When April Reign started using the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite on Twitter last year, she didn’t know that it would become the massive rallying cry for increased diversity that it has. She was just trying to articulate her dismay.
“It happened because I was disappointed once again in the lack of diversity and inclusion with respect to the nominees,” said Reign, a former attorney and managing editor of BroadwayBlack.com. “And we see, despite all of the talk since last year, nothing has changed, and it looks even worse this year.”
Thursday morning, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominees for this year’s coveted golden statue. For the second year in a row, not one nominee in the four major acting categories is a person of color. Furthermore, people of color are virtually absent from all the other categories as well.
As the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag grows new legs (and births #OscarsStillSoWhite), Reign spoke to The Times about her thoughts on the 2016 nominees, what they say about the entertainment industry and how BroadwayBlack.com intersects with the conversation about diversity in Hollywood.
So tell me, what are your initial reactions to this morning’s nominations?
I’m disappointed, but not surprised. While I appreciated the fact that academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs attempted to make some changes by inviting over 300 new members into the academy this year, we see that that is not enough, that there’s still the erasure of marginalized communities -- not just with respect to the academy but also in Hollywood overall. The academy understandably can only do so much, and they do need to do more, but we also need to focus on the heads of the studios who make the decisions with respect to greenlighting films so that we see more people of color and more LGBTQ people and more people who are differently abled up on the screen telling their stories as well.
What does this continued lack of recognition of talent of color tell you about the industry?
It tells me that the industry isn’t interested in changing the status quo and that there is a mistaken assumption that only movies about straight white males will bring in moviegoers. Obviously this is a for-profit business, and I absolutely understand that. But at the same time, look at “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” which has now grossed over $1 billion and is one of the highest-selling films of all time -- with a female lead and a black lead. So, don’t tell me that people of color, that women cannot fill seats because “Star Wars” has proven that wrong.
Even with “Straight Outta Compton,” which did well at the box office...
Both at the box office and critically. All around, it was just a very good film and it was only recognized [with a] best original screenplay nomination. And, in fact, that screenplay was written by white men [and a white woman]. Although the movie is out there and that's fantastic, there are still issues with respect to highlighting the achievements of people of color and marginalized communities.
So when films with black leads and casts are well-reviewed and received and still don’t get nominations -- from “Straight Outta Compton” to “Creed” to “Beasts of No Nation” -- what does that say?
It means there needs to be a change in how movies are nominated. We need to drill down and look at who is making those decisions. Only directors can vote for directors. Only actors can vote for actors. Talking about the academy overall, it's still predominantly male, white and older and there is no requirement to see all of the contenders before you vote, which doesn't seem smart to me. In fact, when they're talking about the nominees, what does it mean if you can be an academy member for life, but you don't necessarily have to show active involvement in the movie community anymore? So, who do you vote for? You vote for those people whose names you recognize and for your friends. So, for example, someone like Clint Eastwood may get nominated over someone like Ava DuVernay just because of who the members are in that particular category.
And I appreciate the fact that Chris Rock, who is brilliant, will be hosting this year, but a five-minute opening is not going to erase the concerns that we have about over 80 years of the erasure of marginalized communities by the academy.
Do you think Rock’s selection was done to preempt the conversations we're having now?
I don’t know and don’t want to attempt to get into the heads of the people who made that decision. Chris Rock is an excellent choice and it's not his first time hosting. I think he will speak honestly to the political climate both in Hollywood and otherwise. So, I definitely do not want to say that he is a token by any means because he is more than up to the task, but that’s really the whole point of the hashtag. What we’re saying is don’t just choose one black person or one woman director just so that you can say that you have. Watch all of the films and then choose who you think is best -- that’s on the academy perspective.
On the broader Hollywood perspective, make sure that you’re greenlighting films and are being open minded as to who can play those roles. Look at last year. Michael Keaton did a fantastic job in “Birdman,” but was Ken Watanabe called for that role? Did Andy Garcia audition for that role? Was Denzel Washington's name on the list? Because all of those men are incredible actors and could have played that role as well. From the very start, don’t just assume that a white man or woman can play a particular role. Open your minds to exploring the same film with a different person.
We’ve seen Twitter as the main way concerned audiences are voicing their concerns. In what ways can they harness that power and be heard? I remember calls for a boycott last year.
Instead of watching the Oscars last year, we live-tweeted “Coming to America,” and we're going to be doing something similar this year. The Oscars telecast was the lowest ranked in the last [six] years and we like to think we had something to do with that. We’ve got some things planned for the telecast this year, but I think the bottom line is always money and ticket sales.
We have to support those films that are showing the complexities and the nuance of people of color and marginalized communities and we have to support them from beginning to end. At the same time, maybe we choose not see films that aren’t portraying us in the best light or at all.
Describe for me BroadwayBlack.com and the message behind the blog.
BroadwayBlack.com is dedicated to highlighting the achievements and successes of black people on and off the Broadway stage. We are attempting to fill a void with respect to coverage of people of color, specifically black people, in theater. We are highlighting the fact, for example, that Norm Lewis was the first and only black Phantom of the Opera or Taye Diggs was the first and only black Hedwig in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” We find it important that we focus on the diversity that is in theater, allowing people to understand that theater can be accessible and entertaining for everyone, including people of color.
How does the theater world compare, diversity-wise, with Hollywood?
The theater world is more diverse, but we still have a ways to go there as well. But when you look at “Hamilton,” the incredible smash was written with what they like to call “colorblind casting," so we have a very multicultural cast which I think is very important. If people are flocking to see this play, at significantly higher prices than movie prices, then why is it that Hollywood thinks that people won't go see a movie that is cast racially neutral. It’s the same issue. If “Hamilton” can sell out night after night with a predominantly multicultural cast, then so can a film.
What, then, do you suggest for solving Hollywood’s diversity problem?
I don't know that I can answer the question fully because a lot needs to be done, but we have to start in the boardroom. We need to look at the people who are making the decision about greenlighting films because that is paramount. We need to figure out if they are thinking about screenwriters of color when they need a film written.
Regarding the academy specifically, I think that perhaps you put the members who are no longer active in the movie community on sort of an enrollment status like alumni of a university.
Alumni pay their dues and are still connected, but maybe you give more of a shot to the students who are actually still taking courses and enrolled. In my metaphor, the students would be those actively involved and maybe their vote is considered differently or more or separately from someone who's been an academy member for 20 or 30 years but haven't been active.
Anything else I didn’t ask you that you want to make sure gets said?
The point of #OscarsSoWhite is not that there needs to be a person of color in every category. The point is we need to make sure that the best and brightest are given the opportunity to audition and write and direct and then make the [nomination] decision with respect to the best performances.
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