Last week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its 2016 Oscar nominations and – surprise! – for the second year in a row, every single person nominated in an acting category is white. Even in films with a black lead or a majority black cast like Creed and Straight Outta Compton, the Academy's voting members managed to find a white person to nominate and snub all people of color.
It's a disappointing roster, especially considering that, on average, moviegoers of color buy more tickets to films than their white counterparts (minorities make up 37 percent of the total U.S. population, but are responsible for 46 percent of sales at the box office). Essentially, we are bankrolling the party, but can't even get an invitation.
There are multiple reasons for the lack of diversity in Oscar's picks. First of all, the Academy is 94 percent white and 77 percent male. With such a monolithic makeup, it's no wonder we keep getting such monolithic results.
The president of the Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, is a black female, mind you, and did release a statement this week saying she was "heartbroken" at the lack of diversity in this year's nominees and promised to take "dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership." It's a step in the right direction, but we can't let her off the hook only to be forgotten until next January.
A look at who is landing roles in Hollywood exposes a depressing numbers game — 73 percent of the actors in last year's top 100 films were white and only 17 of the top films featured a black actor as the lead or co-lead. Given those odds, it's no surprise actors of color are missing from the Oscar ballot. The real problem starts at the top, where the percentage of studio executives who are people of color is minuscule.
I recently finished watching Aziz Ansari's wonderful Netflix series, Master of None, in which one of my favorite episodes dealt with exactly this issue.
In the episode, titled "Indians on TV," Ansari's character, Dev, auditions for a sitcom about three friends. Another Indian actor auditions as well and the producers love them both, but conclude there can't be two Indian characters on the same show.
Throughout the episode, Dev questions this reasoning and, in the end, is offered a role on a show with two lead Indian characters. He is thrilled, until he realizes the show relies on the old, stereotypical trope about the heavily-accented, newly-arrived Indian immigrant.
That's the recurring plot for persons of color at the Oscars – they are almost invisible until they are recognized for playing roles in movies about slavery or oppression. If you were to be guided by the Academy, you'd think that black people never fall in love or invent anything or have nervous breakdowns or argue with their mothers or get chased by bears or do anything other than fight white supremacy.
The other day I watched the animated film Home (also on Netflix, also highly recommended) with my kids and was so moved by seeing a brown-skinned, natural-haired girl as its lead. And I realized that, until that moment, I had never in my life seen an animated film starring a black female character.
As I watched, I remembered excuses we often hear for not casting black actors. Excuses like, "the pool of talent is too small" or "directors are just casting the best actors for the job without considering race" and I wondered if there is a similar problem in the animation studios. Maybe they've run out of brown color pencils or there is something wrong with the brown palette in their computer software.
Or maybe Hollywood has a serious race problem and we need to start paying attention.
I'm not sure what the answer is. Most of us aren't Hollywood executives who can start making more films using black talent. We don't get to vote for the Academy Awards. But maybe we can start by noticing this vast discrepancy and calling it out all year round, not just during Oscar season. Maybe the next time we rate or recommend a film, we can consider its diversity in our decision. Maybe we can send Pixar giant boxes of brown color pencils.
As for my part, I'll still be watching the Oscars on February 28. Host Chris Rock tweeted that the show is "The White BET Awards." I'm just hoping he'll help me laugh to keep from crying.