’s 2015 tweet identified some painful scars from America’s past. Healing these wounds will take years, but we are well on our way.
Kat Murti lives and works in Washington, D.C., as co-founder and executive director of Feminists for Liberty (feministsforliberty.com). She wrote this originally for InsideSources.com.