Boycott the White Oscars

Recently I was appointed to a committee at the School of Dramatic Arts to address issues of Diversity and Inclusion. When I received the letter, the phrase “blood from a turnip” crossed my mind, but then I remembered after the Summit on Diversity and Inclusion that we’d had late last fall, how uplifted and purposeful I had felt, and I tamped down my low expectations of what else I could manage, attending the first meeting last week. It was a vibrant assembly of faculty, students and alumni, led by Anita Dashiell-Sparks, our Diversity Liaison,  who all have the common desire to see these issues addressed and improved within our school and the University at large.

The conversations we began last fall about privilege and alliance, utilizing power to illuminate the shortcomings of our school and society were animated and energetic. After attending about 6 of the 11 events over the weekend, sandwiched in between tech rehearsals for two shows, I felt hopeful that we might make some changes to elevate the sense of inclusivity within the school.

Then along came the Oscar nominations and the news from the Academy that there were some changes coming along – culling the white herd of older, inactive Academy members, the 1%ers of the industry, along with a goal of doubling the number of female and racially diverse members by 2020 – the Academy’s own environmental quality act, if you will. You probably raised your eyebrow at “culling” – we’re not talking about taking them out back and killing the older inactive members of the academy – we’re talking about term limits on voters of 10 years, renewable then if they remain active. We are simply talking about removing people from the voting process who are no longer active in the industry. I would hope that all healthy organizations would consider that part of a routine process. This has nothing to do with an age purge, by the way – Clint Eastwood has been an active Academy member, all his life, even more so, arguably, since he hit the age of 80.

My husband noted that I am getting really steamed about this topic. No more so than this morning when I picked up the Los Angeles Times and read William Goldstein’s inflammatory op ed entitled “The PC Crisis at the Academy.” In his article, there were several times while reading that I muttered to myself:

Can you not see your own privilege?

It is true that the academy doesn’t make the movies – that the studios and independent producers need to step up their game and make more diverse movies showing the broader world. And yes, it has happened that people of color and projects of color have been nominated and have even won awards – in 2014, several films were recognized: “12 Years a Slave” (3 Oscars) and “Selma” (nominated for Best picture) in 2015. So how does it happen at a major awards show in a subsequent year that we see no actors of color nominated? Where are Abraham Attah and  Idris Elba for their powerful performances in “Beasts of No Nation”? Nominations for Screen Actors Guild awards, as well as Golden Globes, BAFTA and AAFCA happened. What happened at the Academy? I expect that the membership, as has been posited elsewhere, shuffled the DVD to the bottom and watched instead one of the more mainstream films. Until the shuffling to the bottom ends, it is inevitable that the nominations will skew to white, heteronormative nominees. And that’s the problem.

Why must the academy perfectly mirror that diversity? It’s a meritocracy.

William Goldstein, The PC Crisis At The Academy, Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2016

First of all, there is nothing close to perfect “mirroring” diversity going on in the current film industry. Secondly, the idea of a meritocracy reinforces the idea that within a mostly white male industry people who “have it” will be given opportunities equal to those enjoyed by the mostly white male industry practitioners; this is naive. If that were true, surely there would be no need for organizations such as Women Make Movies, a group that has existed for thirty years to address the underrepresentation of women in media. No, Mr. Goldstein, it is up to the white membership of the industry to embrace the wider audiences by supporting projects that better represent those who actually are going to the movies. To hold the mirror up, as it were. Ignoring important films like “Straight Outta Compton” is emblematic of the problem. Sure, I had problems with a lot of things in that movie, including it’s treatment/portrayal of women. However, there were also some incredible performances that deserved Oscar recognition, like O’Shea Jackson and Jason Mitchell, to name two.

…I find it troubling that the leadership pushed through these changes without consulting the academy at large.

William Goldstein, The PC Crisis At The Academy, Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2016

Given the demonstrated and measured lack of diversity within the Academy,  asking the members to cull their own herd and double the minorities and women voluntarily would be to expect this change to happen within a predominantly white, privileged vacuum. And if history is any guide, this isn’t happening. At least not as fast as I would like to see. Too fast, you say? 

I know there are Academy members who do want to change, to keep up with the times, to reinvigorate the Academy with new members and to have the Academy mirror society at large more accurately. There are those in leadership positions, on the Board of Governors of the Academy as well (19 of 39 of whom are women) – witness the recent climate change proposal.

In our first Diversity and Inclusion Committee meeting last Friday, I was energized by the younger members. I felt their passion, and pride in being assigned to such an important body for change. More than once it was articulated that the white members of the school need to step up in alliance with the principals of advancing diversity and inclusion. To use their (pardon the acknowledgement of privilege) power.

So here’s a simple thing we can all do in a few weeks. We can simply refuse to watch the Academy Awards – Sunday, February 28th; just tune out. Refuse to participate by silently supporting the lack of diversity, the stunning exclusivity that is rampant in the film industry. Use that time to go see a movie or a performance that does embrace the principals we want to embrace. Go and attend the matinee of the MFAY3 Rep performance of  The Threepenny Opera at USC School of Dramatic Arts to witness what our world can look like in entertainment.

Would love to hear what you are thinking!

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