When it comes to the Academy Awards, the Oscar statuettes may be gold, but the only color people have been talking about for months is white.
In January 2015, frustrated by a lack of representation of filmmakers and actors of color in the Academy Awards nominations, April Reign created the viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. The managing editor at Broadway Black, Reign is no stranger to highlighting the achievements and challenges of black actors on Broadway, so focusing on Hollywood’s struggles with racial diversity wasn’t a huge leap.
— April (@ReignOfApril) January 15, 2015
Little did she know that her hashtag campaign would take off the way it did: Nearly 14 months later, with the 88th Academy Awards set to air tonight, diversity in the top eight Oscar categories is still almost non-existent, and #OscarsSoWhite once again dominated conversations after the nominees were announced. Reign spoke with the Daily Dot about the Oscars, Hollywood’s diversity problem, and campaigning for change.
“Unfortunately we have seen that the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag is still very relevant this year in 2016 and in fact, has experienced a resurgence,” Reign told the Daily Dot.
Reign credits the Oscars’ diversity issues to a larger problem in Hollywood: opportunity. She says people of color aren’t given the same opportunities as white actors and filmmakers. Consider Idris Elba, who was favored this year for a Best Supporting Actor nod in Beasts of No Nation (2015) but ultimately not nominated. “When you don’t reflect the real world, too much talent gets trashed,” Elba said the week of the nominations, according to the Guardian. “Thrown on the scrapheap. Talent is everywhere; opportunity isn’t. And talent can’t reach opportunity.”
“When we have studio heads who are all-white (and I believe all-male) who are greenlighting films and determining who should play particular parts, it’s imperative that they think on a broader perspective,” said Reign.
According to Reign, movies like The Martian (2015), which stars Matt Damon in an Oscar-nominated performance, could’ve starred an actor of color like Don Cheadle or Javier Bardem in the lead role. “There’s nothing to say that a straight white man needs to be the astronaut going out into outer space.”
John Boyega—who stars in Star Wars: The Force Awakens—proved that black actors not only can go to outer space in films, but they can lead in critically acclaimed box office successes, Reign explained. Thus far, the latest Star Wars sequel has grossed more than $2 billion worldwide.
“Our stories are so much more than that. Our people are so much more than that.”
Reign acknowledges the need for other types of diversity in the Oscar ranks too: LGBT characters need to tell their stories too. “It’s about all marginalized communities and ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to audition for roles and to ensure that these roles are even being written,” Reign explained.
Filmmaker of colors don’t have it any easier with their behind-the-scenes work as screenwriters, directors, and producers. “Everything starts from a page,” she said. “Directors have a certain vision, and it’s their vision that translates from the page to what we see on the screen,” she said. “If a director is a person from a marginalized community, he or she will speak from their experience in telling hopefully a full narrative from what the screenwriter was trying to portray.”
She adds that diversity both onscreen and off- is crucial for giving filmgoers the opportunity “to be able to see ourselves up on the screen”—ideally in realistic and approachable roles that aren’t stereotypical archetypes or caricatures. Of the 20 black male performances nominated for Best Actor, 13 included arrest or incarceration and 15 involved violent behavior, according to the New York Times.
For black women, the statistics are bleaker: Only 10 black actresses have been nominated with one win for Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball. All 10 characters lived in poverty, and 9 out of 10 were homeless or on the verge of homelessness.
“Our stories are so much more than that,” Reign said. “Our people are so much more than that.”
#OscarsSoWhite may have started with the fans and filmgoers, but it’s spurred larger conversations about diversity in Hollywood too. Many actors, filmmakers, and public figures have spoken out about the lack of diversity both at the Oscars and in Hollywood at large.
Notably, Jada Pinkett-Smith encouraged people of color to skip the Oscars, as she expressed her frustrations with the lack of diversity recognition. Will Smith and Spike Lee are bowing out as well, and nominees Mark Ruffalo and Sylvester Stallone reportedly considered not going.
Facing such intense backlash, the Academy Awards released a statement announcing changes for improving diversity by 2020. (In 2014, the Atlantic reported the Academy Awards were 94 percent white, 76 percent men and an average of 63 years old.)
“The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” said Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs at the time. “These new measures regarding governance and voting will have an immediate impact and begin the process of significantly changing our membership composition.”
“The Academy can only nominate quality films that are made.”
While Academy bylaws present a roadblock for Isaacs’s plan, “The fact that they are now looking within themselves and attempting to increase the diversity among its membership is big and isn’t something that happened ever to my knowledge,” said Reign.
Should those changes pass, though, it’s still just a first step. “The onus is still on Hollywood and the studio executives,” Reign said, “because the Academy can only nominate quality films that are made.”
As for the hashtag, “the fight continues,” Reign ensured. This weekend she and #OscarsSoWhite supporters will engage in counter-programming during the awards telecast. Instead of watching the Oscars, they are logging into Netflix, watching the coming-of-age story of three young black men in The Wood (1999), and livetweeting the event.
There’s a strong possibility of little diversity at the Oscars in 2017, but Reign says she won’t back down: “We keep fighting until the hashtag is completing irrelevant.”
Illustration by Jason Reed