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Oscars - and other award shows - are still #sowhite

Sultana Qureshi
Sultana Qureshi

An eighteen-year-old currently in the middle of her gap year

Jakarta | Sun, February 26, 2017 | 07:40 am
Oscars - and other award shows - are still #sowhite

In this March 2, 2014 file photo, an Oscar statue is displayed at the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Invision/AP/Matt Sayles)

“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there,” - Viola Davis

In 2015, a year of all White acting nominees at the Oscars, April Reign was fed up. So she tweeted: #OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair. 

Within days, the hashtag took on a life of its own, flooding timelines and newsfeeds. Despite this, the 2016 Academy Awards showed no improvement of diversity amongst its acting nominees. Before 2015, an all-White group of acting nominees had been unseen since 1997.

“One time is a fluke and two times is the beginning of a pattern,” Reign told the Huffington Post.

So the hashtag became more than a hashtag. It became a movement, a boycott -- director Spike Lee and actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith announced they would not be attending the ceremony with many others condemning the ceremony -- and a statement. 

With the 2017 Oscars only days away, it has now been a year. What’s changed?

Or rather, what hasn’t?

This year, the Oscars boasts a more diverse array of nominees. Though, if you’re starting at zero, it’s not too difficult to improve. Black-led movies like Hidden Figures, Moonlight, and Fences have been nominated for Best Picture, instead of being ignored like Straight Outta Compton and Creed were in previous years. All of the people nominated for acting categories are primarily white, aside from Actress in a Supporting Role, but they all have at least one person of color in each category. Given the case in both 2015 and 2016, this is an improvement. 

But the Academy Awards are far from the only awards show that needs to be further examined. 

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards, or as they’re more commonly known, the BAFTA Awards, made an unprecedented promise toward the end of 2016. Beginning in 2019, in order to be considered for a BAFTA, British films would have to “demonstrate that they have worked to increase the representation of under-represented groups in two of the four following areas: on-screen representation, themes and narratives, project leadership and creative practitioners, industry access and opportunities, and opportunities for diversity in audience development.”

At a glance, they seem to be headed in the right direction. Two out of the four awards for acting went to people of color: Dev Patel for Lion and Viola Davis for Fences, both of whom are also nominated for Oscars. But the award for best leading actor went to Casey Affleck, a man who has been sued twice for sexual assault. Affleck also won at the Golden Globes and is nominated for Best Leading Actor at the Oscars. These institutions are acknowledging and awarding an abuser and casting aside his victims. Actress Constance Wu put it best when she said, “[Affleck is] running for an award that honors a craft whose purpose is examining the dignity of the human experience & young women are deeply human.” 

For the BAFTAs and all the other award shows recognizing Affleck and other abusers -- such as directors Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and Mel Gibson, who was also nominated for an Oscar this year -- while also claiming to be improving their diversity, this is five steps back for every one step forward. 

Even more recently, a lot of negative attention has been focused on the Grammys. At the 2017 awards, Beyonce lost Album of the Year to Adele, despite the fact that Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade was arguably revolutionary. It was so baffling, even an incredulous Adele told the press, “I felt like it was her time to win. What the f*** does she have to do to win Album of the Year?”

Beyonce is not the first innovative Black artist to lose to a White artist or group in recent years. Just to name a few, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, and Beyonce yet again, have lost in this exact category before to musicians such as Daft Punk, Taylor Swift, Beck and Mumford and Sons.

There is still hope. In the first time in the history of the Tony’s, all of its acting awards went to Black actors. At the 2016 Emmy’s Aziz Ansari was the fifth person of South Asian descent to be nominated in an acting category for his work on Master of None. At those same Emmy’s, Black-ish’s Tracee Ellis Ross was the first actor of color to receive a nomination for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series since 2008. Both Master of None and Black-ish being nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series at the Emmy’s marks the first time since 1970 that two shows with casts predominantly featuring people of color have been nominated in the same year. It is stunning that it has had to take this long, but hopefully we won’t have to wait so long for it to happen again.

Still, this is not enough. We currently live in a world in which an Oscar nominee -- director Asghar Farhadi -- may not be able to even enter the United States because he holds an Iranian passport, thanks to United States President Donald Trump’s ban. The majority of these categories are almost totally void of Latinx, Native American, and to a slightly lesser extent, Asian artists. Like Viola Davis acknowledged in her Emmy’s acceptance speech, it is women of color who are benefiting the least.

What we see in media reflects upon the state of the real world and upon ourselves. Representation teaches people to empathize, to learn about others, and allows those “others” to be normalized. It reminds people of color that they exist and lets them know that they are worthy of being seen. We can sit on our hands and hope for the trends to continue, or we can push for these committees to recognize minorities and their works, in the way Reign did and continues to

With the rise of fear in America, of white supremacy, and of President Trump, that time has to be now. (kes)

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