#OscarsSoWhite: Calling Out Academy Bias

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This isn’t the first dance between the Oscars and irrelevance, and this celebratory pat on the back could use a star-studded slap to the face.

#OscarsSoWhite strikes again with the cringe-worthiness of yet another franchise reboot. Unlike the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice Award, and People’s Choice Awards, the Academy Awards are one of the last standing bastions of whiteness with projects that—in an unsurprising sexist turn—rarely seem to pass the iconic Bechdel-Wallace Test in any given year.

Those not familiar with the first installment of #OscarsSoWhite—created in 2015 by Twitter activist April Reign—can read a recap here. After the 2016 nominations were broadcast, Spike Lee (who accepted an honorary Oscar at last year’s Governors Award ceremony) and Jada Pinkett Smith both blasted the Academy over social media and announced they would skip the award show this year. Documentarian Michael Moore also decided to boycott the antiquated ceremony, and National Action Network leaders Al Sharpton and Najee Ali urged “liberal white Hollywood” to do the same, especially those who have children of color.

For those exhausted by the wave of articles (here’s one, and another one, and another) that break down just how white and how male the industry is, guess what? So is everyone else. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, told the New York Times that the nomination results are disappointing, but that a second ‘so white’ year in a row is not indicative of a pattern. Good films, she pointed out, are routinely snubbed during award season.

But with films like Beasts of No Nation, Straight Outta Compton, and Creed earning critical and commercial success, is it reasonable for the Academy to say that none of these films made the cut despite the fact that the Best Picture category can include up to ten films on its slate if those films earn higher than a 5% vote from the Academy?

Are these films—like high-grossing films with female leads—considered just a fluke?

At this point, does it even matter if these nominations point to a “disappointing” trend or not? Shouldn’t we (the people spending time and money to see these films) call it out every time we see it so it doesn’t even become a pattern?

Back in November 2015, Boone Isaacs unveiled A2020, a new five-year initiative focused on diversity. According to the The Hollywood Reporter, this initiative “aims to promote more diversity of age, gender, race, national origin and point-of-view” in the film industry, foster change by studying the practices of the Academy, and encourage members to bring new voices into the mix.

Thanks to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times, we now have a decent snapshot of the Academy’s member demographic: 94% Caucasian, 77% male, with a median age of sixty-two. This was back in 2012, so the percentage may have shifted in the past few years. But the figures are still staggering.

So what has actually been done so far in this past year to benefit the next wave of colorful Hollywood creators? Is A2020 just lip service? Is “the secret meeting of 44”? We have yet to see actual results, and meetings and initiatives like these should include some of the people they intend to benefit, right?

Oscars_2016

Back to Lee and Pinkett Smith and the boycott. Should the rest of the industry follow their lead? Something’s gotta give. If old white men continue to usher young white men into the winner’s circle and the boardroom, it’s like hitting the reset button and the cycle continues: more stories from the same perspective. A dangerous—and boring!—combination.

Enter The Bitch Pack, ready to shine a spotlight on practices that perpetuate a single narrative. This collective, headed by WoC Thuc Nguyen, seeks to change women’s representation on the screen and promote screenplays that pass the ever-relevant Bechdel Test and feature characters of color. The Bitch List is the only all gender-inclusive writer list that tracks the entertainment industry’s most-liked, but so far un-produced, Bechdel-passing scripts. The writers on this list include over 50% women, compared with The Black List’s 17% female membership.

A quick refresher on the Bechdel Test: originally developed by Alison Bechdel as a standard for judging films, it’s pretty simple (apply it to your favorite movie):

  1. It has to have at least two named women
  2. Those women must talk to each other
  3. They must talk about something besides a man

 

Head over to the Wall Street Journal to see how this year’s nominees for Best Picture did. Spoiler alert: better than last year, but still not great.

The impact of these films extend beyond our backyards. Hollywood films are our farthest reaching media and our number one cultural export, says Nguyen, and this influence can be both powerful and dangerous. Limiting depictions of groups of people to stereotypes on screen or erasing them from history altogether has a trickle-down effect in real life. Art influences life which influences art.

If mentors are shaping the perceptions of storytellers (future thought leaders, tastemakers, Academy members), then it’s no wonder industry-wide change feels like such a gargantuan undertaking. We’re battling a hydra: remove one head and another appears, ready to reduce a character to expendable lady parts.

For Nguyen, the problem and solution rests on the shoulders on the first writer, in the first draft. He or she is in full control of the story before the screenplay travels up the food chain. For example, Nguyen’s most recent project, Cuffing Season, explores singlehood in Los Angeles and the pressure felt by an Asian American woman to be a part of “the model minority.” Texas City: The Darkest Day, another Bitch List script, features a diverse cast of characters (almost half are female and people of color), all affected by a single natural disaster.

Furthermore, prompting writers to run their screenplays through a Bechdel-Wallace lens prior to rewrites kills two birds with one stone. Industry leaders can’t point to lack of material as the reason for resurrecting another franchise if the Bitch Pack has a stack of screenplays featuring realistic, diverse characters, compelling stories, and a variety of genres. All original. All ready and available to be produced. All passing the Bechdel Test. In addition, The Bitch Pack continues to add scripts that feature the Women of Color to The Diversity List.

Instead of influencing our movie-going habits, The Academy can take its cues from us. We can continue to speak up through social media and—more importantly—our dollars. Check out films like Tangerine, Dope, Concussion, and Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq. Seen these already? Then check out the additional lists of films below featuring women and people of color, further proof that Hollywood isn’t out of ideas. Just excuses.

The Oscars Snubbed Women and People of Color But These 9 Non-Nominated Movies Do It Better

84 Films By and About Women of Color, Courtesy of Ava DuVernay and the Good People of Twitter (Here, I highly recommend Girlhood for its magical lip sync moment featuring Rihanna’s “Diamonds.”)

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Image credits: Feature image. Collage images, clockwise: image 1, image 2, image 3, image 4, image 5, image 6.


Nicole Zschiesche is a producer and writer living in Los Angeles and wishes her apartment complex allowed dogs. More from this author →