Row over black actors dominates Oscars night

Chris Rock: ‘Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right it’s racist’ said the host last night © PA

Last night, the Oscars basked in the glamour of Hollywood’s brightest stars. But as the film industry’s racism row continues, a few faces were notably absent. Is the Academy to blame?

Leonardo DiCaprio finally won his first Oscar for The Revenant, after six nominations. Spotlight took home the best picture Oscar. Mad Max: Fury Road picked up the most awards of the night: six. Mark Rylance won best supporting actor Oscar. Sam Smith won for best original song.

There were tearful speeches and stunning dresses as usual. But this year’s Oscars ceremony was marked by the elephant in the room: for the second year in a row, the 20 nominees for acting awards were all white.

The decisions caused outrage among actors and film fans, as well as the resurgence of last year’s angry hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.

Last night the host Chris Rock confronted the issue head on: ‘Everyone wants to know is Hollywood racist? You have to go at it the right way. Is it burning-cross racist? Fetch-me-some-lemonade racist? No. It’s a different kind of racist. Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right it’s racist but it’s sorority racist.’

‘People of colour are always welcomed to give out awards,’ lamented the actress Jada Pinkett-Smith. ‘But we are rarely recognised for our artistic accomplishments.’ She, her husband Will Smith, and the director Spike Lee all boycotted the night in protest.

The Academy insists it is doing all it can. Its president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs (herself an African-American) announced a five-year plan to increase diversity.

Currently the awards are chosen by the Academy’s 6,261 members. They all work in the film industry and they are overwhelmingly older white men. By 2020, Isaacs hopes to double the number of women and minorities.

It’s not the first time Hollywood has been accused. At the 1973 Oscars, the actress Sacheen Littlefeather made a speech on behalf of Marlon Brando, in which she refused his award for best actor because of the industry’s portrayal of native Americans. In 1982, the NAACP listed 43 films which had excluded black people.

And... action?

The Oscars need to be dragged into the 21st century, say some. Isaacs’ reforms are all well and good, but they are moving too slowly. An Academy which is overwhelmingly white does not reflect the society we live in, or the films we enjoy. Why not end the elitism altogether and open up voting to the public, so that the awards are truly democratic?

But the Oscars are the most coveted awards in the business because they are chosen by its most successful players, say others. If they handed out awards based on identity alone, they would lose all credibility. Instead, the film industry should try to make more diverse movies in the first place. As Spike Lee pointed out last year, in the USA it is easier to be a black president than a black studio head. Once that changes, everything else will follow.

You Decide

  1. Are the Oscars racist?
  2. Who is to blame for the lack of diverse nominees at this year’s Academy Awards?

Activities

  1. List your five favourite films of all time, and write a sentence explaining what you like about each of them.
  2. Write the opening scene for a movie about a subject you feel is not well represented in Hollywood.

Some People Say...

“Movies do not just reflect society, they create it.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is it really so bad that a few rich celebrities didn’t get an award?
Perhaps in comparison to some problems, the plight of Hollywood’s rich and famous appears trivial. But remember that movies are an incredibly influential part of society. They affect the way we see and understand the world; think of how 12 Years a Slave reminded people of the horrors of slavery. So if some stories are left untold, or even unrecognised, we are all left a little poorer.
So who was snubbed?
There were several good films with strong black leads last year. NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton was one. Then there was Beasts of No Nation, a Netflix movie starring Idris Elba; Creed, for which Sylvester Stallone was nominated, but not his black co-star; and of course Star Wars easily the most popular film of 2015.

Word Watch

Spike Lee
The African-American director has made several films exploring race relations and political problems in America. In November he received an honorary award from the Academy at the Governors Awards — a separate event which precedes the main Oscars and recognises lifetime achievements.
The Academy
Shorthand for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organisation which nominates and then votes for the winners of the Academy Awards (also known as the Oscars). Nominees are then invited to become members of the Academy themselves.
Five-year plan
As well as increasing the number of women and minority Academy members, Isaacs plans to end the tradition of lifetime voting rights. Instead, membership will be limited to ten years, to be extended only if the member has remained active in the industry.
Marlon Brando
A significant American actor in the latter half of the 20th century, known as one of the most influential names in Hollywood.
NAACP
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a US-based civil rights organisation.

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